Three former champions to clash in group of death
Rio de Janeiro: Group D or the group of death at the 2014 FIFA World Cup has three former champions in the mix - Italy, Uruguay and England - and the fourth team, Costa Rica, qualifiers from the Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association (CONCACAF), are no pushovers.
An ever-improving Italian outfit can stake claim to be the favourites, if one does push the boundaries a little. But the Azzurri - the second most successful national team in the history of the World Cup behind Brazil (5), having won four times, will do well to remember their performance in the 2010 edition in South Africa.
Italy, who were the defending champions in South Africa, were knocked out in the first round. The bigger shock was that Italy finished at bottom of the pool in a group comprising Slovakia, Paraguay and New Zealand. It was the first time Italy failed to win a single game at World Cup finals, and they became the third country to be eliminated in the first round as defending champions.
This time around, though, the Italians look a much different outfit. Their form of late has been good. They were the runners-up in the Euro 2012 behind champions Spain. They also did fairly well in the FIFA Confederations Cup, finishing third behind champions Brazil and Spain.
Claudio Marchisio, Giuseppe Rossi and mercurial striker Mario Balotelli will hold the key if Italy are to go further in the tournament. Reigning Copa America champions Uruguay are another force to reckon with.
The prospect of facing the likes of Edison Cavani and Luis Suarez, arguably two best strikers in the world, will send shivers down the spine of any defence in the world. Add to the two the evergreen Diego Forlan they have a truly potent striking force.
Suarez, especially, has been in red hot form. He scored 31 league goals for Liverpool, almost leading them to the Premier League title this season. The forward shared the Golden Shoe, given to the top scorer in the top division of every European national league, with none other than Real Madrid star Cristiano Ronaldo.
Uruguay`s main weakness is their defence, they conceded 25 goals, 16 of these away, in the qualifiers, owing to the slowing down of Diego Godin and captain Diego Lugano. Uruguay, two-time World Cup winners, finished in fourth place in South Africa.
However, things haven`t gone well for them recently. They went into the South American qualifiers as firm favourites but, in what can be called a disastrous campaign, managed to pick up just two points from a possible 18. They managed to pull things together in the nick of time, edging to fifth place and sneaking into the playoffs where they thrashed Jordan 5-0 over two legs.
England, the 1966 winners, are not to be discounted either. The `three lions` will have to overcome their jinx of underperforming in major FIFA events. However, a new look youthful England under the tutelage of experienced coach Roy Hodgson can cause quite a few ripples.
Wayne Rooney remains England`s greatest talent and his seven goals in six World Cup qualifying starts underline his importance. But it`s the inclusion of players like Raheem Sterling, Daniel Sturridge, Adam Lallana and Luke Shaw that has aroused the hopes of an entire nation.
Costa Rica, the relative unknowns in the group, are by no means going to be easy fodder for the other teams. The arrival of the Colombian Jorge Luis Pinto as national team coach has ushered in a new era for Costa Rica. They performed exceptionally in the CONCACAF qualifiers, finishing second behind the United States.
Costa Rica`s fortunes will lie at the skillful feet of former Fulham midfielder Bryan Ruiz, but they received a big blow to their chances with their main striker Alvario Soboro pulling out barely two weeks before the Cup kick-off and their full-back Bryan Oviedo, who plays for Everton.
Ruiz, the stylish playmaker, established himself at club side Twente in the Netherlands before moving on to Fulham in England. Now back in the Eredivisie with PSV Eindhoven, he is among the best playmakers in the region. But the team derives its strength from goalkeeper Keylor Navas, 26, who already has 50 appearances and returned with clean slate in seven of the 14 qualifiers.