Italy's starting XI poses for the traditional team photo before their friendly against Nigeria at Craven Cottage.
The World Cup draw is now a week old, and Cesare Prandelli's Italian team have to be happy with what they got, considering the alternative. Fans likely gasped after being the unlucky team drawn into Pot 2 from the nine-team European pot, but the Azzurri avoided a potential super-group with the likes of Brazil, the United States and the Netherlands.
Instead, the Italians were given the very manageable draw of England, Costa Rica and Uruguay.
Nothing is for granted—after all, the defending champions of four years ago were gifted the easiest group of the tournament in South Africa and spit the bit. But the group Italy finds itself in this time around is one that they should be expected to progress out of, and topping the group is well within expectations.
Let us, then, take a close look at Group D, starting with the Italians and making the rounds of their opponents to see just what we can expect when play starts on June 14.
Giuseppe Rossi's receives his teammates' congratulation after scoring his first international goal since 2011.
The Azzurri lost out on a seed for the tournament when Prandelli decided to rest his players for the last two dead-rubber qualifiers in October. Fortunately, the decision didn't come back to haunt him at the draw.
The Italian team we will be seeing in Brazil isn't the kind of team that you're used to. While still solid in defense, the back line is not the bedrock of this Azzurri's identity. They can be an attacking force, bossing possession and scoring goals in bunches with creative midfielders and clinical forwards.
Andrea Pirlo will again be the team's fulcrum. Whether or not he's slowing down at age 34—35 by the time the tournament begins—his metronomic passing and pinpoint delivery from his deep-lying position will be critical to the squad's success.
All you have to do is look at the team's performance while he was injured four years ago to know what he means to this team. In slightly more than two-and-a-half matches, the Italians scored two goals, both on set pieces. In slightly more than 35 minutes of having Pirlo on the field in their final match, the team put the ball in the back of the net three times from open play (with one potential equalizer being controversially called back for offside).
Flanking him in midfield will be the experienced Daniele De Rossi, who will be the muscle that clears space for Pirlo to do his work. Claudio Marchisio, Alessandro Florenzi, and Emanuele Giaccherini can all slot into the midfield to help with the more advanced work.
Pirlo has some exciting options ahead of him, notably the blossoming partnership of Mario Balotelli and Giuseppe Rossi, who has finally returned to the national team fold after more than two years of absence due to knee injuries. As the pair gets time to gel in training and in pre-tournament friendlies, they could turn into one of the deadliest striking duos in the tournament.
The defense, while not taking center stage as they usually do, is still formidable. The Juventus trio of Andrea Barzagli, Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci anchor the middle. On the flanks, Ignazio Abate holds down the right while a rejuvenated Domenico Criscito has finally reinserted himself into the picture on the left, while youngster Mattia De Sciglio has the quality to back up either one.
All is organized by the legendary Gianluigi Buffon in goal. Italy's most-capped player was injured for all but the first half of Italy's opener four years ago. Dogged at the beginning of the year by questions that he was slowing, the Italian captain has shored up his form in recent weeks, including a sparkling display against Udinese. His experience wrangling the defense will be invaluable.
More than anything else though, expect the Italians to be supremely motivated. Even after a runner-up finish at Euro 2012 and a third-place showing at this summer's Confederations Cup, the horrors of four years ago still linger with this team. Of the likely candidates for Prandelli's 23-man roster, nine players were in South Africa. They'll be carrying that shame with them, and the only way to exorcise those ghosts its to put up a strong showing in this tournament.
All signs show that they can make a deep run. Now the games have to be played.
England prepares for a crucial World Cup qualifier against Poland.
Nickname: The Three Lions
FIFA World Ranking: 13
Best/Worst Ranking: 3/27
World Cup Titles: 1 (1966)
European Titles: 0 (Best finish: third place, 1968)
Coach: Roy Hodgson
Captain: Steven Gerrard
Last World Cup: Round of 16
Last European Championship: Quarterfinal
Record vs. Italy: 9 wins, 7 draws, 8 losses
England and Italy have recent history going back to 2012, when they met in the quarterfinal of Euro 2012 and in a friendly in August. The English won the friendly 2-1 in a battle of B teams that were giving the men who played at the European Championships a rest. But the quarterfinal in Kiev should give English fans serious pause.
That game went to penalties after 120 scoreless minutes, and the Italians went through after Ashley Young rattled the crossbar and Ashley Cole was denied by Gigi Buffon. But an observer would be hard pressed to find any 0-0 game anywhere that was so one-sided.
Italy was utterly dominant, controlling 64 percent of possession and outshooting the Three Lions 35-9. Of those 35 Italian shots, 20 of them found the target (compared with only four for England), but somehow Joe Hart kept his sheet clean through extra time.
Roy Hodgson's strange tactical choices in that game gave Andrea Pirlo the full run of the field, and he dominated in a fashion that was extreme even for him. WhoScored.com statistics show him completing 88 percent of his 131 total passes, 23 of 30 long balls and four of eight crosses.
England cannot afford to let that happen again—especially considering the shaky form of Hart over the course of the season. The problem is, Italy seems built to ensure that it can.
Of the players on England's presumptive World Cup roster, a few are absolutely world-class like Wayne Rooney and Jack Wilshire. But those lights are dimmed by the rest of the roster, which is either good-but-not-great or great players on the cusp of really becoming old.
Captain Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard are in the latter category, and they figure to start for England, which could cause some problems. Italy's midfield is one of its biggest strengths. The combination of the brute force of Daniele De Rossi and the attacking abilities of the likes of Claudio Marchisio, Emanuele Giaccherini and Antonio Candreva may force Gerrard and Lampard back into their own half, giving Pirlo the room to once again pick apart the English defense.
Hodgson has developed the English into a team that is exceedingly hard to break down, but often finds it difficult to secure the game on the other end. The back line is starting to flux, as well. Important pieces like Cole are aging and players like Chris Smalling and Phil Jones lack experience. Most of them have faced Mario Balotelli before during his days at Manchester City, but that familiarity goes both ways.
The great equalizer in this game, however, will be the climate. The game will take place in Manaus, a city of slightly less than two million in the middle of the Amazon rain forest. Its average temperature in June and July is in the high 80s Fahrenheit with humidity in the low 80 percent range. Needless to say, running for 90 minutes in this weather is going to be a grueling task.
Italy may have an advantage in dealing with the conditions after somewhat familiarizing themselves with it during the Confederations Cup this summer, but they will still be subject to its effects. It could hold them back just enough for Rooney to smash in a goal or two and put them in a bad position.
All things being said, though, while England is capable of taking one or even three points from this match on their day, Italy has to be the favorite to win. England just hasn't shown the firepower to break out for multiple goals and Italy's attack will be deep, well supplied and deadly. If Pirlo gets any foothold at all, it's over.
Costa Rica poses for the camera before their qualifying victory against the USA.
Nickname: Los Ticos
FIFA World Ranking: 31
Best/Worst Ranking: 17/93
World Cup Titles: 0 (Best finish: Round of 16, 1990)
CONCACAF Titles: 3 (1963, 1969, 1989)
Coach: Jorge Luis Pinto
Captain: Bryan Ruiz
Last World Cup: DNQ (4th in CONCACAF Hex Round, lost to Uruguay in playoff 2-1 on aggregate)
Last Gold Cup: Quarterfinal
Record vs. Italy: 0 wins, 0 draws, 1 loss
Costa Rica is a rock-solid defensive team. At one point during CONCACAF qualifying they went 476 minutes without allowing a goal and easily had the best defensive record in the tournament.
The other end of the field is a different story. The Costa Ricans are heavily reliant on Bryan Ruiz—who led the Costa Ricans in the Hexagional round of CONCACAF qualifying with three scores—in their attack. Ruiz is a finisher, a facilitator and a focal point who can pull defensive attention to himself to open lanes for the likes of Alvaro Saborio, whose eight goals over two rounds led Costa Rica in the whole of qualifying.
Unfortunately for Costa Rica, the Italians won't be as quick as some CONCACAF sides to collapse on a single player in the box.
Another strike against the Costa Ricans is their woeful scoring record away from their home base at the Estadio Nacional in San Jose.
Los Ticos claimed two important scalps in the Hex by beating CONCACAF's two top teams—the USA and Mexico. But both of those wins came at home, and they only scored three of their 13 goals in the Hex away from home. In three of their five away runs they were shut out.
They aren't going to have a home crowd to feed off of here, and are likely to play an exceedingly defensive posture, possibly with five in the back. The contest in Recife is likely to be one where the Italians dominate possession and spend much of the time camped in the Costa Rican half, waiting for Pirlo to stroke the pass that cracks things open.
It's entirely possible that the Costa Ricans, who play more games in climates similar to the ones teams will face in Brazil, will weather the conditions better and make life difficult for the Italians. It's equally possible that the Italians can find the straw that breaks Costa Rica's back and runs up the score against a clearly inferior side. In the end, it will probably be a close affair, maybe 1-0 or 2-0, but Italy should be more than expected to take all three points.
Uruguay poses before a friendly with Japan.
Nickname: Los Charruas
FIFA World Ranking: 6
Best/Worst Ranking: 2/76
World Cup Titles: 2 (1930, 1950). 1924 and 1928 Olympic gold medals also considered official world titles by FIFA.
Copa America Titles: 15 (1916, 1917, 1920, 1923, 1924, 1926, 1935, 1942, 1956, 1959, 1967, 1983, 1987, 1995, 2011)
Coach: Oscar Tabarz
Captain: Diego Lugano
Last World Cup: Fourth Place
Last Copa America Cup: Champions
Record vs. Italy: 3 wins, 4 draws, 2 losses
What a difference a World Cup cycle makes.
Three years ago Uruguay was considered one of the rising teams in the world. A surprise run to the semifinals of the World Cup in 2010 and a romp to the Copa America title the next year put them in the conversation of possible winners in Brazil, especially with the tournament on South American soil.
Four wins and two draws in the first six rounds of CONMEBOL qualifying only cemented that opinion. Then the bottom fell out.
Round 7 saw a 4-0 away loss to Colombia. After a draw against Ecuador the Uruguayans endured two more thrashings, 3-1 in Argentina and 4-1 against Bolivia in the rarefied air of La Paz. From Round 7 to Round 14, Uruguay played six matches and gained only two points.
They recovered to beat out Venezuela for the intercontinental playoff, where they dispatched Asian representative Jordan 5-0 on aggregate.
A seed did them no favors in the draw, but their game against Italy will be one of the most anticipated of the group stage. The teams have six world championships between them—and they have recent knowledge of each other after being matched in the third place game of the Confederations Cup in the summer.
The Italians took the lead twice, but Edinson Cavani responded both times and sent the game to penalties—the second time in four days that the Azzurri were involved in a shootout. Gigi Buffon saved three Uruguayan shots to give the Italians the victory.
That game should cause the Uruguayans some concern. The Italians played them even (and sometimes better) over 120 minutes in spite of some severe handicaps. They were three days removed from playing 120 sweltering minutes against Spain in Fortaleza. Star striker Mario Balotelli and starting right-back Ignazio Abate had been sent home due to injury. Stars like Andrea Pirlo and Claudio Marchisio were left on the bench to rest.
In spite of all of these disadvantages, the Italians maintained 57 percent of possession and the shots count was almost even (21 to Uruguay, 20 for Italy).
Uruguay's team is powered by their attacking triumvirate of Cavani, Diego Forlan and Luis Suarez. They can give Italy's defense a run for their money, but they may not get many chances. Italy's midfield outclasses Uruguay's, and if they hold possession the Uruguayans will have difficulty getting service. That being said, all three have enough class to make one ball enough.
As good as Uruguay's attackers are, Italy has the edge in the midfield and in defense. That advantage in two phases coupled with the fact that Italy played them so well while still underpowered indicates that a full-power Azzurri has enough to brush Uruguay aside.
Both teams are capable of winning this match, but if Italy has all of its elements in the line-up, they should be good for at least one point. Of course, they'll be hoping that they won't need to win this game to get through.