As we approach the start of the 2014 FIFA World Cup on June 12, the Sports Unbiased Crew will be releasing guides to help make better sense of what you watch as the world’s best soccer players converge on Brazil this summer. Check in regularly as we preview the eight groups, 32 teams, and key players that will play an integral role in determining the next world champion.
The only previous time that the World Cup was held in Brazil, Uruguay emerged victorious over the home side to win its second World Cup title. Since 1950, however, Uruguay’s World Cup record has been spotty at best. Once again managing to narrowly qualify after being forced to play a two-leg playoff against Jordan, they’re stuck in one of several Groups of Death, drawn against England and Italy sides that will also be expected to advance by their partisan supporters and a Costa Rica team still smarting from missing out on the World Cup four years ago.
The Costa Ricans are the likeliest team to be the odd one out, leaving the two European powers and the 2010 semifinalist to fight for the two spots to the next round. All of the three teams have the ostensible potential to win the entire tournament; all three conceivably could crash out before the knockout stage begins. The odds are good that at least one of the two teams that advances will make a deep run; the odds are equally good that the manager that fails to bring his side through to the Round of 16 will be out of a job when the dust settles.
Let’s now look quickly at each of the six matches that will determine the group standings and predict how the group will shake out. (All times Eastern.)
Uruguay v. Costa Rica/Fortaleza (June 14/3:00pm)
The last time these two teams met, they were squaring off for the right to go to South Africa as one of the final qualifiers for the 2010 World Cup. The Costa Ricans managed to steal a goal and a draw in Montevideo, but the damage had already been done after Uruguay had won in San Jose four days earlier. Costa Rica fared better this qualification campaign, finishing second behind the United States and ahead of both Honduras and Mexico in the CONCACAF hexagonal. That is likely going to mean little, as they face the reigning South American champions. Uruguay had no problem qualifying for Brazil this time around, and they’re likely going to set themselves up nicely for the coming battles against England and Italy.
PREDICTION: 3-1 Uruguay
England v. Italy/Manaus (June 14/6:00pm)
At Euro 2012, England and Italy matched up in a quarterfinal contest. They would fail to reach a resolution after 120 minutes of play, requiring penalty kicks to decide which team would advance. (Naturally, England was let down at the spot yet again, falling 4-2 in the tiebreaker.) Meeting again two months later in Berne for a neutral-site friendly, England prevailed in a comeback 2-1 on goals from Phil Jagielka and Jermain Defoe. Neither Italy nor England was the strongest team coming out of UEFA qualifying, but the Italians were far more comfortable in reaching the top spot of their group. Given the relatively level stature in the world rankings at the moment, this could easily end in a draw that would yield the early lead to Uruguay in the race for the two qualifying spots.
PREDICTION: 2-2 draw
Uruguay v. England/São Paolo (June 19/3:00pm)
Most of the English side knows all too well how dangerous Uruguayan goalpoacher Luis Suarez can be when he gets the ball in the attacking third of the pitch, having seen him destroying Premier League competition in the Liverpool strike force on a weekly basis. They also know that he can come unhinged, occasionally chomping down for a taste of flesh. These two teams have played each other in the World Cup twice before, with Uruguay winning their 1954 quarterfinal and the two teams playing to a scoreless draw in group play at the 1966 World Cup. The last time they met, Joe Cole struck a late winner in Liverpool as England took the friendly 2-1. But can they actually replicate the feat on South American soil? Here’s guessing Fernando Muslera proves the difference maker…
PREDICTION: 2-1 Uruguay
Italy v. Costa Rica/Recife (June 20/12:00pm)
Both teams will arrive in Recife desperate for points, knowing that a win for either side would put the victor into second place behind Uruguay. Of course, Italy bungled their first two group-stage matches in South Africa four years ago and failed to advance to the knockout stages; but while Costa Rica has the defensive solidity to surprise the Italians, they will also be hard-pressed to find goals of their own. Could all hell break loose again for the Azzurri? Keilor Navas will have to stand on his head in goal, but if Alvaro Saborio, Cristian Bolanos, or Bryan Ruiz can grab a goal for Los Ticos they’ll have an outside chance at getting at least one point and turning the race for second wide open.
PREDICTION: 1-1 draw
Italy v. Uruguay/Natal (June 24/12:00pm)
Italy is going to be in full desperation mode, while Uruguay will know that they already have first place sealed up in Group D prior to their final match. The Italians will have a more high-flying attack than they have in the past, though their abandonment of the classic catenaccio could leave them susceptible to quick strikes from Suarez or strike partner Edinson Cavani. Cavani, who transferred to French side Paris Saint-Germain last summer, has plenty of experience against the players on the Italian team, having scored 112 goals in six Serie A seasons for Palermo and Napoli prior to his move. With a young team, Italy will fail to pull out the necessary victory against the Uruguayans and will head home early for the second straight World Cup.
PREDICTION: 2-2 draw
Costa Rica v. England/Belo Horizonte (June 24/12:00pm)
In the first-ever meeting on the football pitch between these two nations, both Costa Rica and England will know at the time of kickoff that a victory still offers the opportunity of advancement. Despite having taken just one point each from their first two contests, both teams will know that their only hope is in victory; then they will have to wait and see if Uruguay bothers to show up against Italy after already claiming first place regardless of the result. A wide-open contest in Belo Horizonte will yield a few goals, and this game could get quite physical. (Expect a card or two to come out of the referee’s pocket.) Look for a late goal to decide this showdown as the final spot for Group D is decided in the closing minutes.
PREDICTION: 2-1 England
Group D Prediction