14/06 Uruguay v Costa Rica 20:00 (Fortaleza)
14/06 England v Italy 23:00 (Manaus)
19/06 Uruguay v England 20:00 (Sao Paulo)
20/06 Italy v Costa Rica 17:00 (Recife)
24/06 Italy v Uruguay 17:00 (Natal)
24/06 Costa Rica v England 17:00 (Belo Horizonte)
Best finish: Winners (1930, 1950)
How they qualified: Beat Jordan 5-0 on aggregate after finishing 5th in CONMEBOL
The reigning South American champions, so impressive four years ago in South Africa teetered unsteadily through their qualifiers, winning only two games away from home – both came in the final few qualifiers when Óscar Tabárez’s men looked in serious danger of missing out on the finals altogether. As it happened, fired on by the striking prowess of Luis Suárez, La Celeste stepped up their worryingly tame performances in the run-in with victories in four of their last five games to set up a playoff against Asian hopefuls Jordan. Any hope of an upset was wiped away by a comprehensive 5-0 demolition job in the Middle East, making the return leg a formality that finished 0-0.
The Premier League’s standout player this season will turn his attention to international matters upon the conclusion of the title race and will hope to continue his outstanding form in Brazil. Always followed by controversy, Suárez burst onto the world scene in South Africa four years ago after a similarly fantastic season at Ajax, scoring three times and getting sent off in the dying minuets of the quarter-final against Ghana for denying a clear goalscoring opportunity with a handball. Now 27, the Liverpool forward arrives at his second World Cup at the peak of his powers.
A mixed first season at PSG has had a happy ending for Edison Cavani whose brace helped his side to a 2-1 Coupe de la Ligue final victory over Lyon at the weekend, coming days after the Parisians’ Champions League exit to Chelsea. Playing second fiddle to Zlatan Ibrahimović has resulted in 24 goals in 40 games – a good return, but is it one befitting of a £55m player? His 20 international strikes reflect similarly on a player that works extremely hard but can sometimes be wasteful when in good positions. Tabárez may move him wide in Brazil as Laurent Blanc has done this season but he remains a goal threat at this summer’s World Cup.
While Diego Costa draws the plaudits for firing Atletíco Madrid to the brink of a La Liga and Champions League double, it is his namesake Godín who has played a role equal in importance at the other end of the pitch. With just 22 goals conceded in 34 league games this season (compared to Barcelona’s 28 and Real Madrid’s 32), Atletíco have built their success on a rock solid foundation and aided by Thibaut Courtois and Miranda, the 28-year old centre back has been instrumental at the back and has also chipped in with three goals. Uruguay’s performances at the last World Cup and in the 2011 Copa América featured a water-tight defences – expect more of the same this time around if they are successful.
Caught between cycles?
Uruguay peaked at the 2011 Copa, comfortably outperforming the other South American sides in a tournament noted for poor showings from the Brazil and Argentina sides. That victory came a year after impressive in South Africa but despite a talented under-20 side that reached the final of their World Cup last year, the transition process has been slow and laboured. Nicolás López impressed in Turkey but has struggled for first team appearances at new club Udinese while the same can be said of Manchester United’s Guillermo Varela. The starting eleven for the opener against Costa Rica could well feature ten players that played in 2010, with Southampton’s Gastón Ramírez the potential exception.
Any right-minded individual could point out that Uruguay’s best chance of success is to get the most out of Suárez whose form has dipped ever so slightly over the past few months for Liverpool. Tabárez is a firm believer in altering his system to negate the threats of his opponent. The football Uruguay played in 2010 was indicative of the overall reactive nature of tournament football and the methods coaches employ when playing many games in a short period of time. However, in order tohelp their main man to be at his best, they might be best served in placing him in the centre of a 4-3-3 with Cavani to one side and one of Cristian Rodríguez, Christian Stuani or Ramírez on the other.
Best finish: Winners (1934, 1938, 1982, 2006)
How they qualified: Finished 1st in UEFA Group B
On paper, an undefeated qualifying campaign with six points to spare over second-placed Denmark looks impressive. It was the archetypal league-format model – draw your tough away games, win at home. And the script was followed impeccably until the last game when Armenia came away from Naples with a 2-2 draw, costing the Italians their place as one of the top seeds and resulting in a difficult group containing fellow former champions Uruguay and England. Cesare Prandelli is a popular figure at the helm of the Azzurri and will stay on until Euro 2016 to oversee the national football project he has implemented whereby only players playing regular club football and showing discipline will receive call-ups.
The greatest midfielder of the modern age will turn 35 next month and is widely expected to hang up his #21 shirt after the finals in Brazil. Pirlo’s stock has seemingly increased as his career has gone on: his free transfer to Juventus in 2011 was the catalyst for a new period of dominance for the Old Lady domestically. His performances were lauded at Euro 2012 where Italy finished runners-up to Spain, even in his twilight years he remains pivotal to every Italian attack.
Balotelli’s move to AC Milan last January initially appeared to be the best possible thing for his career – getting away from the scandal-obsessed British tabloids, cutting ties with stroppy father-figure Roberto Mancini and returning to Serie A to score 12 goals in 13 games. Massimiliano Allegri guided an understrength Milan side to a 3rd place finish in the league. A far more turbulent second season has ensued, with Milan floundering in mid table, Balotelli struggling for form, fitness and Allegri replaced by Clarence Seedorf (who is said to be on his way out in the summer). However, an upturn in fortunes of late has seen the 23-year old break his own personal goalscoring record with 14 league goals to date and five straight wins for the Rossoneri, something that will be hugely encouraging for Prandelli and Italy leading into the summer.
While Giorgio Chiellini and Andrea Barzagli may be Italy’s most illustrious available centre backs, the often-understated Bonucci is probably more important to the team’s overall style of play. At Juventus, Bonucci usually plays between the former pair and his impact has grown consistently over the past few seasons, particularly when Pirlo is man-marked by the opposition. When the play-maker is unable to spray the ball around from deep, the Juve midfield rotates and Bonucci steps forward to ping long diagonal balls to the flanks. Prandelli will utilise the same strategy if he chooses to employ a back three but the former Bari defender played more games in qualifying than Barzagli or Chiellini and may be included with the latter shifting to left back.
Preparation hindered by injuries?
Giuseppe Rossi’s return from injury at Fiorentina this season warmed the hearts of football fans everywhere following his knee trouble but it also significantly boosted Italy’s World Cup hopes – a fit and firing Rossi could potentially form a lethal partnership with Balotelli and offers a far more consistent outlet than the temperamental Dani Osvaldo. Alas, another blow to the same knee in January looked to have extinguished that flame, though Prandelli did include him in a 42-man squad for a fitness assessment camp last week. Other potential starters have also struggled – Stephan El Shaarawy, Christian Maggio and Mattia De Sciglio have all had lengthy spells on the sideline, meaning their preparation has been far from ideal.
Worst possible draw?
After the groups were drawn, everyone began to plot the potential route each was going to take at the finals. Italy, already in arguably the toughest group with Uruguay and England will be rewarded with likely quarter-final ties against Brazil (should they finish second and Brazil win their group) or Spain (likewise but quality as group winners) if they get that far. Those draws with Denmark and Armenia in the final two qualifiers look costly now.
Best finish: Winners (1966)
How they qualified: Finished 1st in UEFA Group H
From despair to ecstasy: the overreaction of the English media to a qualification campaign that was tricky but eventually convincing for the Three Lions. Like Italy, Roy Hodgson’s side adhered to the formula as closely as possible, drawing in Poland, Ukraine and Montenegro and winning all their games at Wembley (save for the 1-1 tie with Ukraine in September 2012). The dour 0-0 draw in Kiev left critics baffled at the team’s negative style of play, though impressive displays in the final two games against Montenegro (4-1) and Poland (2-0) reinvigorated the country’s football hopes and their ambitions for Brazil.
On the cusp of a first Premier League title with his local club, Gerrard could be forgiven for taking it easy this summer following an exhilarating second half to the season with Liverpool. But that’s not the nature of Steven Gerrard. While the likes of Jamie Carragher have gone on record in the past to say that playing for England isn’t as important as wearing the red of his Merseyside employers, Gerrard has always committed whole-heartedly to his country, often to his own detriment. Reformed in a more disciplined defensive screening role (not dissimilar to the one his first opponent Pirlo plays) this term, his set piece delivery contributes hugely to Hodgson’s gameplan.
While calls for John Terry’s inclusion in the squad are likely to be ignored by Hodgson and the FA, his partner at Chelsea will be required to be on the top of his game in Brazil if England are to repel the threats of Suarez, Cavani and Balotelli. To his credit, Cahill has had an excellent season at Stamford Bridge, revelling in the trust José Mourinho has placed in him and his style of defending is suited to England’s low-block back four: plenty of last-ditch tackles, headers under his own crossbar and putting his body on the line. Despite often being criticised, his partnership with Phil Jagielka was impressively in the qualifying campaign.
The wildcard. A sensational few months for Sterling has thrust him back into the spotlight he garnered during the opening months of the 2012-13 season and he is revelling in it, scoring nine Premier League goals since opening his account for Liverpool in December. It is hard to think of a player who has undergone such drastic improvements in such a short space of time and few can match the 19-year old’s self-belief and productivity at present. Fast, inventive and deceptively strong, it will be interesting to see how Hodgson uses his secret weapon.
How to use Rooney?
Since shining for the first time on the international stage at Euro 2004, Wayne Rooney’s major tournament resume reads as thus: World Cup 2006 – half-fit, sent off in England’s quarter-final exit; Euro 2008 – did not qualify; World Cup 2010 – after his best season at Manchester United, a paltry total of zero goals; Euro 2012 – another rushed-back-from-injury-to-no-avail instance. Throughout the last decade, England managers have tried and failed to get the best out of Rooney in a cohesive system and Hodgson is the latest to struggle. It’s likely that he’ll play behind Daniel Sturridge in a 4-4-1-1 but whether thatformation suits the Liverpool striker is questionable.
Hodgson has made some attempt to evolve England from the team that packed ten men behind the ball at Euro 2012 but doubts remain about the creativity of the manager. Now 66, many see his tactics as outdated relics of the past and although he set the team up in a positive system in the final qualifiers, the tendency is always to revert against big teams. He’ll be likely to target five points from the group and will probably set the team up to not be beaten against Uruguay and Italy. All eyes will be on his use of Sterling.
Best finish: Last sixteen (1990)
How they qualified: Finished 2nd in CONCACAF Round 4
Having struggled in the first phase of Central American qualifying, the Ticos booked their place in Brazil with games to spare after beating the USA 3-1 in September and following it up with a 1-1 draw in Jamaica. It could have been so different for Jorge Luis Pinto and his team had they not earned a hard-fought 1-1 in El Salvador back in October 2012 with their passage through the third round in doubt after back-to-back defeats against Mexico. As it turned out, it was the Mexicans who almost missed out after dropping four points against Costa Rica in the final phase including a 2-1 defeat in the final game that looked to have sealed their fate. The Costa Rican’s campaign will probably be best remembered for a bizarre 1-0 defeat to the US in blizzard conditions in Colorado, making the victory in the return so very sweet.
Costa Rica’s qualification was largely based on a defence that only conceded seven goals in the final group and much of that was due to the exploits of their goalkeeper. Navas has risen to prominence in La Liga this season for his form at Levante, particularly after holding Barcelona to a 1-1 draw at the Ciutat de València in January. His career began at Deportivo Saprissa, where he was the on the receiving end of a Peter Crouch brace for Liverpool in a 3-0 Club World Cup defeat in 2005. Facing Suárez et al in Brazil, he will need to be at his best if his country are to cause a shock.
Despite a modest club career so far that has resulted in five years in Scandinavia with Norwegian outfit Fredrikstad and then AIK in Sweden, Borges is the most important member of Pinto’s midfield and serves to link the back five with the attackers. A talented play-maker, he will probably be required to do a lot of defensive work against more illustrious opponents that will have more possession than the Ticos but his passes in transition phases ignite his side’s attacks. Scored in the 3-1 win over the USA with a diving header.
At just 21, Campbell is something of a differential in a largely functional, defensive Costa Rican set-up. Pacey and powerful, he will probably start from the right flank and be required to race forward and provide an outlet on the break. After signing for Arsenal in 2011 he has spent loan spells at Lorient in France and Real Betis in Spain before this term’s impressive campaign at Olympiakos as work permit issues are being resolved. A goal in his adopted side’s 2-0 win over Manchester United in February has been the highlight of a decent season for the ever-improving forward, who may still have a future in North London.
A hugely unfavourable draw has left Costa Rica with little to no hope of reaching the last sixteen for the second time in the history, and though manager and players alike are speaking of their excitement at playing some of world football’s big guns, there has to be an unsettling undercurrent of worry that they might be embarrassed. That said, Pinto’s outfit are defensively organised and don’t concede many goals; the boss himself has spoken about his admiration for José Mourinho’s tactics. Despite possessing a good goalkeeper in Navas however, the defence looks weak, especially if Bryan Ovideo doesn’t return from his broken leg.
Race against time?
Along with Navas, Oviedo is the only Costa Rican playing in a top European league at present (with Bryan Ruíz loaned to PSV from Fulham) but fractured both his tibia and fibula in Everton’s FA Cup win at Stevenage at the end of January. Reports emanating from Goodison Park are positive about his chances of making the finals but even a remarkable recovery would still mean barely any opportunity to regain his full fitness. Oviedo, 24, played a bit-part role at Everton until Leighton Baines’ injury earlier in the season when he shot to prominence, scoring the winner at Old Trafford in a 1-0 win against Manchester United and continued to shine until his misfortune. Pinto recognises that he is ideal for the left wingback berth.
David Kennedy, Pundit Arena,