After a typically overblown, needlessly exaggerated extravaganza in the Costa Do Sauipe resort in Brazil on Friday afternoon, we finally found out who would be playing who in the group stages of next summer’s World Cup.
It was, underneath all the ceremony and sense of occasion as FIFA attempted to justify the gross £10 million outlay on it, essentially a simple draw. Check this Sunday’s FA Cup third round draw for a look at how a draw can be done without banding about obscene finances.
However, it was exciting, tense and intriguing as each country was popped out of a ball and then named in a choreographed routine between the array of footballing legends on the stage and the two glitzy presenters.
From 1st spot in Group A (hosts Brazil) right through to 4th spot in Group H (South Korea), we got there eventually, allowing then for plenty of time to assess and analyse what awaits us just over 6 months down the line. For England, it was 3rd spot in Group D, partnering them with Italy, Costa Rica and group seeds Uruguay.
As manager Roy Hodgson said in the build-up, it was not so much the opponents that were cause for concern, but the venues where England would be forced to play. He pinpointed the Amazon rainforest location of Manaus, something that was not particularly well received by the city’s mayor, due to the humidity levels that can reach 99% in June.
As if fate needed more temptation than that to send Hodgson and his men to Manaus for the first game against Italy on June 14th, a 1777 mile trip from their Rio De Janeiro base. They will then move on to Uruguay in Sao Paulo and then Costa Rica in Belo Horizonte, both venues within 225 miles of England’s 5-star Royal Tulip Hotel on Sao Conrado beach.
“Our great advantage is being based in Rio, which means we only have one long trip”, said Hodgson, playing the brave-faced optimist. “It will be a very interesting experience for us because I have never been to the north of Brazil and neither have the rest of the team.”
Their trip into the Amazon may be an unfamiliar one, but they will meet familiar opponents when they get there, “We know how good they (Italy) are because we lost to them on penalties in the quarter-finals of the Euros”, said England’s manager.
But if he didn’t know what stands in line in 6 month’s time, here’s a handy guide.
Cesare Prandelli was bullish, if not slightly arrogant in his reaction to drawing England, giving it the old “not worried” as he lived up to his classy, nonchalant Italian image. Maybe he has huge confidence in his immovable goalkeeper, Gianlugi Buffon, or his sturdy defence of Giorgio Chiellini, Andrea Barzagli and Leonardo Bonucci, who form the back-line with Buffon at Juventus.
Or maybe his faith is with the wonderful ball retention that is guided expertly by Andrea Pirlo in his quarter-back role, or even the industry of Ricardo Montolivo and Daniele De Rossi alongside the graceful metronome.
It would be too far to say he could rely on his striker Mario Balotelli for whom the word “enigmatic” has long since become a cliché. Petulant, immature, explosive, erratic are all words to describe Balotelli who is just as likely to pummel a 40 yard rocket into the corner of the net as he is to get sent off for an instance of lunacy.
Prandelli’s constant paranoia into Balotelli’s mental well-being is eased slightly by the presence of free-scoring Guisseppe Rossi, Stephan El Shaarawry and Lorenzo Insigne waiting in the wings, whilst Andrea Ranocchia and Marco Verratti provide substantial cover in defence and midfield respectively.
The Azzurri, winners of the World Cup as recently as 2006, were unbeaten as they topped a qualifying group alongside Denmark and Czech Republic whilst they reached the semi-finals of Euro 2012 beating England of course, so this will be a massive test for Hodgson and his charges, regardless of how hot it will be in the air.
Manager Oscar Tabarez has at his disposal the usually effective combination of experienced spine of Fernando Muslera in goal, West Brom’s Diego Lugano and Atletico Madrid’s Diego Godin in defence in a trio that boasts a total of 211 caps.
In front of them sit the energy of Walter Gargano, the combative presence of Diego Perez and the guile of Cristian Rodriguez. Many of La Celeste’s stars are littered throughout Europe, so they will be familiar with England and vice-versa.
It is in attack though where Tabarez’s side come alive, and that is even without former European proliferate Diego Forlan. Edinson Cavani is now turning it on for PSG after scoring freely for Napoli over in Italy, while England will be very familiar with Luis Suarez and his controversies, as well as his scintillating form and sometimes unstoppable brilliance.
It is a style that favours sitting deep and disciplined to preserve ageing limbs before striking on the counter attack through Suarez and Cavani, a combination that has 59 goals for the 1950 winners.
So they marched through the qualifying process then did they? Well, no, not quite. They overcame a poor run of form to eventually pull clear of Venezuela in order to clinch 5th spot and the favourable play-off match with Jordan, who they ruthlessly disposed of by a scoreline of 5-0.
Aiming to repeat the surprise triumph of 1950 in the Maracana, they became the final side to qualify for next summer’s jaunt in Brazil.
With the gangly-legged Paulo Wanchope now in retirement, Los Ticos are somewhat the unknown quantity of the group. They have the two players plying their trade in England, Bryan Ruiz of Fulham and Bryan Oviedo of Everton, but most of their squad are at home in their native league or over in America with the MLS.
Ruiz, so often languid in the Premier League, is their captain and will provide some creation on the wings whilst in attack is Joel Campbell, the striker who has failed to get a work permit at Arsenal, so he will be eager for his chance to prove his quality.
Under wily Colombian coach Jorge Luis Pinto however, they are an organised unit with Levante’s Keylor Navas an outstanding force between the sticks during qualifying. Costa Rica shipped just 7 goals, the strongest defensive record in the process, as they finished runners-up to the United States in CONCACAF. After such a strong qualifying campaign, they will be hoping to go beyond the last 16 for the first time in their history.
And so we have it, a rough guide to the opponents that England will face next summer in the exotic setting of Group D. Hodgson, forever the meticulous planner, has already raised the possibility of changing training base with the group’s venues in mind, and it is hoped that the 66 year old, having been to USA ’94 with Switzerland, is intelligent enough to ensure England do not experience the disorganised shambles of South Africa 2010 or even the madness of Baden-Baden in 2006.
Despite the worries over travel, jungles and humidity, if Hodgson can prepare England well, they will always have a chance.
Written by Adam Gray
Follow Adam on Twitter @AdamGray1250
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