D is for death

Being the Casual Hooligans we are we’re more interested in providing the fan’s perspective of football and bringing our fellow football aficionados information that is pertinent, insightful, and most importantly – interesting. Instead of providing you previews of the groups and teams involved in the World Cup we are proud to present our best information on all 32 teams.

Group D is, for most people outside of the United States, the dreaded group of death. With the highest ELO of any other group this World Cup.. I don’t really know what to say beyond what’s written below. Let’s get to it – there is plenty to talk about. Ladies and gentlemen, group dee…  I mean..

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Group D

Uruguay

Uruguay

Experience is one thing Uruguay is not lacking on the pitch and on the sidelines. Starting with their coach, Óscar Tabárez. He has been coaching the side since 2006 and has done a great job in recent years. With Uruguay reaching the semis last World Cup they went on to win the Copa América one year later. Tabárez is a tactician who isn’t afraid to change formations to suit their own playstyle against different opponents. Uruguay switched between a 3-4-1-2, then to a 4-4-2, and even a 4-3-3 formation. This may have messed with the team chemistry a bit because they had a rough start to qualification.

They underachieved immensely when they started off by earning only 13 points out of a possible 36 but then finished in fine form with 12 points out of a possible 16. They (nervously) finished 5th in CONMEBOL qualification and had to win a playoff match against Jordan to ensure they would take to the pitch in Brazil. Make no mistake, South American qualification could be the toughest region to qualify for the World Cup but if Brazil didn’t get an automatic place for being host nations and finished above fifth place, Uruguay wouldn’t have even gotten the chance at a playoff match against Jordan. But they did… and their reward was being drawn into an incredibly difficult group D.

The qualifiers aren’t necessarily a good indicator for how a team will perform in the World Cup (as Uruguay have shown with their 2010 qualification record before making it to the semi-finals in South Africa) but one can’t help but wonder if this Uruguay squad is all it’s built up to be. In the end, however they were able to pull it together by getting the points they needed in the final five matches of qualification. This means Uruguay can shrug off the first half of their qualifiers and look forward to playing the games that really matter: the games ahead.

Qualifiers did show a big issue in Uruguay’s play: their vulnerable defense. Three of their five losses in qualification were lost by three goals or more. Vulnerable maybe, but their defense has a lot of experience playing together. Diego Lugano is a true veteran defender and his lack of pace is offset by the chemistry and leadership the back line have with him present. Lugano will be hit or miss in this World Cup but with his ability to head the ball and step up to the occasion he could be the inspiration Uruguay need to score a vital late goal. It’s not all about Lugano however with the likes of one of the best defenders in the World, Diego Godín, coming off an incredible season with Atlético Madrid, Martin Cáceres playing well for Juventus, and Maximiliano Pereira playing for Benfica. The defensive line has the ability to pull it together and play as needed.

Their midfield seems to be the stumbling block for Uruguay if they had one at all. They seem to lack build up play and find it difficult to work the ball through the center of the field to their lethal front line. The coach may opt to bring attacks from the flanks with their full backs if they need inspiration to go forward. The winger Cristian Rodríguez can also help along the wings when needed but if Uruguay get shut down on the flanks they may find it difficult to string the passes they need to give the strikers opportunities in front of goal. Uruguay’s strike force has been well-documented and if Suarez and Cavani can (get healthy and) stay healthy Uruguay has a real contention for making it deep in the World Cup this year, especially being so close to home. The team must be careful not to over rely on these two to score goals, however because even though they scored a combined 17 out of 25 goals in qualification if they get shut down someone will have to score the goals. At least if it comes down to it and they need someone to come off the bench to play up top they only have a living legend in Diego f@$%^#g Forlán.

Uruguay will look to continue the fine form which saw them qualify for the World Cup in an unlikely fashion. They’ll trust their coach to win the tactical battle on paper and their defense and midfield to do it on the field. Suarez and Cavani will have to step up early to see them go on to the knockout stages because in this competition there is no bouncing back from a bad start. Luckily they won’t be without support from their fans who will travel in numbers to urge their team on in their first match against Costa Rica – they may need the support.

 

Italy

Italy

^couldn’t resist

Italy. Four time World Champions who really put the defense wins championships to the meddle – or do they? Not so much with Italian coach, Cesare Prandelli. A man who has coached in the Italian League for 13 years has now been at the reins of the Azzurri for four years. In that time he brought Italy to a Eurocup final only to be beat (handily) by the ruthless Spanish national side. Regardless, he guided them to the final in his first major tournament and saw them qualify for this World Cup without losing a single match.

Prandelli has brought creativity and a more attacking approach to calcio than the national side has recently played with. As a result, the Italians scored two or more goals in eight out of their ten qualification matches (the others were a 1-0 win and a scoreless draw.) Says Prandelli, “We are happy with this change of style. Even the players feel more valued and more involved. But if we play in the World Cup final we could employ the ‘Catenaccio’.” A term used for locking up the backline and playing very defensively literally Italian for ‘door-bolt’.

Some regard this Italian defense as weaker than most in the past but make no mistake: they’re a formidable defense nonetheless as this are Italian standards of defense. The back line is very experienced and they will undoubtedly understand one another well. Three of the likely starters play for Italian league champions, Juventus, and the other two possible starters play together at AC Milan. What’s more Gianluigi Buffon is an absolute rock in goal and he also plays for Juventus. The club connection will allow them to gel well and if they ever need it Buffon will be there bossing the back line around and getting them in shape.

One interesting thing to note about this team is that only two of the 23 men going to the tournament play outside of the Italian league: Thiago Motta and Marco Verratti who both play for Paris Saint-Germain. This is due to Italian managers historically choosing players that play in Italy – maybe because it’s easier to keep tabs on them and choose the best starting eleven.

Both of the PSG players are midfielders and may be deployed alongside the man, the legend, Andrea Pirlo. He will be starring in a midfield that has enjoyed playing with the majority of possession in their games to control the tempo to their liking. With Motta and Daniele De Rossi supporting and protecting Pirlo (essentially doing the heavy lifting) he won’t have to roam much of the field or play too defensively. This may be pivotal for Italy because they’ll be playing in some of the harshest conditions Brazil has to offer in terms of humidity, heat, and altitude. Italy was able to familiarize themselves with Brazilian conditions during the Confederations Cup and this may be an important piece of experience come middle of June.

The final part of their team consists of a very talented Balotelli, bad boy Osvaldo, and Italian league top goalscorer Ciro Immobile (just to name three). The forwards can truly make it hell in the final third for any team. With their midfield ticking like a metronome and their back line defending like Italians they have a real shot of making it far into this tournament. They may find it difficult to compete if they can’t control the midfield but with a wealth of experience on and off the pitch you’d be a brave one to bet against Gli Azzurri this tournament.

 

Costa Rica

Costa Rica

Costa Rica is a team that can provide some real problems for the football giants it’s been grouped with. Although they didn’t make it to South Africa in 2010 they had a good showing in the qualifiers finishing second place overall. They let in the least amount of goals in the final round of CONCACAF qualifiers and were outscored only by the USA. Costa Rica was a part of the (in)famous Snowclasico in Denver where they fell 1-0 to the United States. Los Ticos clearly had a chip on their shoulder after that match because in their next six games they took 14/18 points with four wins and two draws – enough to secure their place in Brazil this summer.

England coach, Roy Hodgson was quoted in saying, “Costa Rica may be the least known [out of our opponents] but they are a very strong team.” Even Italy’s coach, Cesare Prandelli said, “Costa Rica will be the most difficult team to face because we don’t know them.” Whether these are genuine comments or the gaffers trying not to earn the tag of being complacent before the first whistle is a mystery. The fact remains these teams will be desperate for points in this impossibly difficult group. Costa Rica may be able to use this to their advantage – more on this in a second.

A big reason they did so well in qualification was due to the experience of their very personable coach, Jorge Luis Pinto. Pinto has a total of nine league titles from Venezuela, Peru, Costa Rica, and Colombia and this is his second tenure as coach for Los Ticos. He focuses a lot on playing simple football relative to other styles and implemented a 5-4-1 formation which paved the way for their low number of goals allowed in qualifiers. Says team captain Brian Ruiz, “With Pinto, I feel the team is always prepared. We are always very organized. We are encouraged to have our own ideas on the pitch and are told to be prepared and to leave no space for our opponents to exploit.”

Though there are no standout defenders in with Bryan Oviedo not recovering in time from a horrific injury the five men at the back will rely on each other to stop the likes of some of Europe’s best strikers. Luckily La Sele has a shot-stopping machine in Levante’s goalkeeper, Kaylor Navas. He has been a revelation in goal for the his La Liga team for the last few years and is now being sought after by big European teams.

With attacking options in underrated Christian Bolaños, deadly winger Joel Campbell, and their dangerous Bryan Ruiz, Costa Rica isn’t without attacking outlets. Joel Campbell on a good day is one of my favorite players to watch – he has so much pace, he has incredible technical skills, and he is fearless. Uruguay, England, and Italy all know it may come down to goal differential so they’ll be pushing for a lot of goals against a stubborn five man defense. This is where Costa Rica’s best chance to get ahead presents itself. If they are able to frustrate the opponent’s offense they’ll just need a defensive play and a swift counter attack to shock the opponent’s with a goal against the run of play. If Costa Rica – the team with nothing at all to lose this tournament – get the lead against their opponents it’ll be the other team sweating bullets, not Los Ticos. That being said, Costa Rica needs to be more judicious in the final few minutes of the game as they have a very bad tendency to let easy goals in during the closing stages.

Costa Rica is a small country but one which holds football to a very high regard. They’re the third most successful team in CONCACAF and though it doesn’t appear the case, Costa Rica is in a really good position. They have full support of their country with zero pressure on them, they have a young side with plenty of quality, they have some dangerous offensive players to lead the team, they have defensive tactics, are well prepared, and they are led by an experienced coach. Maybe Hodgson and Prandelli weren’t wrong when they hinted they need to be careful going up against the (mighty) Costa Ricans!

 

England

England

The English national side has recently come into major tournaments with a the big burden of expectations on their shoulders. This year sees the young(ish) lions come to the biggest stage with Englishmen having a new attitude towards their national side. We are seeing the aftermath of one of the golden generations in World football that didn’t live up to expectations. Roy Hodgson has brought back veterans whilst bringing a wealth of incredibly energetic players who will be without haunting memories of disappointing World Cup and Eurocup exits. Choosing players who had shining campaigns of late breaths new life into an English side which has needed it for some time now.

There may only be one player who has (statistically) scored for Hodgson’s team but the Three Lions know damn well they have a real shot at coming out of this difficult group – or at least they don’t have much of a reason not to believe it – which may be more vital than anything else. Hodgson coached the Switzerland national team some ways back, and took them to the 1994 World Cup. Even though it was with a different nation and it was back in 90s he surely learned something from the experience. His experimentation with a younger attack and solid defense saw them qualify for the World Cup with no losses, 31 goals for, and only four goals against. (Though.. to be fair two of those games looked  bit more like cricket scores against San Marino: 5-0 and 8-0.) Against a dangerous Ukrainian side vying for first place the Three Lions had to wait until the final match day of the qualifiers to book their trip to Brazil.

With the well-documented talents of the Italian and Uruguayan attackers a solid back line coupled with midfielders tracking back is essential. Defending with the likes of Jagielka and Cahill proved to be a helluva partnership at the center of the park and the experience of Gerrard or Lampard and the defending of Henderson will allow the fullbacks to join the attack. (I put an ‘or’ between their names because I think if we see this partnership in midfield many onlookers will be watching through their fingers.) Johnson and Baines are used to that role in their club teams of linking up with the wingers and if they’re able to get up the flanks England may be able to condense the midfield in the center of the park. Having control of the midfield is, I believe, vital for England as they try to earn points against difficult opponents.

The first game of the group stages will be Italy. Against a team that tries to control the tempo of the game with midfield it’ll take brutish midfield play to crowd out Pirlo and put Gli Azzuri’s technical midfield under pressure. Crowding out Pirlo, as was done in the Euro 2012 final, will be vital for a team which looks to the ageless Italian for penetrating through balls. Viewers may expect England to shut up shop and park the bus at the back but Hodgson is not as conservative a coach he is viewed as: represented by the exciting team he brought to the World Cup. Luckily for England, one of their greatest strengths lines up with the other two group-mates’ weaknesses: the midfield. Uruguay and Costa Rica’s midfields are suspect when it comes to build up play from midfield and the young legs of Henderson, the Ox, Sterling, Lall.. (you get it) will allow for more open games through the midfield. Here we may even see Rooney playing a number 10 role behind Sterling with the wingers pressing the back line further back.

Without nightmares of previous tournaments keeping (most) of the English national side up late at night the Three Lions will hopefully be able to play exciting football this time around. Expectations are much lower for this tournament than others of late, or at least they are publicly. I suspect many Englishmen secretly think their team can make it to the knockout stages but don’t want to jinx it. I certainly can’t fault them if they believe because if any other team had the skill, athletic abilities, and youthful exuberance England does I believe they would be widely regarded as likely to make it far into the tournament regardless of who they have to go through to get there. In fact.. they might even be called Belg…. ahh never mind.

 

So there it is – the deadly group of deathly dead-ness. Truly this tournament’s headline hog of a group. Impossibly difficult to predict, even more difficult to play in. Being played in some of the most physically demanding regions of Brazil is just one of the many factors that will come into play when these four teams square off. Nearly every advantage is offset by their what their opponent’s bring to the field but some things have to give. I can’t wait to see what it will be.

What do you make of this (long) post? Do you think England will struggle? Think Uruguay’s defense will impress more than Italy’s? Will Balotelli prove to be a decoy to another Italian star? Will Costa Rica’s midfield bring issues to the football giants in the group? Let us know what you think below!

3 responses to “D is for death

  1. I respectfully disagree sir….many people believe Group B is the “group of death.” Both finalists from last year Spain & Netherlands, and one of the better South American teams involved in Chile – both winner and runner-up would be favored to win their next round match if it were anyone besides Brasil. But if it makes Costa Rican fans feel better to say the were knocked out, BUT they were in the group of death, than they can, haha.

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