England faces Italy with expectations tamped down

[WORLD CUP PREVIEW: Saturday] Saturday's marathon features four games. The marquee game is a Euro 2012 rematch between a young England squad chosen by Roy Hodgson and Italy, which has also infused its team with new players. For a look at England-Italy, plus Colombia-Greece, Uruguay-Costa Rica and Japan-Ivory Coast.

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Group C
Saturday, June 14 | Belo Horizonte: Estadio Mineirao | Referee: Mark Geiger (USA).
TV: ABC, Univision/UDN noon ET
Colombia -- Fredy Guarin.

Colombia plays its first World Cup game in 16 years when it faces Greece, which made a first-round exit in 2010. Los Cafeteros finished second to Argentina in South American World Cup qualifying to move as high as No. 4 in the FIFA  rankings. But that was with striker Radamel Falcao, who was knocked out of the World Cup in January by a tackle from an amateur player in French Cup action.

Still, Colombia has plenty of attacking talent for playmaker James Rodriguez and winger Juan “La Vespa” Cuadrado to feed. Teofilo Gutierrez was second leading scorer to Falcao in qualifying with six goals and Carlos Bacca helped Sevilla to the 2014 Europa League title. Coach Jose Pekerman may also look to Jackson “Cha Cha Cha” Martinez, who scored 29 goals in all competitions for Porto last season

Greece’s main scoring threat is Kostas Mitroglou, who scored three times in its 4-2 aggregate win over Romania in the playoff series to win a Brazil ticket. But “Mitrogoal” is now known as "Fulham Flop" after joining the Premier League in January for $20 million and playing just three games as it got relegated.

SA World Cup Previews:
Mike Woitalla: Group C

Uruguay-Costa Rica

Group D
Saturday, June 14  | Fortaleza: Estadio Castelao | Referee: Felix Brych (Germany).
TV: ABC, Univision/UDN 3 p.m. ET

Uruguay is the third-oldest team in the tournament (average age 28.1) and there are questions whether the veteran squad that reached the 2010 semifinals -- in which it lost, 3-2, to the Netherlands – has the legs and energy to drive at least as far this time. It boasts one of the most controversial players on the planet in forward Luis Suarez, whose goal-line handball four years ago in the quarterfinals deprived Ghana of a goal and enabled Uruguay to eventually advance on penalty kicks.

Suarez is the English Premier League Player of the Year, but fitness is being closely monitored. He underwent meniscus surgery on his left knee May 22 and has not played since.

If Suarez cannot go, veteran Diego Forlan -- winner of the Golden Ball four years ago top player of the tournament – will pair with Edison Cavani up front. Forlan, 35, missed a few sessions earlier with week with an upset stomach but trained on Thursday. Coach Oscar Tabarez must also choose between Cristian Stuani or Gaston Ramirez on the right wing.

In what is predicted to be a tight group the margins of victory could be decisive. Goal difference is the first tiebreaker, and by starting off with the group minnow Uruguay will want to win comfortably if at all possible. It cannot afford to look too far ahead to its games against the European powers and take a Concacaf opponent too lightly.

Costa Rica’s exuberant, skillful team is well-suited to the spoiler role, though the absence of striker Alvaro Saborio and defender Bryan Oviedo deprives it of two crucial pieces. It also lost defender Heiner Mora earlier this week when he suffered a broken heel during a training session and replaced him with Dave Myrie.

SA World Cup Previews:
Ridge Mahoney: Group D


Group D
Saturday, June 14 | Manaus: Arena Amazonia | Referee: Bjorn Kuipers (Netherlands)
TV: ESPN, Univision/UDN 6 p.m. ET

Concerns about logistics -- reaching Manaus required a three-and-a-half hour flight from England’s base in Rio de Janeiro – and a quirky playing surface have tinged this meeting with a bit of extra intrigue. Italy won on penalties at Euro 2012 but both teams have changed significantly during the interim.

The young England squad chosen by Roy Hodgson has atypically tamped down expectations, though the presence of veterans Frank Lampard and Wayne Rooney alongside talents such as Adam Lallana and Raheem Sterling certainly gives England a foundation of talent and experience.

Italian coach Cesare Prandelli, while reliant as ever on playmaker Andres Pirlo and goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, has infused his squad with the likes of forwards Ciro Immobile and Lorenzo Insigne and defender Matteo Darmian. Wiorld-class veterans Pirlo and Buffon were key members of the World Cup-winning team in 2006 and both were rendered non-factors by injuries at the 2010 tournament in which Italy stumbled home after group play.

“It goes without saying that players like Pirlo and Buffon are essential to any coach, because they have so much quality to offer and the right attitude, but it’s also great to have the enthusiasm and creativity offered by the younger players, who’ve always dreamed of playing in the World Cup,” said Prandelli “They bring a little bit of exuberance to the team and they can do the unexpected. We’ve freshened up the team and that’s exactly what we’re looking for at this World Cup.”

Italian defender Mattia De Sciglio suffered a strained thigh during a training session Thursday and will not be available to face England. The injury is minor and Italy has no plans to replace him on the roster. (FIFA permits an emergency replacement if a player suffers an injury more than 24 hours before a team’s opening group game.) Midfielder Marco Verratti has recovered from a bout with the flu and thus Prandelli has all of his players available except for De Sciglio.

WORLD CUP: Complete 2014 Viewing Schedule

Ivory Coast-Japan

Group C
Saturday, June 14 | Recife: Arena Pernambuco | Referee: Enrique Osses (Chile).
TV: ESPN, Univision/UDN 9 p.m. ET

Ivory Coast finally got a break after, in their first two World Cup appearances of 2006 and 2010, having to cope with the Netherlands and Argentina, and Brazil and Portugal and exiting in the first round.

Yaya Toure scored four goals in six qualifiers for Ivory Coast and was the EPL’s third leading scorer with 20 goals for champion Manchester City. The 36-year-old Didier Drogba aims to add to his record 65 goals for Les Elephants.

Japan, which reached the second round in 2010, needs to two key players to shake off poor seasons with their clubs: Shinji Kagawa (Manchester United) and Keisuke Honda (AC Milan). Shinji Okazaki, who scored 15 goals last season in Germany for Mainz, was Asia’s leading scorer in World Cup qualifying, and struck against Mexico and Italy during at the Confederations Cup.

Sunday ...

June 15 in Brasilia
Group E: Switzerland vs. Ecuador
ABC, Univision/UDN noon ET
June 15 in Porto Alegre
Group E: France vs. Honduras
ABC, Univision/UDN 3 p.m. ET
June 15 in Rio de Janeiro
Group F: Argentina vs. Bosnia-Herze.
ESPN, Univision/UDN 6 p.m. ET

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