Managers: Italy (Cesare Prandelli), Uruguay (Óscar Tabárez), England (Roy Hodgson), Costa Rica (Jorge Luis Pinto)
June 14th: Uruguay vs. Costa Rica
June 14th: England vs. Italy
June 19th: Uruguay vs. England
June 19th: Italy vs. Costa Rica
June 24th: Italy vs. Uruguay
June 24th: Costa Rica vs. England
There could be some rock, paper, scissors between Italy, Uruguay and England, which makes the Costa Rica matches so critical and they won't by bystanders. The Plan A of each team is too variable in its success and there is no viable Plan B. Winning Group D and simply avoiding elimination will ultimately be a huge accomplishment for any of them.
The success of each team will be defined by…
Italy: Winning Group D, avoiding elimination
Uruguay: Winning Group D, avoiding elimination
England: Winning Group D, avoiding elimination
Costa Rica: Playing spoiler by picking up a tie or two against teams looking for three full points
National team competitions will never be the same without the nearly cartoonish elegance of Andrea Pirlo in midfield and the patriotism weathered into the face of Gianluigi Buffon in goal. These guys have been there for the win in 2006 and the group exit in 2010 and have been the symbols for Italian football throughout.
Pirlo and Buffon can get the Azzurri into the round of 16, but they'll need the transcendence from Mario Balotelli to get deep into the knockout phase. He's one of the world's best finishers with the type of power to manufacture goals on his own in which he nearly has no peer. The short run of a national team tournament also seems to suit his attention span and temperament, thriving on the glamour of the world stage.
Lorenzo Insigne and Ciro Immobile could also play supporting goal-scoring roles.
In the midfield, Marco Verratti could play a huge role in support of Pirlo and is capable of establishing himself as one of the best young midfielders in the world in this tournament. Playing Verratti right beside Pirlo gives Prandelli two playmaking midfielders, which will inevitably create an advantage since opponents won’t be able to fully mark both players.
Italy doesn't have quite as much quality in the back as previous sides, but Giorgio Chiellini is arguably the world’s best center defender with his ability to somehow effectively mark multiple players at once. And Italy will always be organized defensively and Prandelli has clearly made them more dynamic and entertaining.
The way Serie A teams have been dominated in Europe by clubs from Spain and Germany over the past few years has made Italy more overlooked and underrated in he build-up than they probably deserve.
Luis Suárez and Edinson Cavani are hoping to carry a substandard squad deep into the knockout phases, as Uruguay did in 2010, with their superstar goal scoring abilities. They will need to be fast starters and then try to pile on additional goals in the counterattack when opponents become more aggressive because this isn't a team built for clean sheets.
While Suárez enjoyed redemption and a legendary output of goals scored and assisted upon with Liverpool this past season, Cavani was frustrated by his first season at Paris Saint-Germain. But Cavani gets to play in his preferred 4-2-2 with Uruguay instead of being banished wide for PSG with Zlatan playing the central role.
Suárez's knee injury will be the most critical injury development to monitor and he may serve as a decoy early on with Cavani responsible for the heavy lifting.
The midfield, particularly Cristian Rodríguez, will need to be productive in quickly getting the ball up field in the counterattack.
Diego Godín had an excellent season of his own at Atleti and was a Sergio Ramos header away from winning the UCL by keeping Real Madrid scoreless. Godin plays a smart defending style and his leadership in making his teammates in the back overachieve will be as critical as S and E.
The lack of depth on his squad is clearly a result of the inconvenience picking from a population of just three million people. The good fortune of Suarez and Cavani coming from that size of a pool at roughly the same time is about as likely as the biggest rock band and basketball player both being from Akron. The fact that Diego Forlan preceded them makes it even more remarkable. Unfortunately, the strong defenders they have been known for historically aren't there to make this a golden generation for Uruguay.
Squads built on superstars have a briefer history of success in the World Cup, which will give Suárez and Cavani little margin to be anything but brilliant and their lack of talent elsewhere should mean an exit before the semifinals.
The English Premier League is the most highly watched league in the world each weekend and we marvel at the depth of talent on the top seven or eight clubs, but sometimes overlook and forget exactly how much of that talent is imported.
The expectations are always high, but 1966 was a very long time ago and England is realistically not very close to being a true contender capable of winning it all. England is a football-obsessed country with the fifth biggest population in Europe and is also multi-cultural, which has helped France become a consistent title threat when they’re not performing a mutiny.
The final run for Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard, which has featured more moments of stiff upper lip than triumph, has been bolstered by the recent ascents of Raheem Sterling and Daniel Sturridge and up front and Gary Cahill in the back.
Interestingly, Sterling will be likely coming in as a reserve due to the presence of Wayne Rooney. Sterling has often been at his best against top clubs in England and is the better option for England in both the present and not just the future. Ideally, Hodgson would figure out a way to feature both players on the pitch at the same time as Brendan Rodgers did with him and Suarez with Liverpool. England severely lacks pace when Sterling isn’t on the pitch, which limits their attack to basically having Rooney close his eyes and hope something miraculous happens out of nothing.
Moving away from Rooney as the central figure would be advised and there is hope that the inclusion of so many Liverpool and Southampton players will mean England plays a more pressing and aggressive style.
Moving past that general strategy, Hodgson has a lot of moving pieces in terms of finding the right formation and roles for his key players. Without much history to go with, he may stumble upon something highly effective that opponents haven't been able to decipher previously in tape, or simply be as ineffective and disappointing as they have been across their previous World Cups since reaching the semis in 1990.
Scoring goals would be difficult proposition for Costa Rica regardless, but losing Álvaro Saborío just before the World Cup makes it an even greater challenge. Joel Campbell becomes the option at striker and is coming off a strong showing with Olympiacos as he continues to be on an extended loan from Arsenal.
Celso Borges and Bryan Ruiz will also play key roles in Costa Rica’s attack. Borges is capable of scoring from the midfield, while Ruiz has EPL history with Fulham before his loan to PSV and is their most creative playmaker.
But Keylor Navas in goal is what Costa Rica will be reliant upon in these three matches. Costa Rica is clearly an overmatched side in comparison to the quality of the other three, but they’re capable of getting a point out of matches in which they’re dominated in possession and scoring opportunities due to his saves. Costa Rica is hardly a defensive side and playing with house money in front of one of the world's most underrated keepers is a dangerous game for opponents. They were highly effective in limiting goals allowed in qualifying and that same discipline becomes even more critical on this stage against elevated competition.
Italy, Uruguay and England is as true of a three-team race as we can ever expect from a group before the World Cup begins. Those three have nearly the same odds of winning the group as they do going home before the Round of 16. None of the three squads have enough depth of quality to sustain a run all the way to the Maracanã on July 13 even though they could surely beat any team in the world on any given day.