For a team widely-tipped to prop up the group, Costa Rica have done amazingly to top what looked like the toughest group at the tournament. While it’s certainly not easy, pulling off a surprise win on the break isn’t that uncommon occurrence, yet Costa Rica have shocked partly because they look a much more functional side than the ragtag band of misfits you would expect them to be.
Going into the tournament, a team playing 5-4-1 with one or two recognisable names looked a standard affair for a small Central American nation, likely to put up a defensive front, frustrate and still lose. Not so. Against an admittedly terrible Uruguay, Costa Rica looked a far better unit than they had been given credit for. They worked hard and were well-organised defensively which wouldn’t particularly shock, but Christian Bolanos and Bryan Ruiz buzzed around the terrific pace of Joel Campbell, pulling off to the right to race onto any quick breaking ball into the channel, while right-back Christian Gamboa got forward with verve and Levante keeper Keylor Navas is a great shot-stopper.
Jorge Luis Pinto made no changes, while Cesare Prandelli welcomed Ignazio Abate back from injury with a place in the Italy line-up at the expense of Gabriel Paletta. Andrea Pirlo was praised again for his performance against England, but he had been far less influential than two years before at Euro 2012 and part of that was that he was sharing metronomic duties with Marco Verratti and Daniele De Rossi in midfield. For the second group game, Thiago Motta was brought into the 4-3-3 – less creative, but also less likely to step on Pirlo’s toes.
Energy from England’s attack had unsettled the deep Italian midfield early on in their first game, but they became more passive and Italy were able to pass around them to maintain their lead. Costa Rica however pressed with far greater efficiency throughout their midfield than England and the Italians seemed unable to find their way through. To sustain this and stop Claudio Marchisio and Antonio Candreva from drifting between the lines, the Costa Rican defensive line also had to step up quite high though. This granted the Italians the option of simply hitting long balls from deep over the top for the forwards to pick up behind the defence, but the Costa Rican backline was brilliantly drilled, catching the Italians offside eleven times.
It wasn’t simply abut stopping the Italians though. The pace of Campbell should have punished a slip by Giorgio Chiellini, escaping from the Italian defenders so they could only bring him down in their penalty area but no foul was given. Moments later however, they gained the lead. With Bryan Oviedo’s injury, the attacking width was expected to come from Gamboa as it had in the game against Uruguay, yet left-back Junior Diaz got forward and put in a good cross for Ruiz to head home. Now, it up to the Italians to break them down.
De Rossi was coming deeper and deeper in search of space, dropping into the defensive line, and it was little surprise that Thiago Motta made way for World Cup debutant Antonio Cassano at half-time, switching to a 4-2-3-1. The Italian midfield had been squeezed out of the game, so bringing on creative attackers higher up the pitch would hopefully occupy Costa Rica deeper, opening up space for Pirlo and De Rossi to dictate the game deeper. Each substitution seemed like throwing on an extra attacker out of desperation – Lorenzo Insigne and Alessio Cerci also entering the fray – but it did make strategic sense. It didn’t help however, as the Italians look devoid of ideas and barely mustered any chances against a stoic Costa Rican defence.
Costa Rica put on another superb performance to seal their qualification from a group few, if any, gave them a chance of escaping with a game to spare. The underwhelming Italian side had been made to look good by England and the Costa Ricans provided a sterner test that Prandelli failed.