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Champions battle at World Cup Group D

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil -- Group D is the only one at the World Cup to contain three former world champions in England, Italy and Uruguay. Costa Rica complete the line-up.

The tone will be set by the opening game between Steven Gerrard's England and Gianluigi Buffon's Italy in the heat and humidity of Manaus on Saturday.

Given the presence in the group of reigning South American champions Uruguay, spearheaded by the prolific Luis Suarez, defeat for either side could prove fatal.

England and Italy last met at the quarter-finals of the 2012 European Championship, when Cesare Prandelli's side won on penalties after bossing proceedings in a 0-0 draw.

Goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon and midfield metronome Andrea Pirlo remain from the Italy team that tasted glory at the 2006 World Cup in Germany, but there is uncertainty over the team's attacking configuration.

Playmaker Riccardo Montolivo has been ruled out with a broken leg, while the absence of Giuseppe Rossi due to fitness concerns means that Mario Balotelli may have to shoulder much of the goal-scoring burden.

“We know we're in a particularly tough group,” says Prandelli, whose side habitually line up in a 4-3-1-2 formation but can operate with a three-man defense.

“Our first objective is to qualify, and then we'll see.”

Like Italy, England finished unbeaten in European qualifying, but optimism was tempered by back-to-back friendly defeats at home to Chile and Germany last November.

England manager Roy Hodgson has selected only six players with previous World Cup experience and his squad has a youthful edge.

Winger Raheem Sterling, 19, could start against Italy after a breakthrough season with Liverpool, while 20-year-old Everton midfielder Ross Barkley will also hope to make an impact.

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England's national soccer team captain Steven Gerrard holds a drink in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Monday, June 9. (AP)

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