D Stands for Death
Seven World Cups and 19 continental trophies distinguish the four teams in the group which has rightly been called the group of death. Of the 4 teams, one is a reigning continental champion, the other runner up at the continental championships. One is a perennial underachiever while the other is the rank outsider who has always punched above their cumulative weight.
Debopam Roy previews the teams from the group of death.
Many consider this to be the year of the Los Charruas and not without reason. Their team was a young team on the rise when they lost the semifinals of 2010 World Cup to a Dutch team that was at the peak of its powers. They then lost the third place playoff to another powerhouse – Germany. Since then, Uruguay has only gone up achieving their highest FIFA ranking (#2) in 2012. They have won the Copa America and also boast the record of being the World Cup winner the last time it was held in Brazil.
However, their prospects would have to be tempered if their qualification campaign is to be considered. Till the sixth round, La Celeste was unbeaten and on top of group but then a 4-0 loss to Colombia derailed them. Bolivia beat them 4-1 and Argentina beat them 3-1 and Chile got better of them 2-0 and even Ecuador beat them 1-0 and last gasp wins over Argentina and Colombia allowed Uruguay to finish on fifth spot. That meant a playoff match against a team from Asian qualification campaign, and it was Jordan. Uruguay thumped them by 5 goals away and then played a goalless home leg to qualify through.
The team is built back to front so that it has a solid defence and midfield and an explosive forward line. The likes of Jorge Fucile, Diego Godin, Diego Lugano, Martin Caceres batten down the hatch of Fernando Muslera’s goal. However, Godin and Lugano are now getting on. Their lack of pack has often been exploited – 25 goals conceded in the qualifiers, of which 16 were on the road, shows that. Uruguay desperately need Sebastian Coates to return from his anterior cruciate injury and recapture the tremendous form of title clinching 2011 Copa America. The midfield has the steel of Walter Gargano, Diego Perez as well as the guile of Nicolas Lodeiro and speed of Gaston Ramirez. But the lynchpin of the squad is easily the formidable twosome of Luis Suarez, Uruguay’s all time leading scorer with 38 goals in 77 matches and Edinson Cavani. Both had extraordinary seasons with Suarez netting 31 goals in Premier League and Cavani 25 in his first stint in Ligue 1. It’s undoubtedly the deadliest strike duo in world football. Add in the wily Diego Forlan into the mix and the young turk Abel Hernandez and this is a forward line which has everything. Manager Oscar Tabarez has been at the helm since 2006 and has taken Uruguay to their best ever spell in world and continental football since the heydays. After Uruguay had missed out on three of the four preceding World Cups, , Tabarez almost by a wand, transformed their fortunes and Uruguay came fourth in the continental championships in 2007. Three years later, they repeated that fourth place in the biggest stage in South Africa and then won the Copa America in 2011. The progression thus says they would repeat that win now in the biggest stage in Brazil and Tabarez’s canonization would be complete. His tactical versatility even during away qualifiers and the Confederations Cup, where he shifted from his usual 4-4-2 to 3-5-2 and 4-3-3 to counteract the opponent has been one of the chief weapons. In 2010, Luis Suarez used his hands (with some thanks to Asamoah Gyan) to send Uruguay to their first ever semi finals since 1950. Can his goals give them their first World Cup since 1950?
They say that if the World Cup was held every 12 years then Italy would contest every final (1970, 1982, 1994, 2006). Going by that logic, 2014 is four years too soon. 12 years is also the time that would take for a new generation to come in and settle down. So Italy has roughly managed to get to every World Cup final when it has had an overhaul of a generation. Cesare Prandelli was the man who was tasked with this. After the debacle of 2010 World Cup when Marcello Lippi overstayed his welcome and his band of merry men, Italy went for a generational change except for two very distinctive figures – Andrea Pirlo and Gianluigi Buffon. Both are certainly going to their final World Cup, and, along with Andrea Barzagli and Alberto Gilardino (if they are called up) they bear the only link to the team of 2006.
Indeed Prandelli has had quite the turnaround in fortune. After leading Azzurri, quite unexpectedly, to the finals of the Euros, it was a bit disappointing that Italy only finished third in the Confederations Cup. However, in the later tournament, Prandelli showed that the lessons from the 4-0 Euro final defeat at the hands of the Spaniards were well and truly taken. Italy only lost to eventual champions Brazil and held Spain goalless, losing in the tiebreaker in the semifinal. The experience of playing in the heat of Brazil would definitely help Lo Azzurri cope better than the other teams in the main tournament.
Looking at the World Cup qualifying stage, one would have to say Prandelli has broken new ground. Italy has been perennial slow starters as well as tense finishers. The 2014 campaign has been as smooth as one of Pirlo’s long range passes. Going unbeaten and qualifying with two games to spare, was quite an achievement. Second-placed Denmark was so poor that they were adjudged the worst runner up in European qualifying campaign and so failed to advance to the second round. But it has a different edge too. Once qualification was sealed, Prandelli experimented with the last two matches and rotated his squad. Italy failed to win either of them, lost vital ranking points, dropped out of the seeded places and now find themselves in the group of Death.
The new Azzurri have new heroes waiting to be unleashed. Ciro Immobile may have quite some puns on his surname but being the leading scorer in the Serie A at 24 is no mean feat. Just to put that into perspective, the last Italian striker to be capocannoniere in Serie A before his 24th year was one Filippo Inzaghi and the one before that was Beppe Signori. Both of them were part of the Italian squad that reached the World Cup final and had the tiebreaker settling the fate – once with heartbreak and other with joy. Immobile, though, would have to thank Torino teammate Alessio Cerci, who is having the season of his lifetime. At 26, he is a rare Italian forward who can burn the wings while still being creative ( nine assists this season) and prolific in front of the goal (13 goals). Then plying his trade for Napoli, Insigne is probably the closest Italy has to a true fantasista. Stephan El Shaarawy of Milan is returning after almost a season long injury layoff, and the Pharaoh would do well to get into the team. His teammate, Mario Balotelli though is sure to lead the charge of this young brigade. With Juventus winning a treble of scudetti, Italy is assured of a solid defence and midfield which have played together for long.
Overall, Italy will provide a vibrant new team that still has the engine room run by Pirlo and a solid defensive backbone. But are they equipped enough to break the 12-year cycle? Probably not. The key personnel in this team are either going for their first World Cup or their last. Most world cups are won when the majority of the team is in their peak between 25-32 years. So this maybe one World Cup too soon. But still this team has performed admirably and would definitely be there towards the business end of the tournament.
England’s participation in a global event has two characteristics – media hype and penalty anguish (England has only won one knockout match in a top tournament when it has gone to penalties) . Their press makes sure that the optimism is high for each “golden generation” and then when the team doesn’t come good, the recrimination is equally scathing. This time though there has not been too much hype. Part of it is to do with the understanding that success of English clubs in Europe doesn’t equate to success of the English national team in the World Cup. A chastening Euro where England neither disgraced themselves (unlike the 4-0 thrashing in 2010 World Cup) nor lit up the ambitions showed that the team is still quite far off the continental front runners – Spain, Germany, Portugal and Italy. In the 48 years since their lone triumph, England has managed to reach the semi finals only once.
The qualification campaign was more proof that England still aren’t what their scribes would like them to be. Despite going unbeaten, England failed to beat closest competitor, Ukraine across both the legs. And they were chased right till the last minute of their last match. Only a 2-0 win against Poland at home ensured England finished one point above Ukraine. The other jarring thing was that England couldn’t beat any of the other top three nations on the road. Roy Hodgson’s team at times played listless football and managed to get the result by luck or great goalkeeping exploits. Indeed one of the bright features was the defensive display and England conceded four goals – only Spain conceded lesser. They also scored 31 goals which would rank them third most prolific behind the Germans and the Dutch. But this fact should be tempered with the knowledge that 22 of those goals came in four matches against San Marino and Moldova. Indeed, if we take out the results of those two teams from group H, it is Ukraine who finishes above England both in points (11 to 10) and goal difference (+6 to +5).
In a twisted way though, this patchy qualification has for once ensured that the expectations are more tempered thus ensuring the squad goes to the finals in a better frame of mind. No more is it deemed that all English superstar players have to do is turn up at the biggest stage and the prize is theirs. They have to toil and graft, which they have shown they can do in this campaign and it will hold them in good stead in this group of death. Exiting at the group stage would probably be disastrous for the millions of fans and they would bank on the fact that the Italians are notorious slow starters and try to bag one of the top two spots.
One thing is for certain, if the team is to do well, Wayne Rooney would have to have an outstanding World Cup. The qualification campaign saw the Manchester United forward bag seven goals which were still four less than his Mancunian teammate Robin van Persie, the leading scorer in European qualifying campaign. Indeed if the support cast of Danny Welbeck and Daniel Sturridge can support Rooney for the goals, then England probably has the defence in Leighton Baines , Gary Cahill, Joleon Lescott and Glen Johnson to hold on to those leads. Steven Gerrard is probably finally having the season he has always dreamt of. A Liverpool legend who just missed out in completing his trophy cabinet at club level as Man City won the league, he would elevate himself to an English legend if he can lead this English team to the Holy Grail.
When the other three teams in your group are former World Cup winners, all you can hope for is, you exit with some dignity. Costa Rica would expect nothing different and they might decide which of the three heavy weights go out at group stage by managing to sneak a draw or even a win against any of the three. But their qualifying campaign has been a fairy-tale and the confidence that they would gain from that may propel them to upset one of the group’s big shots.
Costa Rica has qualified for the World Cup three times before this and twice they had topped from the CONCACAF region. This included their maiden venture at Italia 90 when they beat Scotland and Sweden in the tournament proper to actually advance to the second round. Their performance in their next World Cup appearance was equally commendable. The Ticos lost 5-2 to eventual champion Brazil, drew 1-1 with eventual third place finishers Turkey and beat China 2-0. Still they finished third in the group and were eliminated only on goal difference as that 5-2 loss meant they would finish with an inferior goal difference to Turkey. Four years later they qualified as third team from CONCACAF and suffered a rambunctious 4-2 loss in the opening match to Germany but proved insipid in the other two matches against Poland and Ecuador. In 2010, Costa Rica finished 4th in CONCACAF and went into a two-legged play-off against Uruguay. The Ticos lost at home by a solitary goal and despite threatening a second goal which would have taken them through to the world cup, could only settle for 1-1 in the away match.
The 2014 qualifying campaign had the Ticos almost eliminated after two losses to Mexico in the 3rd round of CONCACAF qualifying campaign. A 1-0 win over El Salvador and 7-0 thrashing of Guyana pushed them to the fourth round. There they were a different force altogether and qualified with a couple of matches to spare. But goal scoring remains a problem – captain Bryan Ruiz scored only three goals during the whole qualifying campaign (10 matches) but that was enough to make him the top goal scorer for the team.
The team has its blend of experience and youth. Many of the first team play in top leagues of Europe and have honed their skill well in the best leagues. In defence, there is goalkeeper Keylor Navas from Levante who kept seven clean sheets from 14 qualifying matches, defenders Junior Diaz of Mainz 05, Christian Gamboa of Rosenborg and Oscar Duarte of Club Brugge. The best of the midfield play their trade in Scandinavia – Celso Borges at AIK and Cristian Bolanos at Copenhagen. But it is the forward line which has grabbed all the attention. 21-year-old Joel Campbell was signed by Arsenal and sent to Olympiacos. He showed his talent by scoring against Manchester United in the Champions League second round . Captain Bryan Ruiz has been a star for PSV after joining them on loan from Fulham. Alvaro Saborio Chacon is the most experienced and has scored 32 goals for his national team placing him third behind Rolando Fonseca and Paulo Wanchope in the all-time lists.
Costa Rica is managed by Colombian Jorge Luis Pinto who has experience of managing all over Latin and Central America, which included three titles in Costa Rica. He has been managing Costa Rica since 2011. He has made them defensively compact and pressing the opponents when not in possession of the ball. Since qualification, Costa Rica has been less than auspicious. Losses to Australia and South Korea sandwiched between a 4-0 thrashing from Chile. But they managed a 2-1 win over Paraguay in their last friendly. It would be a miracle if Costa Rica can manage to open their account in the group. Their best chance would be to catch either of the two European teams unaware, who are not used to the heat of Brazil. Even then, it would be a brave man who would bet Costa Rica getting to the next round.