With one current continental champion and another runner-up the first balls to be drawn to Group D, the section was already looking a tough proposition. With Uruguay and Italy watching on intently, a third FIFA World Cup™ winner was added to the mix in the shape of England, following on from Costa Rica, leaving pre-tournament predictions tough to call. Seven times the names of the European and South American sides have been engraved on the World Cup Trophy, and at least one of these former champions will emerge into the knockout phase with their credentials well tested this time around.
Italy-Uruguay: Having just met in the third-place match at the FIFA Confederations Cup Brazil 2013, which the Italians won on penalties after a thrilling 2-2 draw, their duel in Natal will be played almost exactly a year later. As part of the final day of Group D, there is every chance this match could be a qualification decider.
Buoyed by their fourth place finish at South Africa 2010 and their Copa America triumph a year later, La Celeste went into the South American qualifying competition for Brazil 2014 as firm favourites to progress. Their plans went awry in 2012, however, when they collected just two points out of a possible 18. The Uruguayans recovered their poise just in time, eventually edging into fifth and booking a place in the intercontinental play-offs for the fourth time in a row. Waiting for them there were Jordan, who were no match for Uruguay in the first leg in Amman, which ended in a 5-0 win for the visitors. Defending that lead comfortably in a goalless draw back in Montevideo, the Uruguayans made sure of their berth in Brazil.
The arrival of the Colombian Jorge Luis Pinto as national team coach has ushered in a new era for Costa Rica. Joining the CONCACAF preliminaries in Round 3, Los Ticos finished second behind Mexico in their group to advance to the final six-team phase, where they sealed their ticket to Brazil 2014 with two games to spare, eventually finishing second behind USA. Their successful campaign was based on two key factors. The first was their solidity at the back, with Pinto’s side conceding only seven goals in the final round, fewer than any other team. The second was their formidable home record of five wins in five games in the final phase.
England have appeared at 13 editions of the FIFA World Cup, including seven of the last eight. They were below-par at South Africa in 2010, narrowly qualifying from their group with a victory in the final match against Slovenia, before being outclassed 4-1 by Joachim Low’s Germany at the Round of 16 stage. The Three Lions have been FIFA World Cup winners once, in 1966 when they were hosts, but have since suffered a succession of early exits. Sir Bobby Robson came closest to matching the achievements of Sir Alf Ramsey’s ‘Wingless Wonders’, guiding England to the semi-finals at Italy 1990 only to be knocked out on penalties by Germany.
Often below par during qualifying before raising their game at final tournaments, Italy went about things differently for once by taking imperious control of Group B in the European Zone. Their task appeared potentially tricky when they were drawn alongside Denmark, the Czech Republic and Bulgaria, but La Nazionale surged through unbeaten and booked their ticket to Brazil with time to spare, meaning they will head to the finals confident that their internal revolution has been a success. After all, Cesare Prandelli seems to have consignedcatenaccio to the past.
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