World Cup: Group D is for ‘Death’

D is for Death, and this year’s group boasts three teams good enough to lift the trophy come July.

England arrives with a younger and faster squad than we’ve seen in decades and are desperate to break a World Cup curse that has left them without glory since 1966.

Italy are perennial contenders with tons of experience, coming of an impressive second place showing in the European Championship.

Uruguay have the advantage of playing on their home continent, not to mention the unplayable Luis Suarez in their back pocket.

And then there’s Costa Rica, who’ve been written off completely, but who could surprise after an impressive qualifying campaign.

How they’ll finish

  1. Italy
  2. England
  3. Uruguay
  4. Costa Rica

Costa Rica

SPI Rank: 23; FIFA World Ranking: 28

2010 World Cup: Did not qualify

Odds to advance to knock-out stages: 37.7 percent*

What to drink when watching Costa Rica: Guaro – Distilled from sugar cane juices, this sweet cocktail will be the best friend to all Costa Rican supporters in this torturous group.

Talisman Alvaro Saborio’s injury in training was a cruel blow for the Costa Ricans’s, who will be without the Real Salt Lake striker for the entire World Cup.

In a group with three of the world’s top footballing countries, Saborio’s clinical finishing and ability on set pieces will be sorely missed.

On the bright side, Los Ticos are coming off a very impressive final round of CONCACAF qualifying in which they won all five of their home games, including at 3-1 shellacking against the United States in the final match.

Without their target man, Costa Rica will look to Arsenal’s Joel Campbell to lead an attack that will have to play out of its mind to get through Group D.

The performance of an out-of-form Bryan Ruiz will go a long way into deciding how competitive Costa Rica is.

Once considered a technically elite midfielder, a terrible season with Fulham — he was booed off the pitch at one point —  has seen Ruiz’s stock go into freefall. If Ruiz can look anything like he did three or four years ago, Costa Rica will be an entirely different team.

A terrific goalkeeper in Keylor Navas should help against group opposition that includes the likes or Luis Suarez, Wayne Rooney and Mario Balloteli.

But the loss of Saborio puts the Costa Rican’s into an even deeper hole than when the draw was announced. It will take an incredible collective performance for this team to advance, but if question marks Ruiz and Campbell find a run of form, they will at least be competitive.

England

SPI Rank: 9; FIFA World Ranking: 10

2010 World Cup: Eliminated in Round of 16

Odds to advance to knock-out stages: 55.5 percent

What to drink when watching England: Tennent’s Lager — At over 8.0% ABV, I was once told by a woman in a London convenience store that this beer would “kill me.” If that’s not a great endorsement, I don’t know what is.

No sport lays more claim to the sport of football than Ingerland, but the country has been defined by its international mediocrity since their only World Cup victory in 1966. With most of the old guard moving out, an influx of young players hope to turn around decades of World Cup disappointment.

England looked mighty impressive during UEFA qualifying, going undefeated in 10 games (6-4-0) — albeit against second tier competition — and finishing with an impressive +27 goal differential.

Speaking of goals, Wayne Rooney — still England’s most talented player — scored seven of them in six games during qualifying, averaging one every 67 minutes. But the world stage is where Rooney has struggled in the past, as England’s No. 10 is still without a goal in eight World Cup matches.

Rooney has always been much more than a scorer, and his skill as a distributer in a deeper role will do wonders for an attack that features a large crop of young talent.

This group of first-timers includes Premier League stars: Daniel Sturridge,Raheem Sterling, Adam Lallana and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. Ten of England’s 23 players headed to Brazil are under the age of 25.

But a few of the old guard are still around as well, including captain Steven Gerrard, who is coming off arguably his best Premier League season for Liverpool at the age of 34 and Chelsea legend Frank Lampard, who is still the go to man for all penalty or free kick situations.

The myriad of attacking options is a great sign for England, but their fate will be dictated by the performance of the back four. The line looked impressive only allowing 4 goals in qualifying, but England will not be facing the likes of Montenegro and San Maniero in Brazil.

Advanced soccer statistics website whoscored.com rated starting center-backs Gary Cahill and Phil Jegielka as the 2nd and 3rd best English CB’s in the Premier League last season, so Manager Roy Hodgson should be confident in the pairing going forward.

England found themselves unable to score in consecutive friendly losses against Chile and Germany, two sides that are similar in talent to group counterparts Italy and Uruguay.

It’s possible that a lack of competition during qualifying is the primary reason England looked so impressive, but there is enough talent on this squad to make a run. If the young guns find their confidence, England could win the group.

Italy

SPI Rank: 12; FIFA World Ranking: 9

2010 World Cup: Eliminated in Group Stage

Odds to advance to knock-out stages: 43.5 percent

What to drink when watching Italy: Nastro Azzurro — Anything but wine really. Drinking wine during sports makes about as much sense as racially-abusing your own players. Oh….

The 2006 winners of the World Cup suffered a disappointing group stage exit during their last go around in South Africa, this after 36 years of advancing to the knockout rounds.  But the Blues turned things around at the Euro 2012, finishing behind Spain as the runners up, and re-cementing their place as one of the world powers.

Italy is still one of the best teams in the world and have two of the greatest soccer players in history on their squad. Gianluigi Buffon deserves mention if only for featuring in his fourth World Cup for Italy. The 36-year old is the greatest goalkeeper to ever wear the Italian blue, and is still an elite presence between the sticks.

Another of the aging Italians, coolest man on the planet Andrea Pirlo, will go down as maybe the greatest passer in the history of the game. Check out the video below if you don’t believe me:

Pirlo still runs the show for Italy, sitting deep and pinging balls all over the pitch with unprecedented accuracy. One of his targets will be the wildly-entertaining Mario Balotelli.

Balotelli is as talented as he is brash, making as many headlines for his on the field performances as his off the field insanity.

But Balo has been great for country as of late, scoring 10 goals in 15 competitive matches since 2012. He’s also accumulated five yellows and a red card in that span, so staying on the pitch is always a concern.

Italian football is famous for its defensive principles, and this Italian team is no different.

Italy likes to play conservatively up the middle, with more emphasis placed on hard nose tackling than beating players one-on-one. While it may not always be easy on the eye, this strategy has been effective for Gli Azzurri of late, going undefeated in qualifying while allowing less than a goal per game.

Always favorites to go deep, this year’s Italian side is no different. Speed is the only question mark for Italy, and they will surly be tested by dynamic,speedy attacker’s like Uruguay’s Luis Suarez. Balotelli’s performance is the key, and if he shows up — physically and mentally — they could dominate.

Uruguay

SPI Rank: 8; FIFA World Ranking: 7

2010 World Cup: Eliminated in Semi-finals

Odds to advance to knock-out stages: 63.3 percent

What to drink when watching Uruguay: Mate — Prepared by steeping dried yerba mate leaves in hot water, this caffeine drink will get you so wired you might just take a bite out of your friend.

Another team with a rigid defensive spine, Uruguay didn’t allow a goal in the group stage during their 2010 semi-final campaign. That Uruguyan team relied on golden boot winner Diego Forlan as their threat in the attacking half, but this years iteration has two other world class strikers sitting higher on the depth chart.

Everybody knows about Luis Suarez at this point. The best striker in the Premier League belted home 31 goals in 33 games this season, 10 ahead of second place. It’s easy to hate Suarez, whether for his diving, allegations of racial-abuse or multiple — yes multiple — biting incidents.

But much of Suarez’s misbehavior seems to stem from a fundamental inability to deal with losing. Suarez has shown he will do literally anything to win, and when that doesn’t happen, he acts out.

Suarez is joined up top by another prolific striker in Edinson Cavani, who scored 16 goals in 30 league games for PSG. Cavani may end up being the most important player for the Uruguayans in this tournament, as most the defensive attention will likely go toward the mercurial Suarez.

There is always the insurance policy of Forlan as well, who is probably looking to silence the many critics who think he’s fallen off.

Uruguay had a couple really bad defeats in qualifying, losing to Columbia 4-0, Argentina 3-0 and Bolivia — eek — 4-1.

Those are serious red flags for the Uruguayans and they will not be able to get away with their habit of starting tournaments slow in this group.

Suarez is a one-man wrecking crew at times, but his health after recent injury problems leave his status uncertain. If he is fully fit and ready to go, La Celeste may be back for another semi-final.

* Percentages based on 10,000 simulations of the six group games using ESPN’s Soccer Power Index.