Teams (world ranking in brackets): Uruguay (6), Costa Rica (31), England (13), Italy (7)
Uruguay vs Costa Rica, Fortaleza
England vs Italy, Manaus
Uruguay vs England, Sao Paulo
Italy vs Costa Rica, Recife
Italy vs Uruguay, Natal
Costa Rica vs England, Belo Horizonte
Coach: Oscar Tabarez
Captain: Diego Lugano
World Cup Appearances: 11 (1930, 1950, 1954, 1962, 1966, 1970, 1974, 1986, 1990, 2002, 2010)
Best Result: Champions (1930, 1950)
Qualified: 5th in CONMEBOL qualifying, went on to defeat Jordan in play-off
Qualification Top Scorer: Luis Suarez (11)
Uruguay were unable to qualify automatically for the tournament despite a 3-2 win over Argentina in the final matchday of qualifying. This subjected the Uruguayans to yet another intercontinental play-off (they have not qualified automatically since 1990) against Jordan. A 5-0 victory in the first leg all but sealed their qualification.
In Edinson Cavani and Luis Suarez the Uruguayans possess two of the best forwards in the world currently. While Diego Forlan is past his prime, he had a brilliant tournament four years ago, culminating in him receiving the award for player of the tournament. The current squad is also one with a lot of international experience, with 12 members of their most recent side having played over 50 international games. The fact that they made the semi-finals in 2010 and won the Copa America a year later suggests that this Uruguayan team have the ability to go far.
Uruguay struggled a bit during qualifying, and some key members of the side have moved from the European leagues. While Suarez and Cavani can hold up the attack, there may be some issues in defence. Captain Diego Lugano has made a total of 7 appearances since joining West Bromwich Albion, which doesn’t help his cause, and while right back Martin Caceres has fared a little better at Juventus (12 games out of a possible 30 with 7 in UEFA competitions) it is not an ideal situation. The side has also been on decline since their Copa victory, and will hope to return to form here.
Coach: Jorge Luis Pinto
Captain: Bryan Ruiz
World Cup Appearances: 3 (1990, 2002, 2006)
Best Result: Round of 16 (1990)
Qualified: 2nd in CONCACAF qualifying
Qualification Top Scorer: Alvaro Saborio (8)
The Costa Ricans qualified for the tournament with two games to spare with a 1-1 draw with Jamaica. They had previously passed through a third round group with Mexico, El Salvador and Guyana (they defeated the latter 7-0 to ensure qualification). Their fourth round campaign started poorly with a draw and a loss, but a 6 game win streak (with a 3-1 win over the USA in San Jose), put them through to the world cup.
The Costa Ricans scored plenty of goals during qualifying (nearly 2 per game) and they have a very strong attacking line-up. Bryan Ruiz is an experienced campaigner and will provide the chances for Alvaro Saborio, Randall Brenes and others. Celso Borges, Christian Bolanos and Joel Campbell will help Ruiz in midfield, and with a solid defence which only let in 0.75 goals per game in qualifying, Los Ticos may be able to give some of the heavy-weights a run for their money.
In a group consisting of Uruguay, England and Italy, all of whom have won this tournament before, Costa Rica are a definite underdog. Costa Rica’s main problem will be the fact that only a handful of their players actually play for big clubs, whereas England and Italy will be likely to source most or even all of their squad from their respective leagues, which are strong and attract many big players during the transfer season. Uruguay will also be likely to draw most of their squad from big leagues, and this will likely lead to a gulf in class that Los Ticos will struggle to bridge.
Coach: Roy Hodgson
Captain: Steven Gerrard
World Cup Appearances: 13 (1950, 1954, 1958, 1962, 1966, 1970, 1982, 1986, 1990, 1998, 2002, 2006, 2010)
Best Result: Champions (1966)
Qualified: 1st Group H
Qualification Top Scorer: Wayne Rooney (7)
England were drawn into a tough group including Poland, Ukraine and Montenegro. Despite this, however, they qualified without too much bother, and sealed it with a 2-0 victory in their last game against the Polish. Their qualification campaign also included an 8-0 away victory against San Marino.
Manager Roy Hodgson combined experience and youth very well during qualifying and the English appear to be drawing from a strong pool of talent. With opportunities given to him at Liverpool Daniel Sturridge has proven himself a very capable goalscorer, and his partnership with Wayne Rooney should be very effective. The competition for spots on the wings is also very fierce, as is the competition for the left-back position with both Leighton Baines and Ashley Cole as well as young Southampton prospect Luke Shaw competing for a spot.
The English are very confident going into tournaments such as these, although in recent times they have come unstuck in the early knockout rounds of the tournament. The side has changed a lot since their most recent world cup, with stalwarts such as Rio Ferdinand and John Terry retiring, taking away with them valuable experience. This has also affected the defence. Some older players in the team such as Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard are also past their prime and an injury to Theo Walcott will weaken their attack.
Coach: Cesare Prandelli
Captain: Gianluigi Buffon
World Cup Appearances: 18 (1934, 1938, 1950, 1954, 1962, 1966, 1970, 1974, 1978, 1982, 1986, 1990, 1994, 1998, 2002, 2006, 2010)
Best Result: Champions (1934, 1938, 1982, 2006)
Qualified: 1st Group B
Qualification Top Scorer: Mario Balotelli (5)
The Italians were able to qualify comfortably with games in hand, although they were in a relatively easy group containing Denmark, Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Armenia and Malta. The Italians have done very well in recent times, finishing second (albeit after a 4-0 loss at the hands of Spain) in the Euros and third in the Confederations Cup.
Cesare Prandelli managed to incorporate a lot of new players into the team during qualification while keeping the base of the side steady, and in doing so giving the team a lot of depth. This will no doubt lead to a very strong selection which should have the right blend of experience and youth. The side is very strong all over the park and the evidence suggests that they have improved over the past year. This is based on two games against Spain, the first of which was lost 4-0, with the other, the Confederations Cup semi-final, being dragged into penalties.
Italy haven’t got an awful lot of weaknesses, although there could be some issues up front. First-choice striker Mario Balotelli can be unpredictable and inconsistent, while Giuseppe Rossi is on the rebound from an injury that has kept him out of the game for some time, and is in a battle to be fully fit. Stephan El Shaarawy has also been injured and has only made 7 appearances in total this season, three of which were as a substitute. The Italians will still have Torino pair Ciro Immobile and Alessio Cerci although both are quite inexperienced at international level.
This group will be very interesting to watch. This could well go down as the group of death for this tournament as Costa Rica will struggle to match up against three of the best teams in the world. Expect a lot of competition between Uruguay, England and Italy for the first three places, and while Costa Rica might struggle they might steal some points here and there.
1. Italy, 2. England, 3. Uruguay, 4. Costa Rica
Next: I look at Group E, which should involve some very competitive games between all teams.