Tuesday, 27 May 2014

The Football Hipster World Cup Preview: Group D

Politically correct fashion has turned against the label "Group of Death", presumably because, y'know, death is bad. However, time to get real: this group is very bad indeed. Forget the seven world cups that its three better-known constituents have between them; it's better to think of them as the best South American side of the last ten years, the second best European side of that era (sorry Germany), and arguably CONCACAF's best team of the moment. Oh, and England. The counterpoint however is that none of the big names in this group is quite what they were, and whoever slugs their way out of this mess is unlikely to put much fear into the hearts of the tournament favourites. For whom will the bell toll? Read on...

Costa Rica

"What's that? Snakes don't have hips, you say?"
Costa Rica arrive at the World Cup with their best team in years, with a competent mixture of domestic and foreign club players supporting two or three genuine stars. A historically gifted generation to stand alongside that of 1990, its harsh reward for getting to Brazil has been a ferociously tough draw in Group D. Only a brave man would tip Costa Rica to do what they did in 1990, and reach Round 2 – but there could be some surprises along the way.

A lot of that capacity for surprise could come from Bryan Ruiz, a snake-hipped and giraffe-legged forward who – along with keeper Keylor Navas - is the closest thing Costa Rica have to an established star. Although he impressed only in flashes at Fulham, Ruiz has years of good form behind him in Dutch club football, and picked up where he left off this season on loan at PSV. Supporting Ruiz in the attacking ranks are Randall Brenes, who like many in this squad plays his football in Costa Rica’s own league, and veteran no.9 Alvaro Saborio, a consistent goalgetter with Real Salt Lake in MLS. However the no.9 berth – ahead of Ruiz in a deeper role – seems almost certain to go to 21-year-old Joel Campbell. A powerful, technically adept forward who can both score and create, Campbell has spent this season delivering on some of his promise at Olympiakos, where he has been on loan from Arsenal. He is now firmly established as one of the brightest prospects in the North American game. Although, with his habit of exploiting space by dribbling from deep, he may ultimately be better suited to club football than international, Campbell has what it takes to spring some surprises on famous opposition at this World Cup. Other attacking options in the provisional 30-man squad look makeweight and unlikely to make the cut.

Costa Rica’s midfield and defence are unlikely to be familiar to you unless you watch a lot of Scandinavian, US or Australian football. That does not however mean that quality is entirely lacking. There is genuine creativity in the form of Celso Borges, a tall central midfielder who plays an all round role but likes to get forward, and Christian Bolanos. The latter, of FC Copenhagen, offers genuine Champions’ League class on the right of midfield. With his direct running, incisive crossing and neat range of deliveries, not to mention his distinctive bandana, Bolanos is potentially one of the coolest players in Group D. In what is a surprisingly positive midfield, Rodney Wallace (not the 1990s Leeds one) on the left offers more attacking options, admittedly with energy rather than finesse to the fore.  Midfield ballwinning is likely to be the primary responsibility of either the experienced Michael Ballantes, or his younger, more dynamic (and curiously named) colleague Yeltsin Tejeda. Options for a change of pace include lightning-fast winger Diego Calvo and orthodox attacking midfielder Carlos Hernandez, who packs a Lampard-like shot from outside the area. Most of the other options in the provisional squad, like Ariel Rodriguez, are – guess what? – attacking midfielders.

The undoubted stars of the regular Costa Rica defence are keeper Navas – on excellent form with Levante in La Liga – and Everton wingback Bryan Oviedo. However, injury has robbed Oviedo of his chance at this World Cup. In his absence, a fairly conventional flat back four will be played in front of Navas. For much of the qualifying campaign, the starting partnership at centre-back was Johnny Acosta and Michael Umana, but with both playing Costa Rican domestic football in their club careers, they may well give way to more internationally experienced options. Chief among those options will be Oscar Duarte, who has had a sound first season at Brugge in Belgium. He is likely to displace Acosta. Umana’s place is perhaps more assured, although New York Red Bulls centre-back Roy Miller will be challenging for a place. Perhaps surprisingly, neither Duarte nor Miller was a particularly regular fixture during qualifying. Oviedo’s usual place at left back is likely to be taken by converted centre-half Junior Diaz, an experienced Bundesliga veteran, unless coach Jorge Luis Pinto is feeling brave enough to blood one-cap newbie Waylon Francis, who may offer more pace. On the right, fitness issues seem to have cost Costa Rica their other first choice full back as well, with Jose Salvatierra the victim of a knee injury. In his absence, Heiner Mora or Cristian Gamboa are the likely choices; Gamboa’s experience with Rosenborg in Norway may give him the edge.

There’s no doubt that Costa Rica’s most realistic aim in a group this difficult is to cause problems for the bigger nations, and maybe to exert some influence on their progression to Round 2. Whatever the goal, the Costa Ricans have a promising range of attacking resources; none, in truth, is world class, but together they represent an attacking unit of historically high quality and they do look capable of setting off the odd firework. One question is how well Pinto can knit together a new defensive unit that compensates for cruel injuries and perhaps makes increased use of internationally experienced players. Another doubt is over the apparent openness in the centre of the field; with limited defensive resources in this department, Costa Rica could be overpowered by top class midfields. It’s worth noting, however, that they are not likely to face any truly top class midfields in this group.

Strengths: Lively forwards; range of options for changes of shape in midfield; a seriously impressive and underestimated attacking midfielder in Bolanos; solid keeper in Navas.

Weaknesses: Not much steel in the centre of the field; injuries and selection uncertainties in defence; despite the promise, a lack of genuinely world class players.

Young player to watch: Joel Campbell.

Verdict: Good enough to take points off anyone in this group, but very unlikely to take enough to progress. On paper, their counter-attacking 4-4-2 is most likely to trouble England, the most tactically open of the three big names in the group. But anything could happen in the next three games.


Barkley: this year's Gazza?
England, ah… England. The good news first. England have an experienced coach who knows the World Cup and whose approach suits the team. Roy Hodgson knows how to drill a team to make the most of limited resources and, all told, he did well with an unfancied England side at Euro 2012. His month with the side ahead of the world cup will be crucial. It’s also been a good year for English talent in the Premiership, with key spine members Steven Gerrard and Gary Cahill having especially good seasons while keeper Joe Hart recovered a lot of lost form. Meanwhile youthful attackers Daniel Sturridge (centre forward), Raheem Sterling (winger/inside forward), Adam Lallana and Ross Barkley (attacking midfield) all continued to mature with their clubs and, in Lallana’s case especially, began to flourish in a national shirt.

Defensively, England have lost some of the outright quality of days gone by, with none of John Terry, Rio Ferdinand nor, surprisingly, Ashley Cole in the 23 man squad. Cahill however has enjoyed a towering season with Chelsea, while Glen Johnson remains a potent threat attacking from right-back. On the left, Leighton Baines has a great final ball but can look defensively unconvincing against top opposition, while Phil Jagielka’s status as first choice partner for Cahill bespeaks a lowering of sights after the retirements of Terry and Ferdinand. Nonetheless, England will continue to be a tough side to break down, and they don't look likely to concede many.

Scoring them may be a different question. Hodgson seems likely to favour a 4-2-3-1 that may fall back to 4-4-2 when under pressure. Steven Gerrard at 34 still makes the deep midfield his own; his likely partner is the snake-hipped great white hope of the Emirates, Arsenal’s Jack Wilshere. One of the few England players with a real capacity for the unexpected, Wilshere is returning from injury but is an almost guaranteed selection unless he suffers a relapse. Ahead of this, there is the slight suspicion that Hodgson does not know his best lineup, so again the preparation period is key. One issue is the pressure that always exists in England, for the selection of those individuals whose recent club form has been best. This is likely to see a clamour for Hodgson to play Sturridge as the lone centre-forward, after his 21 league goals for Liverpool. But Hodgson would be better advised to stick with Danny Welbeck, a crafty player who has shown he can thrive as a solitary no.9 in the tough environment of international football. Behind the striker, Sterling, who offers superlative pace and energy, and Rooney are likely to start on right and left respectively, with Lallana in the central no.10 role; the more adventurous option of dropping Rooney and bringing the rumbustious, bull-like Barkley into play is unlikely to appeal to the conservative Hodgson.

Ultimately, it is difficult to see England’s playing staff as truly competitive with the best the world has to offer. There seems an enduring disconnect between the English mode of play and the international game. English club football being, as it is, very open, even the best English club sides tend to thrive on  counter-attacking, and the best English players are trained as counter-attackers; Rooney is an example. International football, famously cagey, is just not the same, and one suspects that the pace of England’s new generation – their main asset – may be neutralised by deep defences and keep-ball tactics. Even England’s best – Wilshere, Lallana and Barkley perhaps excepted – seem to need space to run into.

Much will depend on the result against Uruguay. If England arrive at the Costa Rica game needing a win to go through, they will get one. Meanwhile a win against the guile of Italy seems a long shot, a draw eminently feasible. Man for man, England are much better than Uruguay except in one crucial area: Cavani and Suarez against Cahill ad Jagielka. It will be a nervous ninety minutes.

Strengths: Youth and a relative lack of fear or onerous expectations. Experienced coach and well organized tactics. Player form. Pace in attack.

Weaknesses: Tendency to select eleven players rather than a team, particularly in the attacking segment. Simultaneous defensive retirements. Lack of that final bit of quality that breaks a good team down.

Verdict: Quarter finals. Probably have enough to get by Uruguay and Italy, and will have a good chance against whoever they face in round 2 from the fairly weak Group C. A meeting with the Dutch, Spanish or Brazilians then seems likely, and that will probably be that for England.


Verratti: the latest model
The old adage is that Italy come into their own at tournaments, and can be counted on to reach the later stages no matter how mediocre they may look on paper. The truth is a little different. Yes, Italy have been in the final of five major tournaments since 1982, and they’ve won the World Cup more often than anyone except Brazil. But let’s not forget that they bombed out at the group stage in South Africa in 2010 as reigning champions, that they followed their appearance in the Euro 2000 final with elimination in the World Cup second round by South Korea, and that they failed to get out of their group at Euros ‘96 and ‘04. In short, Italy’s tournament record is highly volatile, with really poor performances often following directly after stellar. The best generalization we can make is that the longer Italy stay in a tournament, the better they tend to get. Traditionally cautious Italian tactics are suited to cagey knockout games; Italy thrive in tight situations and don’t get impatient or nervous if they fail to take the lead quickly.

Matches however are won and lost on the field, not in the pages of history. As if to emphasise the point, Cesar Prandelli’s current iteration differs from Italian sides past. There’s no catenaccio here, for a start; Prandelli adopts a style based on possession and pressing higher up the field. And unlike the great sides of the recent past, this Italy team has its most prized talent in attack, not in defence. The main question is how the coach, who is known to be fond of tactical tinkering, will choose to select and arrange his forwards. It’s almost certain that Mario Balotelli will be first choice in a central role. Europe’s top scorer in the qualifying round, Balotelli seems to thrive playing for the Azzurri, even as his club form continues to be fitful. Prandelli has arguably become more cautious, tactically, since Euro 2012, where he used two orthodox strikers. At the World Cup he seems likely to favour a 4-3-2-1 in which the “two” behind Balotelli are more midfielders than strikers. That means perhaps a substitute role for Ciro Immobile, a 21-yearold striker, capped once, who has made the provisional squad on the back of a fine season with Torino. Immobile is an all-round centre-forward who, despite his unpromising name, gets around the box and can score from anywhere. His potential is enormous; forget Luca Toni, Pippo Inzaghi, or even Christian Vieri, Immobile could be Italy’s most complete no.9 for a very, very long time indeed. But for now he’s probably edged ahead of veteran Antonio Cassano either as first choice backup to Super Mario, or his partner if two strikers are used. Giuseppe Rossi and youngster Mattia Destro are the other centre-forwards in the provisional squad.

Prandelli likes wingers, albeit those of the dart-from-outside-to-in school, like Emanuele Giaccherini, rather than traditional touchline huggers. In a 4-3-2-1, at least one winger is likely to be included in the two behind the striker. Giaccherini himself has dropped out of contention, but but the provisional squad still offers wide men Antonio Candreva, Alessio Cerci, and Lorenzo Insigne to choose from. None of these guys is yet a clear first choice, so this will be a key decision for Prandelli. Cerci, or the “Italian Messi” as he’s known on YouTube, may have played his way into pole position on the back of stellar form with Torino, but Insigne, a diminutive box of tricks at five foot four, is also staking a strong claim. It’s most likely that alongside one winger will play someone like Claudio Marchisio or Alberto Aquilani, an attacking midfielder who can drop back to add numbers in the middle when Italy are on the back foot. That’s probably necessary to protect playmaker Andrea Pirlo, still a great puller of strings at 35 and the major source of supply for the striker(s) and midfield runners. His passing remains peerless, as do his set pieces, but Pirlo has lost some dynamism to age.

With Prandelli likely to be cautious in the pressure setting of a World Cup, expect relatively solid and unexciting choices alongside Pirlo in a midfield three; Daniele De Rossi’s experience makes him an assured starter while Riccardo Montolivo may take the other berth. It’s possible that Italy could even drop into a 4-2-3-1 formation with another holding player sitting deep beside Pirlo; Prandelli seems to have some interest in this option as his provisional squad includes not only established “holder” Thiago Motta, but also Romulo, another defensively-minded Italo-Brazilian. With none of the other teams in Group D posing proven threat in midfield, however, it’s not obvious why such defensiveness would be required - unless Prandelli wants to man-mark Suarez, which seems unlikely. One player to watch is Marco Verratti, a clubmate of Motta’s at Paris St-Germain, who is seen as a potential replacement playmaker when Pirlo retires. He may get game time.

In defence, Gianluigi Buffon can still be relied upon in goal, while in front of him are likely to be Juventus club-mates Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini. These two are solid enough defenders who have been at the heart of Juve’s domestic success, but they are probably not up to the illustrious standards of the greats of the recent past, like Cannavaro and Nesta. Backup will come from another Juventus man, the world cup winner Andrea Barzagli, Gabriel Paletta of Parma, and Inter’s Andrea Ranocchia. If things look settled in the centre then the opposite is true of the fullback positions, which are the hardest of Prandelli’s selection decisions to call. The number of wide defenders included in the provisional squad, and the widely differing selections in the last few international fixtures, suggest that the coach himself isn’t sure who he prefers. At right back, either Ignazio Abate or Christian Maggio is likely to get the nod, while at left back (where Chiellini can also step in) Mattia De Sciglio probably has the edge over Manuel Pasqual. Uncapped Torino fullback Matteo Darmian also made the provisional squad.

To conclude, then, this isn’t, by any means, a classic Italy squad, and it has very material weaknesses.. The midfield is somewhat one-paced and, save for the ageing Pirlo, is short on real creativity; but these are fairly familiar Italian issues. Much newer worries are defence and team selection. Tactically, Italy can be expected to be sound on the back foot, but the fundamental quality of defensive personnel is a notch or two lower than in Azzurri sides of the recent past. Italy didn’t really distinguish themselves as a difficult side to score against in any of Euro 2012, the 2013 Confederations Cup, or World Cup qualifying. Meanwhile, there are question marks over the right formation for midfield and attack – not that Prandelli seems to feel obliged to settle on one in particular – while at fullback and in some of the attacking positions, selection is uncertain and the options inexperienced. The decline of Italian football has been overtalked, and amid all the match fixing and doomsaying about the demise of Serie A as a world class league, it’s worth remembering that the Italian system still churns out technically assured, tactically astute and supremely confident footballers in number. But a detailed analysis of their position puts Italy’s apparently unquestioned status as Group D’s hot favourites in doubt.

Strengths: One of the world’s best playmakers (still) in Pirlo; big tournament experience in all departments of the team; a decent spine (Buffon/Chiellini/Pirlo/Balotelli); intelligent and tactically flexible coach.

Weaknesses: Lack of creativity throughout side; selection and formation uncertainties; somewhat mediocre defence; Pirlo ageing and midfield generally short of mobility. Italy might be vulnerable to rapid incursions through their midfield by ball-carriers, and if they get caught out it’s not clear they have what it takes to really chase a game.

Young player to watch: In principle, Verratti, but 21-year-old fullback De Sciglio looks likely to get more game time; in the Italian manner, the defender could turn out to be the man to keep your eye on.

Verdict: The ease of their passage has been overestimated by pundits, and Italy are in every bit as much trouble in Group D as are England and Uruguay. Faced with either the energy of Cavani (who made his name scoring hatfuls against Italian defences) and Suarez, or the pace of some of England’s youngsters, and they might be undone. A good shout for elimination in the group


Is there life without?
Since Luis Suarez turned his knee just under a week ago, the key question has been – can Uruguay cope without him? The livewire forward, England’s footballer of the year, seems to carry all of his country’s World Cup hopes on his shoulders. The bad news for Uruguay’s rivals in Group D however is that yes, in all probability, they can cope.

Uruguay are insisting that Suarez will make the squad and, although he seems unlikely to face Costa Rica in their opening game, he could well be fit to return against England. Coach Oscar Tabarez will be hoping he is, for there is nothing that an international team needs from a forward that Suarez doesn’t bring. Pace, mobility, creativity, finishing; commitment and (sometimes even controlled) aggression; the ability to change the shape of play on a whim. Suarez has it all and, notwithstanding Edinson Cavani’s outlandish price tag, he is comfortably Uruguay’s most dangerous player. He led their goalscoring in qualification. However, this Uruguay side look to have enough in them to manage in his absence. It’s not specifically about who will step up to replace him as an individual. Cavani’s work rate and eye  for goal make him well placed to cope without his injured partner, while Suarez’ direct replacement will probably be either the veteran Diego Forlan, or Palermo’s pacy Abel Hernandez. Although Hernandez has a bit to do to establish that he has the quality for tournament-level play, his mobility, tenacity, and 7 goals in 11 internationals should mean he gets game time, with Forlan used sparingly. But it’s really Uruguay’s team qualities that can be relied upon to guide them if their best player is unavailable. A gritty and determined unit who know how to make the most of limited opportunities, Uruguay look to have what it takes to dig out a goal or two when needed – which should see them right, provided the defence holds up.

That, however, is a rather questionable proposition, and Uruguay will be glad if their rivals, pondering the impact of Suarez’ injury, omit to focus on exploiting a defence that was distinctly porous in qualification. The journey to Brazil was a wretched one for the men from Montevideo. While the team as a whole remains a tightly-knit unit who play with something of the togetherness of a club side, thumping away defeats (including four-goal concessions to Bolivia and Colombia, and three let in in Argentina) suggest a brittleness on the back foot. Even with impressive home form, the Uruguayans were only able to sneak into the finals via a playoff. At first glance it’s not obvious why there should be problems at the back; central defender Diego Godin has been in excellent club form this season, scoring in both the La Liga decider and the Champions’ League final for Atletico, while colleague Diego Lugano is ageing, but still a steely presence. Fullbacks Martin Cacares and Maxi Pereira are dependable top-level performers with Juventus and Benfica respectively, and it’s worth mentioning that the core of this unit played throughout the 2010 World Cup, in which Uruguay escaped their group without letting in a goal. So too did goalkeeper Fernando Muslera. With a  proven record of fierce competitiveness and with their defensive star, Godin, in the form of his life, it’s hard not to reach the conclusion that Uruguay’s defence will likely be more solid under the spotlight of the World Cup than it was in the qualifiers. Tabarez, in his provisional 25-man squad, included relatively little defensive cover for a team that invariably plays a flat back four. Jorge Fucile is a dependable campaigner, but Liverpool’s Sebastian Coates is something of a forgotten man despite his talent, and 19-year-old Jose Maria Gimenez is a very fresh face at centre-back, with only 16 club games to his name.

With 4-4-2 usually the preferred formation, midfield razzamatazz is not what Uruguay are about, but a change of formation might be on the horizon. The typical Uruguayan midfielder is energetic, primarily defensively minded, technically solid rather than stylish, and with solid European club experience. The team’s usual method of progress through the middle third is an organised forward rush rather than anything especially subtle or tricky. Tabarez’ provisional squad contains no less than four central midfielders cut from the same cloth; first choice Egidio Arevalo Rios is arguably a more limited player than any of Walter Gargano, Diego Perez or Sebastian Eguren, but is preferred for his tactical discipline. On the right, the safe choice is Alvaro Gonzalez, not an overly technical player but one who can get into dangerous positions while offering defensive cover too. A more attacking option would be Cristian Stuani, a midfielder with the penalty box instincts of a classic poacher, while Alejandro Silva is a squad option who may travel.   The left midfield slot is the property of Cristian Rodriguez, a winger whose close control is one of the side’s most reliable creative assets.

That – with a more creative middleman sitting alongside Arevalo – looks like Tabarez’ ideal formation, but with a flat midfield four and a deep defensive line, it could be difficult for Uruguay to link defence with forwards, a problem that’s only likely to get worse if the wide-roving Suarez is injured. Tabarez and his players have proven tactically flexible in the past, with a particular interest in 4-3-3 as a backup formation, and we could see that this time, with either Forlan or one of the attacking midfielders brought into the front three. Stuani might be useful in that role, as might Nicolas Lodeiro, a creative midfielder who often plays alongside Arevalo but has something of the no.10 about him. Although not quick flat out, Lodeiro has a useful change of pace and a good final ball, and his left footed trickery may be Uruguay’s best creative weapon. If 4-3-3 is used then Alvaro Gonzalez is likely to play, to avoid leaving Arevalo and the defence exposed, while there is the possibility of deploying winger/wingback Alvaro Pereira on the left if a more direct alternative to Rodriguez is required. Southampton’s Gaston Ramirez is likely to be used as attacking support from the bench if a change of shape is required.

Uruguay’s trajectory remains difficult to predict, and their prospects in this World Cup are somewhat on a knife-edge. On the one hand the attack seems both bereft of its talisman and short of quality support from midfield; on the other hand, Uruguay’s determination and teamwork, combined with the hardly-shabby resources of Cavani, Forlan and Hernandez, should be enough to get goals. Meanwhile, the team’s famous organisation and never-say-die attitude have to be set against the lack of defensive solidity shown in qualifying. On the whole, with such an experienced unit, one suspects Uruguay will be able to step up for the cup, and it’s significant that when their backs were to the wall chasing a home win against Argentina, in the last qualifying game, they delivered. They also performed solidly in the 2013 Confederations Cup, although clean sheets were hard to come by.

Strengths: Tournament experience; club-like team spirit and determination; energy, work rate and mobility; star players Godin and (if fit) Suarez are in stellar form.

Weaknesses: Workmanlike midfield; Suarez’ injury, and uncertain tactics and selection if he doesn’t play; worrying deterioration in defence in last two years.

Young player to watch: Like many at this world cup, it’s not a young side, but 23-year-old Abel Hernandez is a lively player. If Lugano falters in defence, the very inexperienced Gimenez might get serious game time.

Verdict: Should be able to amass enough points to escape this group and may have what it takes to out-grind Italy. Likely to then peter out in either the second round or quarters.

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