COSTA RICA (CRC)
Nickname: Los Ticos
FIFA Ranking: 34 / Elo Ranking: 31
Qualified: CONCACAF (North America), 2nd Place
Apperance: 4th - Best Finish: Round of 16 (1990)
Head Coach: Jorge Luis Pinto (COL)
ROSTER BREAKDOWN: 9 Domestic, 3 MLS, 3 Norway, 1 Spain, 1 Belgium, 1 Germany, 1 Sweden, 1 Denmark, 1 England, 1 France, 1 Russia
MLS CONNECTIONS: DEFs Giancarlo Gonzalez, Waylon Francis (Columbus Crew) and Roy Miller (New York Red Bulls)
Costa Rica used a dominate home field performance, going undefeated in all five home games in CONCACAF's fourth round also known as "The Hex." Those 5 homes games would be the only five they won, but the secured second place with three road draws, finishing three points clear of third place Honduras and 7 points clear of the Mexico in the playoff spot, who they also beat at home 2-1 in the final matchday of qualification.
The most notable game of qualification might have been the March 22, 2013 match against the United States in Denver, CO. Known as the SnowClasico, the match finished 1-0 in favor of the Americans, in a game almost abandoned in the second half due to snow accumulation on the field. Costa Rica protested the game but it was denied on a technicality.
PLAYER YOU SHOULD KNOW: Bryan Ruiz, ST, Fulham (ENG), on loan at PSV (NED) - The captain of Los Ticos is not only going to be spearheading the Costa Rica attack, but might be forced into a more advanced role due to the injury to Real Salt Lake's Alvoro Saborio.
PLAYER WHO NEEDS TO BE HUGE: Celso Borges, MID, AIK (SWE) - Borges is the ranking veteran in the midfield, with 55 international caps and also has 15 goals. He's going to have to link up with strikers Ruiz and Joel Campbell, most likely on the counter attack if Costa Rica is going to have any chance at having an impact in this tournament.
SEND OFF MATCHES
Loss 1-3 vs. Japan, Draw 1-1 vs. Ireland
Admittedly, Costa Rica's chances at getting out of the group were rather bleak and that was before the injury to Saborio. At best, the Ticos are going to going to offer up their best CONCACAF stubborn resistance and do the region proud. They're the spoilers in this group, odds are if England, Italy or Uruguay drop points to Costa Rica, that team won't make it out of the group. If Costa Rica gets one or even two draws I'd considerate a huge success.
Nickname: Three Lions
FIFA Ranking: 10 / Elo Ranking: 6
Qualified: UEFA (Europe) Group H, 1st Place
Apperance: 13th - Best Finish: Champions (1966, hosts)
Head Coach: Roy Hodgson (ENG)
ROSTER BREAKDOWN: 20 Domestic, 1 Scotland
England were seeded into the Pot 1 for the European qualification, but were drawn into a group with Ukraine, Montenegro, Poland and minnows Moldova and San Marino. They would win the group by one point over Ukraine, who they drew twice, going unbeaten with a 6-0-4 record. Ukraine would finish 6-1-3, their only loss to third place Montenegro. Wayne Rooney led the Three Lions with seven goals in qualification.
PLAYERS YOU SHOULD KNOW: Everyone, you watch most of them every Saturday in the EPL - On paper, these guys are as talented as anyone in the world. Emphasis on the "on paper" part. Even though this team have been a knockout stage regular since 1998, they haven't gone any farther than the quarterfinals.
PLAYERS WHO NEEDS TO BE HUGE - GK Joe Hart, Manchester City / ST Danny Welbeck, Manchester United - Joe Hart's sole job is to finally solve England goalkeeping woes in major tournaments. Don't pull a Robert Green and try to save as many penalty attempts as possible for the inevitable knockout round penalty shootout. Welbeck is the wildcard, he's 23 and can play anywhere in the attacking front, but with only 8 goals in 24 career international matches, England will to see his name on the scoresheet either as a scorer or as a provider to get out of the group, let alone deep into the knockout stages.
SEND OFF MATCHES
Win 3-0 vs. Peru, Draw 2-2 vs. Ecuador, Draw 0-0 vs. Honduras
I'm not sure how much faith I should have in this team or what to expect. I really like the blend of youth and experience that Hodgson has put together but at the same time I can't help but look at England's recent major tournaments. They didn't qualify for Euro 2008 and haven't made it past the quarterfinals in either the European Championship or the World Cup since they hosted the 1996 Euros and got to the semis. It's a team that generally has underperformed at major tournaments despite dominating qualifying. Would I be shocked if they got out of the group? Not at all, but I'd be a lot more shocked to see them in the semifinals than I would to see them going home early.
Nickname: The Azzurri
FIFA Ranking: 9 / Elo Ranking: 11
Qualified: UEFA (Europe) Group B, 1st Place
Apperance: 18th - Best Finish: Champions (1934 hosts, 1938, 1982, 2006)
Head Coach: Cesare Prandelli (ITA)
ROSTER BREAKDOWN: 20 Domestic, 3 France
On the surface, Group B in UEFA seemed fairly competitive, but that didn't stop the Italians from rolling to an unbeaten 6-0-4 record. They finished six points clear of second place Denmark (the only runner up eliminated from the playoff round via tiebreaker) in a crowed mid-table which saw four teams, Denmark, Czech Republic, Bulgaria and Armenia separated by only 3 points ahead of minnows Malta. Mario Balotelli led the Azzurri with 5 goals in qualifying.
PLAYER YOU SHOULD KNOW: Andrea Pirlo, MID, Juventus - He is called "Il Professore" in Italy because he's one of the best central midfield passers in the world. A regular set piece and penalty taker, Pirlo is not only a threat to hit someone with a pinpoint cross, but also pick out the top corner from well outside the area.
PLAYER WHO NEEDS TO BE HUGE: Mario Balotelli, ST, AC Milan - The Azzurri's big target man might be enigmatic, but if Super Mario does show up, that's really bad news for everyone else. He's got a decent international strike rate as well, 12 goals in 30 games.
SEND OFF MATCHES
Draw 0-0 vs. Ireland, Draw 1-1 vs. Luxemborg
Typical Italy, they haven't won an international game since winning two qualifiers back in September over Bulgaria and the Czech Republic. Since then they've drawn six times, including 1-1 to Germany last November, and lost to Spain. They're lulling the world into thinking they're bad right before they blitz the rest of Group D. I'm not falling for it, this team is good and unlike England, I actually think they can make a run in the knockout stages.
Nickname: La Celeste
FIFA Ranking: 7 / Elo Ranking: 9
Qualified: CONEMBOL (S. America) 5th place, defeated Jordan 5-0 in FIFA playoff
Apperance: 11th - Best Finish: Champions (1930 hosts, 1950)
Head Coach: Oscar Tabarez (URU)
ROSTER BREAKDOWN: 5 Italy, 4 Spain, 4 England (1 unattached), 3 Brazil, 2 Portugal, 1 Turkey, 1 Paraguay, 1 Mexico, 1 Japan, 1 France
For a team ranked in the top 10 in the world, finishing fifth in your qualifying region seems bad, but South America is pretty good at soccer. It wasn't a smooth qualification campaign for Uruguay, marred by home draws to Ecuador, Venezuela and Paraguay and a staggering 1-4 loss at Bolivia, La Celeste probably dropped a lot of points they shouldn't have, and finished level with Ecuador on 25 points. But Ecuador would hold a four goal edge on differential, forcing Uruguay into a playoff with the AFC's Jordan, which they routed 5-0 at home and then sent a reserve squad in the return leg for a 0-0 draw to secure their spot in Brazil.
PLAYER YOU SHOULD KNOW: Luis Suarez, ST, Liverpool (ENG) - Surprisingly, most people probably know him for that biting incident a couple of years back or that infamous deliberate handball against Ghana in the 2010 quarterfinals. You don't have to like him, and most people don't, but his strike rate with Liverpool has been prolific the last few seasons when he's on the field. 38 goals in 77 international games isn't too shabby either.
PLAYER WHO NEEDS TO BE HUGE: Diego Lugano, DEF, West Brom (ENG, released at end of year) - We all know what the Uruguayan attack can do, but it's defense is going to have to be better than the team that allowed 25 goals in qualifying, about 1.5 per game. Against three teams who can score a variety of ways, including Costa Rica, the captain will have to lead the backline and his team which is capable of winning the group.
SEND OFF MATCHES
Win vs. Northern Ireland 1-0, Win vs. Slovenia 2-0
Do I think this team can make a return trip to the semifinals? Yes, but a potential quarterfinal matchup with the Group B winner, likely Spain or Netherlands. This is a crafty team that is built to give opposing teams headaches rather than win decisively but that's not a bad thing. If you're a matchup problem for just about everyone that give you an advantage.
June 14 - Uruguay vs. Costa Rica, ABC, 3PM EST, Fortaleza
June 14 - England vs. Italy, ESPN, 6PM EST, Manaus
June 19 - Uruguay vs. England, ESPN, 3PM EST, Sao Paulo
June 20 - Italy vs. Costa Rica, ESPN, 12PM EST, Recife
June 24 - Italy vs. Uruguay, ESPN, 12PM EST, Natal
June 24 - Costa Rica vs. England, ESPN2, 12PM EST, Belo Hoizonte
BEST GAME: Italy vs. Uruguay
Odds are this game will decide the winner of the group on the final match day so that increases the potential awesome factor here.
MOST IMPORTANT GAME: England vs. Italy
If England's going to have a real chance at getting out of this group, they need to set the tone early. A positive result in their first game will set them up for the rest of the group, a loss means a must win against Uruguay. Likewise, if Italy wants to win the group, beating England's the way to start.
PREDICTIONS: 1) Uruguay 2) Italy 3) England 4) Costa Rica
There's no reason to make things difficult here, Uruguay's practically at home, Italy's good, England's a headcase and Costa Rica is playing spoiler. Can England survive the group? Of course they can, but based on what they normally do in major tournaments of late, I don't think they'll even get to the point where they lose in a shootout.