By Ridge Mahoney
If Group D isn’t the group of death, it’s certainly one of severe trauma. Like the USA, a Concacaf representative -- Costa Rica -- has been bunched with three strong teams, and in this case, each of them has won the World Cup and is currently ranked in the FIFA top 10. The Ticos are 28th.
Yet four-time winner Italy hasn’t won a game since October, Uruguay needed a playoff to get into the finals, and England has looked so average for the past few years most of the tabloids have given up their crusades of domestic supremacy in major competitions.
There are a few reasons to downgrade Italy. After capturing its fourth World Cup in 2006, it tumbled out of the 2010 competition in group play without winning a game. Since clinching a place in the 2014 World Cup, Italy has failed to win any of its seven subsequent matches, though its passive approach to friendlies -- it lost in Genoa to the USA, 1-0, two years ago and the backlash was banal -- is legendary. A 1-1 tie with little Luxembourg Wednesday didn’t disturb the preparations.
“You need to look at the physical condition of the players, and we are in great condition,” said head coach Cesare Prandelli. Italy reached the Euro 2012 final after beating Germany, 2-1, in the semis, and the 2010 fizzle notwithstanding, it is always a threat in major competitions. Powerful and prickly forward Mario Balotelliis a fearsome presence on the field and when he stays to his task he’s nearly impossible to stop.
Uruguay and England are vastly different propositions though they are closely connected through striker Luis Suarez, he of amazing exploits and outrageous antics with Liverpool. Suarez started the Premier League season serving out a 10-game suspension imposed the previous spring for chomping on the shoulder of an opponent and ended it as top scorer and Player of the Year. The English will be extremely familiar with him; whether they can contain him is another matter. He and teammate Edison Cavanihave scored a combined 55 goals for Uruguay, which has many veterans of the last two World Cups on its roster.
England’s most dangerous forward, Wayne Rooney, is anxious to atone for his lackluster showings in the last two World Cups. A fractured metatarsal hampered him in 2006 and he struggled again four years ago. In eight World Cup matches, he has zero goals.
Our Picks:1. Italy. 2. Uruguay. 3. England. 4. Costa Rica.
Group D Schedule
June 14 in Fortaleza
Uruguay vs. Costa Rica
ABC, Univision/UDN 3 p.m. ET
June 14 in Manaus
England vs. Italy
ESPN, Univision/UDN 6 p.m. ET
June 19 in Sao Paulo
Uruguay vs. England
ESPN, Univision/UDN 3 p.m. ET
June 20 in Recife
Italy vs. Costa Rica
ESPN, Univision/UDN noon ET
June 24 in Natal
Italy vs. Uruguay
ESPN, Univision/UDN noon ET
June 24 in Belo Horizonte
Costa Rica vs. England
ESPN2, UniMas/Galavision noon ET
World Cup: Complete Rosters
SUAREZ JOGS.The dynamics in every World Cup group are affected by injuries shortly before the tournament starts, yet the loss of Costa Rican striker Alvaro Saborio is especially devastating.
Saborio (32 international goals) has been a star in MLS for Real Salt Lake and a mainstay in the Costa Rican lineup for many years. His absence, along with that of defender Bryan Oviedo -- sidelined with a broken leg suffered in January playing for Everton -- severely impairs their prospects.
England is monitoring the condition of midfielder Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who suffered a sprained medial collateral ligament injury in a friendly against Ecuador Wednesday. It can name a replacement until June 13, a day before the opener against Italy in Manaus. Oxlade-Chamberlain, 20, was playing for the first time since suffering a groin injury in April.
Suarez trained Friday, though his activity was confined to light jogging. He underwent surgery on his left knee two weeks ago after feeling pain during a training session and didn’t play in warmup games against Northern Ireland and Slovenia.
TITLE HOLDERS.Three Uruguayan players -- defenders Diego Godin and Jose Maria Gimenez and midfielder Cristian Rodriguez -- lifted the La Liga title trophy and helped Atletico Madrid reach the Champions League final. Pirlo and goalie Gianluigi Buffon head a list of six players from Serie A champion Juventus who are in the Italy World Cup team. Manchester City won the Premier League title but landed only two players on the England squad: goalie Joe Hart and James Milner.
AGE FACTOR.Uruguay’s experienced squad is, as can be expected, also one of the oldest in the competition. Its average age of 28.1 is the third-oldest of the 32 teams. (Argentina tops the table at 28.5, Portugal is next at 28.2.) The other Group D teams: England 26.1, Costa Rica 27.1, Italy 27.4.
Center back and captain Diego Lugano is 33; if Uruguay asks too much of him, and needs Diego Forlan, 35, to pick up the slack if Cavani or Suarez struggle, age may catch up to Uruguay before it can replicate its semifinal appearance four years ago.
Italian pass master Andrea Pirlo is 35 and edging ever closer to being a past master. Yet if opponents cannot contend with l'architetto (the Architect) they're in trouble, as his uncanny command of how to slip passes into narrow lanes and just where to place a free kick are unmatched.
EX-FIRE.Uruguayan midfielder Egidio Arevalo Rios played nine games on loan with the Fire in 2013. (Frank Lampard, who held extensive discussions with the Galaxy two years ago, has ended his 13-year stay at Chelsea and is on the shopping list of New York City FC, which starts play in MLS next season.)