Spain suffered the ignominy of becoming the first defending champion to bow out of competing for a place in the knockout rounds of a World Cup before registering a single point to their name.
But while their group has been very entertaining because of the unpredictability of the results that it has thrown up, the group that has brought even more entertainment has to be Group D.
The 2014 FIFA World Cup’s Group of Death contains Italy, Uruguay, England and Costa Rica. Because of the history that these teams bring to Brazil, Group D will most definitely be the one that offers maximum entertainment.
Italy fans will have bitter memories of their team’s brief stay in South Africa. One would not expect a team of such high calibre to face an ignominious exit as they finished at the bottom of their group at the hands of teams such as Paraguay, Slovenia and New Zealand.
England supporters believe that the team that makes it to any FIFA World Cup will be the one that replicates the feat of the team of 1966. For the Three Lions, South Africa will always be a case of what could’ve been for England’s Golden Generation of players. But they never looked capable of beating the world’s best.
Uruguay on the other hand will be looking at 2010 as a foundation to build further successes, with the Celeste finishing fourth in the Rainbow Nation. With the World Cup being held in South America, the conditions in Brazil are sure to favour the Sky Blues.
Costa Rica are the clear underdogs in the group, but the lack of pressure they will face to get out of it could actually aid them. In addition, the hot and humid climatic conditions that are characteristic of Brazil’s interior are similar to the weather Los Ticos are used to, meaning they will need little time to acclimatise.
But in the last four years, the changes these teams have been through give all four of them the belief that they can make it out of the Group of Death.
Marcelo Lippi won the World Cup in 2006 and believed that the same core of players that helped him lift the trophy in Berlin would be able to do so in Johannesburg. Unfortunately, age had taken its toll on players such as Mauro Camoranesi, Fabio Cannavaro, Gennaro Gattuso and Gianluca Zambrotta.
In addition, the departures of talismanic strikers such as Alessandro Del Piero, Francesco Totti, Luca Toni and Filippo Inzaghi meant the Italians had lost four of their best forwards and didn’t have replacements of the same calibre to take to South Africa.
Cesare Prandelli has managed in nearly erasing the gloom that followed at home after that exit. At Euro 2012, Italy nearly added to their 1968 triumph and would’ve probably gone on to match Spain, had they not been forced to play the last half an hour of the final with 10 men on the field.
This current squad is one that contains players that will represent their nation for years to come, including defenders Mattia Di Sciglio, Matteo Darmian, Marco Verratti and the talented striking quartet of Mario Balotelli, Ciro Immobile, Lorenzo Insigne and Alessio Cerci, all of whom will complement the experience brought by Gianluigi Buffon, Giorgio Chiellini, Andrea Pirlo, Claudio Marchisio, Andrea Barzagli and Antonio Cassano.
Since 1970, the Italians have always qualified for the knockout stages of the competition when it’s been held in the Americas. Throughout their victory against fellow heavyweights England, the Italians looked to have the upper hand, and given the talent in this squad, it would be surprising if Italy weren’t one of the favourites to reach the last eight of the competition.
Italy’s hopes of getting there centre around midfield maestro Andrea Pirlo, whose brilliance and vision seem to have only gotten better with age. It was Pirlo’s absence that was so telling during Italy’s calamitous sojourn in South Africa four years ago.
The English on the other hand will take positives from their defeat to Italy, of which there were many. The Three Lions looked menacing on the counterattack and created plenty of chances. Had the English defence not switched off for Italy’s second goal and had there been someone to take those chances, it could’ve been them with three point to their name.
Nevertheless, this new crop of English talent has been greeted with much optimism and hope. Players such as Jack Wilshere, Ross Barkley, Raheem Sterling, Daniel Welbeck, Daniel Sturridge, Phil Jones, Luke Shaw, Chris Smalling, Jordan Henderson, Alex Chamberlain and Joe Hart are all going to be part of the same team for many years to come.
But the youthful exuberance of this clutch of players will be tempered by the experiences that Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard, Wayne Rooney, Glen Johnson and James Milner will bring from past World Cups.
The last time a World Cup was held in Brazil, Sir Walter Winterbottom’s team were left smarting after they were stunned 1-0 by Joe Gaetjens and the United States in 1950 as they exited the group stage and Hodgson will be mentally preparing his team for what awaits them in Brazil.
Because while England and Italy will be unaccustomed to the climatic conditions in Brazil, Uruguay will be using that to their advantage after being left stunned by Costa Rica in their opener.
Doubts were cast over how a small nation like Uruguay would be able to replace the ageing stars who got them to the last four in Africa but younger talents such as Jose Maria Gimenez, Abel Hernandez, Gaston Ramirez and Sebastian Coates have now established themselves as regulars for their country.
While they can be easily blooded into a side that are used to playing together, Uruguay’s most potent advantage lies in its attack, which features Luis Suarez, Edinson Cavani and veteran Diego Forlan.
Familiar doubts though, centred around the ageing Diego Lugano and midfielders Diego Perez and Edigo Rios, who are now well into their 30s and do not have the legs to make up the ground the way they used to, leading to a large hole in between defence and midfield that can be easily exploited by pacier opponents, of whom there will be plenty in Group D.
It was this hole that the Costa Ricans exploited to such devastating effect. The Uruguayans seemed unable to deal with the vision of Ruiz and the lightning-quick pace of Marco Urena and Joel Campbell.
The Celeste however can still qualify from the Group of Death. Despite the continental differences between the two teams, Uruguay versus England tonight will feature two teams who will have similar styles of football.
Uruguay will therefore need to ensure the likes of Walter Gargano and Gaston Ramirez either keep possession for as long as is possible, starving their opponents of it, or launch quick counterattacks via Christian Stuani and Christian Rodriguez to hurt England and ensure their possession comes to nothing.
But while these three teams have between them seven World Cups and will therefore be expected to perform well because of their credentials, Costa Rica will be under few expectations and could exploit the pressure their opponents are under to mount a giant-killing streak of their own, which began with that brilliant defeat of Uruguay.
The Ticos are blessed with plenty of pace, and getting out of the group stage would also fill them with confidence and provide many lessons which would tide them well when the pressure does begin to get to them. The Italians will try to keep possession and Costa Rica will therefore try to exploit the lack of pace of Giorgio Chiellini and Andrea Barzagli.
Should they get out of the Group of Death, it would mean that two World Cup heavyweights are immediately knocked out of the tournament, which could inspire the Caribbean team to become the surprise package of the 2014 World Cup, just like how Ghana took the footballing world by storm in 2010.
Costa Rica are now actively competing with the United States and Mexico to become North America’s best football team. While qualifying, they held Mexico at the Azteca Stadium and beat them 2-1 at home, forcing the much-vaunted Mexicans to participate in a play-off to get to South America as the Ticos made it to Brazil with two games to spare.
The Costa Ricans are proof of how FIFA’s developmental programmes are benefiting smaller nations to compete with the best. Players such as goalkeeper Keylor Navas, defenders Oscar Duarte and Christian Gamboa, midfielders Celso Borges, Christian Bolanos and Diego Calvo and forwards Joel Campbell and Bryan Ruiz – all of whom play in Europe – key to the Central American outfit’s progression in Brazil.
The varied stories which these teams bring to Brazil displays a rich tapestry of footballing pedigree that speaks volumes about the histories of the beautiful game in their countries. This only adds to the anticipation surrounding Group D. While this Baptism of Fire will turn the heat on these teams, those that emerge from it will come out stronger.
To get through it requires a determination and resilience that is both physical and mental.
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Updated Date: Jun 19, 2014 20:19:11 IST