This is the fourth of eight World Cup group previews as the days tick away to the tournament opener on June 12 in São Paulo between Brazil and Croatia. For comprehensive World Cup coverage, bookmark this page.
- Group E and F (Wednesday, June 5)
- Group G and H (Thursday, June 6)
Uruguay (6th in FIFA rankings) | Defeated Jordan 5-0 in CONMEBOL/AFC playoff | 18-12-17 all-time, two-time champions
Italy (9th) | First-place finish in UEFA Group B | 44-21-15 all-time, four-time champions
England (11th) | First-place finish in UEFA Group H | 26-19-14 all-time, one-time champions
Costa Rica (34th) | Second-place finish in CONCACAF | 3-1-6 all-time
140 CHARACTERS OR LESS
No group packs the historic punch of this one, the only one with three former Cup-winning nations slugging it out.
DAVID AND GOLIATH
Even though they're not the tournament favorite of years past, Italy are a force to deal with after they cruised through European qualifying. Erasing memories of a 2010 flamout in South Africa won't necessarily be easy with this bunch, but it's likely Italy's group to lose.
And then there's Costa Rica, a solid CONCACAF team up against the odds with the Group D heavies. The task was made even tougher recently when they lost injured striker Álvaro Saborío, an omen that could mean a long couple of weeks in Brazil for Los Ticos.
While it was once impossible to profile England's group without, you know, really mentioning England, we can almost do that in 2014. Roy Hodgson's group is more disorganized and dreary that previous incarnations, so let's look elsewhere for the best match of the bunch.
The most enticing game is easily the offensive-minded showdown between Italy and Uruguay on June 24 in Natal, the third match for each team. This should be the most open-ended game of the entire group, hands down.
|June 14 | 3 PM||Uruguay||Costa Rica||Estádio Castelão, Fortaleza|
|June 14 | 6 PM||England||Italy||Arena Amazônia, Manaus|
|June 19 | 3 PM||Uruguay||England||Arena Corinthians, São Paulo|
|June 20 | 12 PM||Costa Rica||Italy||Arena Pernambuco, Recife|
|June 24 | 12 PM||Italy||Uruguay||Arena das Dunas, Natal|
|June 24 | 12 PM||Costa Rica||England||Estádio Mineirão, Belo Horizonte|
Mario Balotelli, F, Italy: Few personalites are more fascinating – OK, no personalities are more fascinating – than Italy's polemic striker, and it's his play that could decide Italy's fate. During Italy's run to the final of Euro 2012, he was at times frustrating and other times fabulous, and Italy will need more of the latter if they hope to advance into the latter rounds in Brazil.
Steven Gerrard, M, England: It's swan song time for a few Lions – Frank Lampard is also done with World Cups after this one, unless he somehow scrounges up 1.21 jigawatts of power – but the 34-year-old Gerrard is the one to watch, if not for sentimental reasons. After an emotional and exhausting season with Liverpool, can England's captain somehow lead his team out of the group?
Daniele De Rossi, M, Italy: With all due respect to living legend Andrea Pirlo, at 30 years old, De Rossi enters this World Cup in his prime as one of the best possession midfielders in the world. Once demonized by American fans for a brutal elbow on Brian McBride in 2006, de Rossi is a thrill to watch at the heart of the Italian midfield, and how he helps feed Italy's prized strikers could determine the group.
Luis Suárez, F, Uruguay: It's likely even casual soccer fans new to the Cup have heard of Suárez, who's made headlines in the past for alleged racist taunts and taking a bite out of opposing players. But he was hands down the best striker in the English Premier League in 2014, and if his exploits carry over to Brazil, he could become a captivating force in the tournament, finally for all the right reasons.
NEXT BIG THING...
For all the knocks on England's chances heading into the tournament, it's tough to argue they're not loaded with plenty of promising young talent for the future. It's certainly not a surefire bet, but winger Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain showed enough glimpses of his talent with Arsenal last season to think that when he's healthy, he's a difference-maker. At 20 years old, he's already scored against Brazil in Brazil and gives Hodgson some options both on the flank and – more importantly with this team – some help in the middle.
If it's true that the World Cup is a young man's game – consider the travel, the quick turnaround and the potential heat and humidity nightmare of Manaus – then perhaps England do have a shot to make this thing interesting. If their youngsters can rise to the occasion – and we mean young, like the aforementioned Oxlade-Chamberlain and guys like 18-year-old Luke Shaw and 20-year-old Ross Barkley – what a mess it would make for Italy and Uruguay.
US proponents of recent recreational marijuana laws in Colorado and Washington should find a team to favor in Uruguay, which recently became the first nation in the world to have a system regulating legal production, sale and consumption of pot.
SIX DEGREES OF MLS
The Saborío injury certainly dampened MLS fans' interest in his group, but Columbus Crew fans can find two of their players on Costa Rica's 23-man roster, along with New York Red Bulls defender Roy Miller (right).
And while it's certainly fleeting, there's always hope that Toronto FC's Jermain Defoe gets called in as an emergency addition for England before the clock strikes zero.
There's no way Italy will pull a 2006 (when they won the World Cup) or a 2010 (when they couldn't get out of the group stage), so expect something in the middle. A safe bet has them getting out of this group and getting bounced by a better team somewhere down the line.
As for Uruguay or England, it's been something of a cliché to assume European teams will wilt in the heat of Brazil, so far from home. But England need just about every break they can catch here, and it won't go their way.