Artisan illusionists. No, that’s not a fancy term for a Brooklyn-based magic consortium; it’s how Germany coach Joachim Löw describes Italy. Let that sink in for a second. The Azzurri, who gave the world the catenaccio—or “the chain,” an über-defensive tactical style that induces narcolepsy among opponents and fans—are now being praised for their creativity, and, in Löw’s words, their ability to “control, change and adjust their style like nobody else.”
Indeed, at the conclusion of qualifying last fall, coach Cesare Prandelli boasted that his side was “born to attack.” At the time, he was counting on a striker combination of Mario Balotelli (AC Milan) and New Jersey–born Giuseppe Rossi (Fiorentina). But Rossi reinjured his right knee in the winter and was left off the 23-man roster as one of Prandelli's final cuts.
Pirandelli also dropped Roma’s Mattia Destro, who is reportedly coveted by Barcelona. That means the Italians will most likely rely on Serie A’s top scorer, Ciro Immobile, a Torino target man (headed for Borussia Dortmund next season) who is working to round his game to the point that pundits stop joking about his surname. Immobile has only two caps, but he will benefit from Juventus’ Andrea Pirlo orchestrating the attack.
Prandelli’s decision to open things up has less to do with philosophy than talent. His back four have proved vulnerable, especially in the air. But goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, 36, masks a multitude of short-comings, giving Italy the best chance to top a group that collectively has won seven World Cups. The Italians experienced the often sweltering Brazilian conditions at the 2013 Confederations Cup.
So, too, did Uruguay. The 2010 World Cup semifinalists are loaded in attack, with the top Premier League scorer, Liverpool’s Luis Suárez (who had minor knee surgery in May), and a runner-up in Ligue 1, PSG’s Edinson Cavani. Not to mention 2010 Golden Ball winner Diego Forlán, who at 34 has one last Cup in him. Whether or not Uruguay is the complete package—that’s a separate concern.
Coach Óscar Tabárez is likely to employ two holding midfielders to protect a creaky back four and unpredictable goalkeeper Fernando Muslera, and then look to counter. That should be enough to get La Celeste out of the group, but this team will advance only as far as Suárez and Cavani take them.
And what to make of England’s Wayne Rooney? The 28‑year‑old striker has become a versatile attacking threat for Manchester United in recent years, drifting wide or dropping deep while still displaying a nose for the goal. Domestic Wayne is doing just fine. International Wayne, though, is a different story. Eleven years after debuting for the Three Lions, he has more World Cup red cards (one) than goals (zero). Brazil could be his last chance to establish a legacy in the national jersey, and things don’t look promising. With the exception of Rooney and Liverpool’s ageless Steven Gerrard, England’s midfield and forward corps is made up mostly of untested kids.
Coach Roy Hodgson has intriguing options (Adam Lallana, Raheem Sterling, Daniel Sturridge), and he has a world-class goalkeeper in Joe Hart, but he’d be better served with a first XI that has experience together. England will most likely need help to advance, which it could get from Costa Rica. Los Ticos were the stingiest team in the final round of CONCACAF qualifying, allowing just seven goals in 10 games—including wins over the U.S. and Mexico. They will have to do without injured fullback Bryan Oviedo (Everton) and forward Alvaro Saborio (Real Salt Lake), putting pressure on the likes of veteran Bryan Ruiz to do much of the heavy lifting in the attack.
Introducing: Costa Rica F Joel Campbell
Playing for Olympiakos on loan from Arsenal, he showed Gunners what their future holds in February when he iced a Champions League victory over Manchester United by nutmegging Michael Carrick, then finishing with a spectacular curler. Just 21, Campbell had eight goals and nine assists in Greece this season. If Los Ticos are to snatch a win in Group D, they’ll need moments of individual inspiration. Campbell can provide them.