Lions braced for Latin test

Roy Hodgson’s team face tricky path to knockout stage

ITALY

THE FOUR-TIME winners were unsurprisingly unbeaten in qualifying, boasting goals throughout the team and a frightening front two of Mario Balotelli and Serie A top scorer Ciro Immobile. Seeming ever-presents Gianluigi Buffon and Andrea Pirlo are back to terrify England, though their focus this year is on a strong team ethic as opposed to a reliance on star names. They will be short on support against England in Manaus for the World Cup opener with only 200 tickets sold through official channels while recent results in friendlies have left a question mark. A 1-0 defeat in Spain is no disgrace, but draws with Luxembourg, Republic of Ireland and Nigeria, plus a row between manager Cesare Prandelli and Giuseppe Rossi over the striker’s exclusion from the 23-man squad, will give Italy’s Group D rivals hope. The runners-up spot at Euro 2012 and a third-place finish in last year’s Confederations Cup in Brazil show Italy are much-improved, though, from the last World Cup, where they finished bottom of a group containing Paraguay, Slovakia and New Zealand.

Manager - Cesare Prandelli. A maverick in Italian football terms, determined to steer the team away from their synonymous defensive roots to a free-flowing, flexible side.

Star Man - Mario Balotelli. The focal point of their attack with enough quality to score against any defence.

URUGUAY

THE EXTENT of striker Luis Suarez’s knee injury is likely to determine how well Uruguay perform. Liverpool’s crown jewel underwent a minor operation last month and there have been contrasting forecasts since regarding his comeback date. In Paris Saint-Germain’s Edinson Cavani and Atletico Madrid midfielder Cristian Rodriguez, the two-time world champions surely possess enough potency to see off Costa Rica in the opener should Suarez remain stricken, though England and Italy may fancy their chances of breaching an ageing defence. Copa America holders they may be, but they limped through qualifying, finishing fifth in the group of nine and had to beat Jordan in a two-legged play-off to make the finals. While unbeaten at home, their only away wins came in Peru and Venezuela and they were less than convincing 1-0 winners over Northern Ireland in a recent pre-World Cup friendly.

Manager - Oscar Tabarez. El Maestro, 67, led Uruguay to the semi-finals in 2010 and the Copa America in 2011.

Star Man - Luis Suarez. Scored 31 in 33 league games for Liverpool last season, and notched 11 in qualifying.

COSTA RICA

EXPECTED to be the soft touch in Group D, Costa Rica will only shrug off that tag if they rediscover their scoring boots. Since booking their place in Brazil, Los Ticos have failed to score in three of five friendlies, losing four of those matches. In captain Bryan Ruiz lies their match-winning quality, while pacey 21-year-old Joel Campbell, on loan at Olympiacos from Arsenal, is capable of springing a surprise. A rigid back five is manager Jorge Luis Pinto’s preference and could prove difficult to penetrate, though it has been significantly weakened since Everton left-back Bryan Oviedo broke his leg in January. Having enjoyed a 100 per cent winning record at home in the final stage of qualifying, Costa Rica have high hopes of replicating their run to the last 16 at Italia ‘90, but look more likely to suffer an inglorious early exit.

Manager - Jorge Luis Pinto. The Colombian had a failed spell with his national team before taking the reins at Costa Rica for a second spell in 2011. The 61-year-old is a stickler for organisation.

Star Man - Bryan Ruiz. The 28-year-old never quite hit the heights at Fulham, but is capable of the spectacular, as he displayed during a loan spell at PSV Eindhoven in the second half of last season.