Uruguay's Suarez participates in team training at team's headquarters in the outskirts of Montevideo

World Cup Preview Group D: Balance leaves no clear favorite as Costa Rica joins England, Italy, Uruguay

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One of the most difficult packs to predict at the 2014 World Cup, Group D has three teams who could finish first or tumble to third. Between England, Italy, and Uruguay, Group D’s contenders have seven World Cups and 10 world titles, a collection of honors that ensures one impressive résumé will be cast aside with 15 other teams that fail to make the knockout round.

On the edge of that trio, CONCACAF qualifier Costa Rica will try to play spoiler, but with their group-mates seeing battles with the Ticos as an opportunity for needed points, the four-time qualifiers are long shots to make a second knockout round.

Here’s a quick look at Group D, which begins play on June 14 (click on country name for full preview)

Uruguay: The 2010 World Cup semifinalists and 2011 South American champions feature two of the best attackers in the tournament, though Luis Suárez’s health (knee injury) makes it unclear if or when he’ll join Edinson Cavani up top. Diego Forlán, Gastón Ramirez, and Cristian Rodríguez will have to pick up the slack.

Costa Rica: Bryan Ruiz and Joel Campbell give the Ticos two threats going forward, but without an injured Álvaro Saborío, Costa Rica’s attack won’t be 100 percent. A midfield of led by Celso Borges will be hard-pressed to protect the defense in a talented group.

England: Consistent scoring from Daniel Sturridge and Wayne Rooney would give a team with no clear weaknesses the punch it needs to get through. Solid if unspectacular both in midfield and defense, the Three Lions are capable of playing mistake-free soccer over 90 minutes.

Italy: A team built around veteran distributor Andrea Pirlo will need another attacker to complement Mario Balotelli up top. At the back, a defense leveraging Juventus’ veteran stalwarts could be hard-pressed to keep up with Sturridge or a healthy Suárez.

Who’s going through: The consensus from the panel is Uruguay and Italy, leaving an England team with second round talent left to reconcile a harsh first round exit.

Who’s going home: Costa Rica and England, but if Suárez isn’t healthy, and if Italy plays to its talent instead of Cesare Prandelli’s impressive results, the Three Lions could make a their fifth straight knockout round.

Marquee match: England versus Italy on the group’s first day will captivate, but June 19th’s meeting between the Three Lions and Uruguay will prove more important. If Uruguay takes care of business in game one against Costa Rica, a win over England could punch their ticket for the second round. England may need a result to maintain control of their own destiny if it can’t beat Italy to open their tournament.

Top players to watch:

5. Wayne Rooney, England

4. Edinson Cavani, Uruguay

3. Mario Balotelli, Italy

2. Andrea Pirlo, Italy

1. Luis Suárez, Uruguay

“Overweight” Costa comes to Mourinho’s defense

Diego Costa, Chelsea FC
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Diego Costa says he and his Chelsea teammates are to blame for Chelsea’s horrid start to the 2015-16 Premier League season.

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Speaking Thursday, during a bit of downtime over the current international break (Costa was left out of Vicente del Bosque’s squad for Spain’s final two EURO 2016 qualifiers this week), Costa placed the majority of blame at the feet of the entire team, but went on to most harshly critique himself for coming into the season unfocused and “overweight.”

Costa, on his lack of fitness and form to begin the season — quotes from the Guardian:

“We know we’re not in the form we were supposed to be at the beginning of the season. We need to blame the players because we came back from holiday very confident, thinking we could go back into how it was last season, and then realized the team was already in a bad situation.

“I’m going to be very honest: maybe a few weeks ago, five or six weeks ago, I was not on top of my game. At least physically. We talk within the players and we know that, maybe at the beginning, we were not 100 percent as we were supposed to be when we got here. I got injured at the end of last season and then I went on holiday. Maybe I got out of my diet and, when I came back, I was not the way I was supposed to be. I was a little bit overweight. That affected my game. You can be selfish and blame it on the manager but I’m not going to do that. I’m responsible 100%, and so are the other guys.

Given that Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho said on Thursday he doesn’t quite know what’s wrong with the defending Premier League champions, hearing someone — anyone — speak up and explain the club’s worst start to a season in 37 years will surely be a welcome sound to any Blues supporter’s ears.

[ MORE: Liverpool appoint Klopp as manager | Allardyce to Sunderland? ]

Costa, who is eligible to return from suspension next weekend when Aston Villa visit Stamford Bridge, has scored just one goal in league play this season (six appearances) after scoring 20 in 26 games last season.

Sam Allardyce to open talks with Sunderland

Sam Allardyce, West Ham United FC
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Now that Liverpool have selected and named their new manager, it appears Sunderland are finally ready to move forward with their own managerial search. (That’s clearly a joke, because it implies Liverpool and Sunderland ever duke it out for the same managerial candidate.)

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Anyway, the Black Cats will have to hire someone to replace the recently-departed Dick Advocaat at some point. We all knew that, despite the fact he’s probably earned a shot at that level, Bob Bradley was never really going to be considered for the job. With that in mind, if you’re not going to endear yourself to the entire United States of America with this hire, you might as well go for the best unemployed manager who’ll actually consider your approach.

That’s what Sunderland chairman Ellis Short appears to have done, as it was reported Thursday that despite an initial reluctance from Sam Allardyce — let’s be honest, he actually was holding out hope for the Liverpool job — the 60-year-old most recently in charge of West Ham United was willing and ready to enter into negotiations with the northeastern club.

One of the major sticking points during Sunderland’s courting of Allardyce is expected to be his demand for autonomy in the transfer market as well as a sizable transfer budget to sign his own players during the January window.

[ MORE: Advocaat: Sunderland squad too thin, chairman to blame ]

Allardyce seems like the no. 1 guy you’d like to bring in to steady a capsized ship — cough Sunderland cough — in any situation. Not only does he have a successful track record in the Premier League, but he’s the kind of no-nonsense leader a club like Sunderland so desperately needs as they find themselves in yet another relegation battle just eight games into the new season.

Short hopes to have Allardyce signed, sealed and delivered when the Premier League returns to action next weekend. In that event, Allardyce’s first game in charge of Sunderland would be a trip to West Bromwich Albion. His first home fixture? Home to Tyne-Wear derby rivals Newcastle United, a club whose boisterous fanbase still holds a great deal of disdain for Big Sam. Sometimes the football gods really are looking out for us.