Friday, June 6, 2014

2014 World Cup Preview Group D

Group D is absolutely loaded with the weight of international expectations. Three of the eight nations that have hoisted the World Cup reside in Group D, accounting for 7 of the 19 champions in the history of the event. Expectations are high for Italy after their runs in Euro 2012 and the 2013 Confederations Cup and Uruguay after their Copa America championship in 2011. Expectations are always high for the English team who have never performed up to the expectations of their rabid fanbase.

I've teamed up with Pat (follow him on Twitter @The_Incline) to preview the 32 teams in the tournament.

Join my World Cup Bracket Predictor Group! (ESPN account required, but it's free to sign up if you don't have one.)

World Cup Appearances: 18
Best Result: Champions (1934, 1938, 1982, 2006)
How they Qualified: Won UEFA Qualification Group
FIFA Ranking: 9

The 2006 Champions suffered a shocking fate in South Africa in 2010, bowing out in the first round after thoroughly embarassing themselves with draws against Paraguay and New Zealand and losing to Slovakia. That was the first time since 1974 the Italians had failed to advance out of the Group Stage. Since then, the Azzurri have fared much better on the international stage, finishing 2nd at Euro 2012 and third in the 2013 Confederations Cup. They breezed through qualification without a defeat (6 wins, 4 draws) and appear to be peaking at the right time with a mix of experience in Keeper Gianluigi Buffon and dynamic midfielder Andrea Pirlo who both have over 100 caps. On the front line, the polarizing 23-year-old scoring sensation Mario Balotelli will carry the weight of the nation on his shoulders after scoring 3 times at Euro 2012, twice in the Confederations Cup and 5 times in World Cup Qualifiers. All in all, the Italians have the experience and skill at all three levels to make a deep run in this tournament.

Pat's Players to Watch
  • Mario Balotelli: Look, Mario Balotelli is one of those players you watch just to see what he does when he scores. He’s like the Chad Johnson/Ochocinco of the Azzurri. With 30 goals in 54 appearances the past two seasons with AC Milan, Balotelli certainly has talent, but it’s unfortunately his antics that outshine his skill. 
  • Andrea Pirlo: The ageless maestro of the Italian orchestra. The man Juventus fans have dubbed “Mozart” possesses spectacular vision and a diabolic right foot from set pieces. Pirlo’s durability going into the World Cup may be an issue, but if Italy are awarded a set piece anywhere near the opposing box, tune in to watch Pirlo’s magic. It is a sight to behold and likely the final bow in a wonderful international career. 

World Cup Appearances: 12
Best Result: Champions (1930, 1950)
How they Qualified: Finished 5th in CONMEBOL qualification, defeated Jordan in Intercontinental Play-off
FIFA Ranking: 6

It's a bit crazy to think that the 6th ranked team in the World almost didn't qualify for the World Cup, but the Uruguyians lived dangerously in qualification, finishing with a net zero goal differential. Aside from their struggles in qualification, where they had just 2 wins, 1 draw and 5 losses away from home, Uruguay has been at the top of their game in international competition. After finishing 4th in the World Cup in South Africa in 2010, they won the Copa America 2011 tournament and finished 4th in the Confederations Cup in 2013. La Celeste boasts one of the best front lines in the world in Luis Suarez, Edinson Cavani and Diego Forlan. The nation is collectively holding their breath as Luis Suarez will attempt to return to the pitch after having his knee scoped just a few weeks before the World Cup begins. His current targeted return is for the opening match, and he will be needed after pacing the field with 11 goals in CONMEBOL qualification. The experienced Forlan has the most caps (108) in national team history. There will be some familiarity in this group as Uruguay and Italy faced off in the third place match of the Confederations Cup with Italy emerging victorious on penalties.

Pat's Players to Watch
  • Luis Suarez: The lethal, and infamous, Liverpool striker (you might notice a trend - but I am not a Liverpool supporter) will be the focal point for the Uruguayan squad. In his Liverpool career, Suarez has tallied 82 goals in 133 appearances (and at least one bite victim). Suarez’s hand allowed Uruguay to advance in South Africa. This year, he’ll have to do it with his feet.
  • Diego Lugano: The 33 year-old captain will be tasked with manning a suspect back line for the Uruguayans. Lugano spent much of his career at Paris Saint-Germain and Malaga, recently finished a season-long stint at West Bromwich Albion. After scoring one goal for the Baggies in nine appearances, Lugano was released by the club. Someone will have to play defense for Uruguay, and if Lugano and company cannot, it will be up to Suarez, Forlan, and Cavani to outscore opponents. 

World Cup Appearances: 14
Best Result: Champions (1966)
How they Qualified: Won UEFA Qualification Group
FIFA Ranking: 11

England won their qualification group without suffering a defeat, but they drew four of their ten matches, including both against second-place Ukraine. England has long been marked by their big stars failing to show up on the international stage. Steven Gerrard captained the side at Euro 2012 and was named to the All Tournament Team despite failing to appear on the score sheet. Gerrard has 109 caps, the most of any member of the Three Lions' 2014 squad, but only has 21 goals in international competition. In the 20 non-friendly international games he has played since 2010, he has scored just three times. Wayne Rooney and Daniel Sturridge are two dangerous players at the front of the English attack, and this team is good enough to reach the knockout stage, but they have a difficult task ahead of them with Italy and Uruguay in their group.

Pat's Players to Watch
  • Raheem Sterling: Is it possible that England is relying on the 19 year-old Sterling to be a spark plug for a squad that is a mix of young and old? The winger provided 9 goals and 7 assists for Liverpool this past season. He was not relied upon to score for his club. That job went to Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge. With England, he’ll have more responsibly attacking, especially without Theo Walcott and Andros Townsend. A little much to ask for a teenager, possibly. 
  • Daniel Sturridge: Another young Liverpool forward will carry more weight than expected for England. Wayne Rooney is out of form and Sturridge is expected to be the first choice striker in Brazil. Sturridge scored 24 goals in the 2o14 campaign for the Reds. With Sturridge being the target man, Rooney will likely drop back to a playmaking midfielder rather than a forward. 

World Cup Appearances: 4
Best Result: Round of 16 (1990)
How they Qualified: Finished second in the CONCACAF Hexagonal Qualification Group
FIFA Ranking: 34

In a group with 3 of the top 11 teams in the world, Costa Rica are the clear underdogs. However, this is a team that has had modest success on the international level, finishing second in the qualification group behind the United States and reaching the Gold Cup Quarterfinals in 2011 and 2013. Costa Rica has some of the traits of a team that could pull an upset at this stage - a stingy defense and a talented striker in Alvaro Saborio. In the 10 games of the hexagonal, Costa Rica allowed just 7 goals, the fewest of any team. Their most memorable moment came in a qualification match against the United States in Denver when the pitch was blanketed with snow.

Unfortunately, the announcers spent most of the game wondering why the teams couldn't play with an orange ball that would be easier to see.

As they proved in qualifying, Costa Rica can play the shut-down defensive game that tends to dominate in the early stages of international tournaments. However, it is hard to see this team amassing enough points against the three powerhouses in their group to advance.

Pat's Players to Watch
  • Brian Ruiz: The attacking midfielder plays the role of Jekyll and Hyde for Los Ticos. The Fulham man (currently on loan at PSV Eindhoven) is given the license of a playmaker on the right side of the attacking formation. If Costa Rica have any chance of advancing from a strong group, Ruiz will be the man who orchestrates the escape.
  • Keylor Navas: You know a squad may be outmatched when a goalkeeper is highlighted as a player to watch. Heck, most don’t even consider goalkeepers to be ‘actual’ players. The Levante keeper is considered one of the best in Spain and due for a move to a bigger club. Again, Navas will have to be spectacular for Los Ticos to advance to the knockout rounds.

Ian's PredictionPat's Prediction

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