2014 World Cup: Group D Preview

In a previous preview, we’ve already mentioned Group B as the group of intrigue.  However, Group D can also lay claim to being one of the most fascinating groups in this year’s World Cup.  Once again, conventional wisdom sees Group D with three heavyweights (England, Italy, Uruguay) and one cagey, potential spoiler (Costa Rica).  However, what Group D features that others don’t is a collection of some of the most volatile personalities in all of world football.  With the likes of Rooney, Suarez, and Balotelli taking the field for their national teams, any and all results are on the table with Group D.

Each of England, Italy, and Uruguay may not quite have the ability to progress all the way to the semis or the final, but each will believe they can if they can get out of the group and the draw breaks their way.  Both Italy and Uruguay can also draw on recent success in big tournaments.  Italy was a surprise finalist at Euro 2012 and Uruguay enjoyed a remarkable run to the semis of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.  And England… well, they’ll always have 1966.

If it’s possible though, each of these three favorites in Group D approach the tournament a bit under the radar.  Uruguay labored through CONMEBOL qualifying, needing a victory in a two-leg playoff over Jordan to even secure their place in the World Cup.  Likewise, England needed a result in their final qualifying round against Poland to avoid the lethal lottery of a UEFA playoff.  And, although Italy rampaged through their UEFA qualifying group, they have been anything but impressive since.  Perhaps surprisingly, Costa Rica may have the most consistent resume of the teams in the group in this cycle, finishing second in the CONCACAF hexagonal behind a stifling defense.

No matter what happens in Group D, the world will be watching what happens when this combustible mixture of parts comes together on the pitch.  Will the volatile Suarez lead Uruguay to another triumph in Brazil?  Will Italy continue to rekindle their World Cup magic when it is least expected?  Or, will a new generation of English talent spring a surprise?

Group D Teams (32 Flags Pre-Tournament Power Ranking):

Italy (No. 5), Uruguay (No. 7), England (No. 13), Costa Rica (No. 28)

Player to Watch in Group D: Luis Suarez

Has anyone in sports had more of a roller coaster four years than Uruguayan striker Luis Suarez?  In South Africa he became infamous for an intentional handball on the line that saved his team’s quarterfinal against Ghana in some of the most unreal circumstances ever seen at a World Cup.

That was only a harbinger of the cynicism and brilliance to come.  Suarez moved from Ajax to Liverpool in 2011 and quickly became the Premier League’s most dynamic and controversial player.  Although the FA investigation has been widely questioned by Liverpool supporters, Suarez was suspended in December of that year for racially abusing Manchester United’s Patrice Evra.  He followed that up in 2013 by biting Chelsea’s Branislav Ivanovic and earning another lengthy ban.  Transfer rumors linking him with a move to Real Madrid have been swirling seemingly non-stop.

And somehow in the midst of all that, Suarez grew into becoming one of the best strikers in the world.  It all came together in the 2013-2014 season as the Uruguyan scored an incomparable 31 goals in 33 games and be named player of the season.  Finally without any controversy this season, Suarez became to be appreciated for his goal-scoring abilities that put him in the Ronaldo/Messi/Ibra class of the world’s best…

What will Suarez do in Brazil?  Will he win the Golden Boot?  Will he lead Uruguay on a remarkable run to another World Cup triumph and relive the glory of 1950?  Will he jump into the crowd and karate kick a fan?  Will he crack Giorgio Chiellini’s head open and feast on the goo inside?  It’s all possible.

X-Factor in Group D: The influx of young, English talent

By now, England was supposed to have another World Cup to join their now almost mythical 1966 triumph.  The golden generation of England greats like Beckham, Lampard, Terry, Owen, Ferdinand, Cole, Neville, Gerrard, and many others were supposed to lead England back to the promised land.  But now, after several excruciating defeats on the biggest stages, Roy Hodgson has brought a much younger, more inexperienced squad to Brazil.  However, Hodgson’s motivation for naming such a young team hasn’t fallen under the same scrutiny as USA manager Jurgen Klinsmann.  For one, the current crop of English talent won’t have the scar tissue that has built up over recent World Cup cycles.  More importantly though, the team England will put onto the pitch in Brazil is simply more talented at this point than the fading stars of England’s past failures on the world stage.

Sure, a few of the old guard remain, although Steven Gerrard and Wayne Rooney appear to be the only ones who will play a significant role.  Instead, England will feature exciting, young, attacking talent for the first time in seemingly, well, ever!  Ross Barkley (age 20, 5 England caps) has been a midfield dynamo for Everton and looks to force his way into the England starting XI.  Daniel Sturridge (age 24, 11 England caps) has matured into one of the world’s most dangerous strikers, finishing second in the EPL’s Golden Boot only to Liverpool teammate Luis Suarez.  Add to that dynamic speedsters Raheem Sterling (age 19, 4 England caps) and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (age 20, 15 England caps) and England have a strike force that has the ability to put fear into any back line with their pace and creativity.  Yes, I just used pace and creativity in the same sentence as the English football team.  One can easily see why Wayne Rooney may be shifted to an unnatural wide position to make room for such emerging talent.

However, with all the buzz over the youthful English attack, the determining factor in England’s success will be their equally untested defense.   Goalkeeper Joe Hart seemingly alternates between the world’s top goalkeeper and being likely to recreate Rob Green’s antics in South Africa.  Meanwhile, none of England’s back line stands head and shoulders above the rest, a worrying sign for England fans.  Still, even if England are to exit early at yet another World Cup, this go around should actually provide some real fireworks for the millions of eyes watching around the world.

Odds of Winning World Cup (courtesy VegasInsider.com):

England: 25/1
Italy: 25/1
Uruguay: 25/1
Costa Rica: 1000/1

Most Important Game: Italy vs. England

The first game for each team in the group is usually quite the cagey affair at a World Cup.  One would expect nothing different between two teams who played to a memorable draw in a Euro 2012 semi.  Truth be told though, Italy dominated that night, and have seemingly had the better of England in big international tournaments for quite a while.

However, the most intriguing factor in this game is the location.  This will be the first World Cup game played in the remote city of Manaus, deep in the Amazon.  Much has been made of the grueling heat, humidity, and travel for teams who will have to journey to Manaus.  England has been attempting to adjust to the humidity by playing their most recent friendly in Miami, but it’s unclear how either team will react to such unfriendly conditions.  Given it is the first game for both teams, and the wild card of Manaus, three points to either England or Italy could be a giant step towards progressing into the knockout rounds.

Teams to Move On: Uruguay and Italy