Group D: Predictions and Preview
This pool may not contain any outright favourites for the trophy, but it is the one with the most historic winners. Italy, Uruguay and England have a total of seven World Cups among them, and the feeling is that they will be the sides competing for the top two places, with Costa Rica capable really of only complicating affairs for one of those three.
Going by qualifying, if not quite seeding, Italy should finish on top. They cruised through qualifying, in contrast to the difficulties that both Uruguay and England encountered. Oscar Tabarez's side needed that handsome playoff win against Jordan; Roy Hodgson's men had to overcome all of that last-game anxiety against the Polish. That in itself indicates the greater tactical flexibility of the Italians, and they are probably the side with the greatest range of potential angles and attacks in this group.
Uruguay are reliant on their star forwards, Hodgson on his English team's structure. That contrast between England and Italy was revealed in their Euro 2012 quarterfinal, when Cesare Prandelli's side came through on penalties but were much more dominant than what the scoreline indicated. The margins in this group could be similarly thin, but both Italy's superior quality and the fact Uruguay are on their home continent mean they should fancy their chances of going through.
Italy: The 2006 champions may not have the youth structures of countries such as Spain and Germany, or the fundamental star quality of Argentina or Brazil, but they do retain this supreme coaching school that has produced a manager of the caliber of Prandelli. The manner in which he overcame some of Italy's squad imbalances to reach the final of Euro 2012 was an illustration, and means that they remain a very dangerous side, if no longer one of the domineering favourites.
Uruguay: The feeling is that they're not quite the side that enjoyed such a successful run over 2010 and 2011, but one still well capable of forging a route to the semifinals, as they did in South Africa in 2010. An attack featuring Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani certainly indicates that. The question will be over how they're backed up by the rest of the team, given that the Confederations Cup revealed some issues, not to mention how they navigate a tough group. A status as seeds did not do too many favours.
England: An awkward side but quite far from an excellent one. Hodgson has constructed a framework that has made England hard to beat, but also ensured they often find actually claiming victory rather difficult. That could be a particular issue in what would be considered the most winnable game, against Costa Rica. Yes, they have two or three players who are world-class level, such as Wayne Rooney and Jack Wilshere, not to mention some valuable different options up front, but there is a reticence to their play. They'll need to develop something more rousing here.
Costa Rica: They qualified rather easily, and largely because their back line is rock-hard. A run of 476 minutes without conceding a goal helped them claim the best defensive record in CONCACAF. Their main weakness is at the other end, where they lack much flair or forward capacity beyond Bryan Ruiz, who was their top scorer in 10 games of qualification with just three goals. Costa Rica are highly unlikely to qualify, but are capable of producing the result that tilts the rest of the table.
Best individual battle
Andrea Pirlo vs. Jack Wilshere
Pirlo's utter dominance of possession was the defining factor in Italy's Euro 2012 win over England, summing up as it did the clear difference between the sides in terms of ability to hold possession, and even coming to a culmination in the shootout itself. Pirlo displayed the supreme poise he had throughout the game. In that tournament, Hodgson was lacking Wilshere as part of a truly sturdy midfield, and it will be revealing to see how things are reshaped when the sides meet again June 14.
Italy vs. Uruguay
Whereas both England and Costa Rica are primarily based on sound defensive structure, Italy and Uruguay are a touch more front-loaded, which makes their June 24 matchup especially attractive. Prandelli has developed admirable flexibility with the Italians and worked toward a Spanish-type possession game, while Uruguay have all that forward quality in Suarez and Cavani. This is highly likely to be the most open game of the group, featuring the highest technical ability.
X factor: Temperamental superstars
There should no shortage of fireworks in a group featuring Suarez, Mario Balotelli and Rooney. Of course, the volatile nature of their games attracts all the more attention because of their accompanying variety of world-class brilliance, which is at least matched by the comparatively more level-headed Cavani. Even Costa Rica can somewhat balance their back line with the fluency of Ruiz.
Who will go through? Vote here