ROME (AP) With three former champions in Italy, England and Uruguay, plus unpredictable Costa Rica, Group D could be the World Cup’s toughest.
As European Championship runner-up, Italy is the favorite. But Uruguay is the South American champion and boasts a veteran squad, England is hoping to carry over its form from an undefeated qualifying campaign, and Costa Rica has pulled off surprises before.
Here are five things to know about Group D:
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GROUP OF CHAMPIONS
No other group has more than one past champion in it, while Italy (1934, 1938, 1982, 2006), Uruguay (1930, 1950) and England (1966) have won a combined seven titles.
Uruguay and Italy alone combined to win the first four World Cups from 1930 to 1950.
Italy’s intentions will likely depend on the wavering ways of talented forward Mario Balotelli, whose mood swings often get him into trouble both on and off the field.
But Balotelli averages about a goal every two matches in Serie A and with the national team, and nobody seems to have a better handle on him than Italy coach Cesare Prandelli. If the Azzurri are going to match host Brazil with their record-tying fifth title, Balotelli will have to both behave and perform at his best.
CHOICE OF FORWARDS
Few teams can match Uruguay’s strength at forward, with Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani leading the way and veteran Diego Forlan a strong substitute.
Suarez has been one of the main reasons behind Liverpool’s resurgence in the English Premier League, and Cavani has been a goal-scoring machine with Napoli and Paris Saint-Germain in recent seasons. Forlan was named the best player of the 2010 World Cup and shared the tournament scoring lead with five goals, although he’ll be 35 for this year’s edition and joined Japanese club Cerezo Osaka in February, signaling that his top-level career may be finished.
When Football Association chairman Greg Dyke responded to the December draw with a throat-slitting action that was caught on camera, it summed up England’s fears.
The worry in football’s home country is that England won’t even advance from such a tough group. England hasn’t gotten past the quarterfinals in its last four World Cups and star player Wayne Rooney failed to score in the last two tournaments. Making matters worse, Rooney is having a difficult season with Manchester United.
Costa Rica would like nothing more than to repeat its surprise effort from its World Cup debut in 1990, when it beat Sweden and Scotland to reach the knockout round under experienced coach Bora Milutinovic.
The key to this squad is its defense, as evidenced by conceding only seven goals in 10 matches of the final qualifying phase.
PSV Eindhoven forward Bryan Ruiz is the team’s creative spark and perhaps its best-known player after his spell at Premier League club Fulham.