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World Cup tune-up revelations—England and Costa Rica

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On Wednesday, March 5, 2014, a FIFA friendlies avalanche produced more telling results than routine ones. Some final score lines were downright revelations, peeks at what may come this summer in the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. In a series of articles we dissect the significance of 16 of those matches.

England 1, Denmark 0

England prepared for its 2014 World Cup tourney in Brazil by hosting a friendly against old foes Denmark at Wembley. The British side is in Group D with Uruguay, Italy, and Costa Rica, and pundits are split between regarding the 1966 winners as the second, third, or fourth best of the lot.

England coach Roy Hodgson has been obtaining a mixed bag of results with a young-ish team that at times uses their veterans as transient reference points or part-time on-field tutors rather than mainstays. After an encouraging 2-1 win over Brazil at home in February of last year the team tied 1-1 with the Republic of Ireland, 2-2 with Brazil in Rio de Janeiro, a win 3-2 over Scotland in London, and then the 0-2 loss to Chile and the 0-1 loss to Germany before the Denmark match. Not a bad spell but an uneven one particularly against true competition.

The friendly against Denmark produced some good play on both sides and both goalkeepers had to be on their games to keep the score line tight. But in the end neither side seemed to have the goods when it counted and it was not until the 82nd minute that a Daniel Sturridge (wait for it…) header broke the tie in favor of the hosts (http://bit.ly/1ilGOnS).

The English defense seemed better than its offense and yet the Danes were unlucky to at least tie the game given the opportunities they were afforded. Hodgson used 17 players and although some roster slots seem secure (Joe Hart, Wayne Rooney, Steven Gerard, and Jack Wilshire) most others seemed up for grabs. “There are 29 of us here,” said Rooney after the match, “and we are all trying to impress the coaches for a spot on the squad.”

The bottom line is that the current English team has the same strengths and deficiencies this national team has always had—certainly over the past twenty years. There is a lack of world class players, Rooney perhaps the exception, and the team relies on tough marking and tackling and the hope that a long range shot or a header might just seal the deal. But when facing creative attacking football, or having to overcome dogged defenses, or vying for ball control with true possession teams, English teams have historically fared poorly but with few exceptions. This team does not have the firepower on attack, the creativity in midfield, or the solidity in defense to handle the likes of their better group mates. This game simply accentuated the known, England will probably beat Costa Rica and then go home.

Costa Rica 2, Paraguay 0

Costa Rica, the 34th ranked team in the world according to FIFA, has been preparing for its 2014 World Cup tourney in Brazil by playing a number of friendlies against competition that, on paper, is either at a level or two beneath their stature or quite a bit above it. The results of their post qualifying friendlies have verified their minnows standing with losses to Australia 0-1, Chile 0-4, South Korea 0-1, and their one win, over Paraguay at home. Among these rivals, only Chile is ranked higher than Costa Rica by FIFA.

Their game with Paraguay, the 59th FIFA ranked team in the world, was played in the capital, San Jose, and produced a well-earned victory (bit .ly/1hVKChx), one that the team needed after a string of tough losses to better-playing squads, regardless of ranking. Their last two preparatory games will be against Japan (ranked 48) and the Republic of Ireland (68). A fair prediction would be that those games will produce losses too. But there is a caveat and the game against Paraguay revealed why.

The Costa Ricans qualified second to the USA in CONCACAF and are paired with England, Uruguay, and Italy in Group D this coming summer. No one gives the Ticos a chance to make it out of this group, and their performances have simply underlined their status. But the game against Paraguay did show how this Central American team might surprise foes and give them a match that could well be tougher than expected.

The Ticos have great ball control and play a possession game with a lightning quick counterattack. They are a tough tackling defensive team that allowed the least number of goals in all of CONCACAF’s many 2014 qualification rounds. They can also play rough with the big boys. In Joel Campbell and Alvaro Saborio, the two goal scorers in the game, they have some deadly strikers. Keylor Navas, La Liga’s Levante goalkeeper, is also a strong and known quantity. What we learned from this game is that Costa Rica might lose to all three Group D contenders, but they will not make it easy and may well surprise someone. They may be the group’s deciding factor.

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