OF all the teams England could have faced in their opening Group D fixture, Roy Hodgson would not have had Italy close to the top of his wanted list.
As if the memory of 2012’s one-sided European Championships defeat to the Azzurri was not painful enough, England will also have to counter the growing confidence of a new-look Italy side that qualified for Brazil with two games to spare.
A disastrous showing at the 2010 World Cup, when Italy failed to beat Paraguay, New Zealand and Slovakia and went out at the group stage, is forgotten, with current boss Cesare Prandelli keen to draw inspiration from the previous tournament in Germany, in which a largely unfancied Italian side beat France in the final to lift the trophy.
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Back then, Gianluigi Buffon and Andrea Pirlo were key figures in a remarkable success, and the veteran duo remain hugely influential figures as they prepare to make their final outing on the World Cup stage.
With the likes of Giorgio Chiellini, Andrea Barzagli, Daniele Di Rossi and Antonio Cassano all still involved, there is an experienced core running throughout the Italian squad, although Prandelli has gradually introduced a smattering of youngsters, especially in attack.
Defensively, Italy look as strong as ever, with their goalkeeper and entire back four almost certain to be drawn from a combination of Juventus and AC Milan.
As a unit, they have played together in a succession of high-profile games, and their experience could be crucial in what is expected to be a tight group.
Pirlo remains the midfield fulcrum, and Roy Hodgson will be mindful of the effortless manner in which the 35-year-old outplayed England’s midfielders two years ago. A repeat in Manaus on June 14, and Italy, who can be saddled with the reputation of being slow starters, could be well on their way to the second round.
Their main weakness is in attack, where former Manchester City striker Mario Balotelli has to shoulder a large amount of responsibility in front of goal.
The explosive AC Milan striker has enjoyed a decent season in Serie A, but with key doubts over Giuseppe Rossi’s fitness after a serious knee injury and Francesco Totti finally having been cast into international retirement, Italy look short of firepower if Balotelli fails to sparkle.
Perhaps this will be the tournament where Lorenzo Insigne emerges to prove himself at international level, or perhaps Italy will revert to type and progress to the business end of a World Cup finals by ensuring that the back door remains firmly locked Either way, a repeat of 2010's South African shambles looks unlikely.
THEY might have needed a play-off against Jordan just to qualify, but Uruguay will head into the World Cup finals confident of living up to their billing as one of the top-six ranked sides in the world.
Their front three is the envy of just about every other side in the tournament, with Luis Suarez and Diego Forlan lining up on either side of Edinson Cavani.
Suarez, pictured above, heads into the World Cup off the back of a sensational season with Liverpool that saw him top the Premier League scoring charts and almost help take the title to Anfield. Tireless, skilful and fiercely committed, this could be the tournament when Suarez becomes a global superstar.
Four years ago, it was Forlan’s goalscoring exploits that helped propel Uruguay to the semi-finals, and back on South American soil, Oscar Tabarez’s side should be one of the most exciting teams to watch again.
Whether that translates into meaningful success, however, is likely to depend on the efforts of a creaking defence, who were shown up repeatedly in a qualifying campaign that eventually turned into an unseemly scramble to secure a play-off place.
Diego Godin has enjoyed a successful season with Atletico Madrid, but his fellow centre-half is likely to be skipper Diego Lugano, who hardly set the world alight at West Brom.
Goalkeeper Fernando Muslera, who is with Galatasaray, is liable to an occasional error, and without a top-class holding midfielder, Uruguay can be suspect at the back. If they hit full throttle at the other end of the field, however, that might not matter. THEY have been billed as the Group D whipping boys, but it would be dangerous to write off Costa Rica before a ball has been kicked. While the Central Americans are unlikely to make it out of a group that also features England, Italy and Uruguay, they could decide which of the big three misses out.
Having finished second in the final stage of CONCACAF qualifying, the current Costa Rican side is being touted as the country’s best since the fabled Italia 90 line-up that beat Scotland and Sweden during the first round.
Arsenal’s Joel Campbell poses their main attacking threat, and while the 21-year-old is still to play for the Gunners, his successful loan spell at Olympiacos last season means he is far from an unknown quantity.
Bryan Ruiz, below right, reborn since joining PSV Eindhoven on loan from Fulham in January, fills the ‘number ten’ role, with the rest of the team relying on work rate and organisation rather than individual flair.
Head coach Jorge Luis Pinto tends to adhere to a rigid 4-4-2 formation, with two deep-lying central midfielders making his side hard to break down.
The defence could feature Bryan Oviedo if the Everton full-back completes his recovery from a fractured leg in time, while goalkeeper Keylor Navas was voted one of the best shotstoppers in La Liga after breaking into the Levante team last season.
The draw has hardly been kind to the ‘Ticos’, but Pinto is predicting a shock. “We don’t think we’ll be a laughing stock,”
he said. “The bigger and braver the bull is, the better the bullfight gets.”