After opening games against Euro 2012 finalists Italy and 2010 World Cup semifinalists Uruguay, few people would have anticipated that either England or Costa Rica would enter their final group match already assured of qualification for the Round of 16. Anyone claiming two weeks ago that the team with their passage out of Group D booked would be Costa Rica would have been looked upon with a heavy dose of ridicule.
Yet, after brilliantly topping Uruguay and then Italy, countries with six World Cup triumphs between them, Costa Rica, with just three match wins at the World Cup finals prior to 10 days ago, are already looking ahead to taking part in the knockout phase for only the second time in their history. In contrast, England -- the third previous World Cup winner in what was thought to be a three-way battle for progression from Group D -- go into their final match with their minds already thinking of going home.
It is the first time ever that England has lost its first two matches at the World Cup and the first time the country will exit before the knockout phase since 1958. In some senses the reaction from the notoriously blood-thirsty national media back in England has been predictably lacking in perspective; calling for everyone involved to apologize for the “humiliation.” In other ways, though, the backlash has been less vicious. Coach Roy Hodgson will remain in charge with the signs being that he will do so without yet being hounded in the same way as most of his predecessors.
Fine margins in back-to-back 2-1 defeats against tough teams is on the face of it no disgrace. Indeed, the opening performance in the loss to Italy fuelled much optimism that England were on the right track. New players like Raheem Sterling and Daniel Sturridge showed that they were ready to mix it on the biggest stage and brought fresh life after the famed “golden generation” of the last decade had so dismally failed to match expectations for their country.
But there were also reasons for that defeat which needed to be addressed heading into a make-or-break match with Uruguay. Hodgson failed to do so and Uruguay coach Oscar Washington did a tactical number on his counterpart to take full advantage and send England out. In this defeat there were few saving graces for England; they had been deservedly beaten. One of the game’s most experienced and considered coaches, Hodgson appeared to have gotten swept away in the enthusiasm for young, attacking vitality and neglected to ensure that the team had a basic shape to allow those players to flourish. Captain Steven Gerrard, never the most tactically disciplined, was horribly outnumbered in a two-man central midfield alongside Liverpool teammate Jordan Henderson.
In terms of the tournament, Hodgson has come up short. Still, reason for optimism remains going forward, and he will be desperately hoping that strong signs of that are visible against Costa Rica in Belo Horizonte. With nothing to play for but pride, England’s team will be much changed. Gerrard will drop out, to be replaced in the team and as captain by Frank Lampard. Meanwhile, the likes of 18-year-old Luke Shaw, 20-year-old Ross Barkley and 22-year-old Phil Jones are all expected to take their place in the starting lineup. It could be a vibrant swansong, a hint of what might have been and what could be in the future.
But England will have learned by now not to underestimate Costa Rica, especially with Los Ticos now aiming to get the point needed to improbably secure top spot in the group. What has been most impressive about Jorge Luis Pinto’s side is that, while they have produced stoic defensive efforts, they have achieved their headline-making back-to-back wins over two of the game’s powers not simply by grinding out ultra-defensive victories. Against Uruguay, they were able to come back from a goal down before against Italy keeping a proactive high-defensive line to press the high-quality Azzurri midfield.
The pace in attack of Joel Campbell has been complimented by the quality of Christian Bolanos and Bryan Ruiz, together with real offensive intent from wing-backs Christian Gamboa and Junior Diaz. Pinto has admitted though, that, while going for the win, he will also be taking the chance to rest several players against England as he seeks to get his team in peak condition for their Round-of-16 contest.
The drop off in quality by rotating lineups is likely to be felt greater by Costa Rica than England. Indeed, a midfield featuring Lampard, Jack Wilshere, James Milner and Adam Lallana should give England more balance, if not the same attacking thrust. Still, with England’s second-choice defense failing to convince in a warm up match against Ecuador and the pressure off both teams, there should be goals in store. Much will depend on just how much Pinto alters his side, with the loss of too many key men giving England the chance to at least bow out with a win.
England 2-1 Costa Rica
Betting odds (Bovada.lv)
England win: 4/5
Costa Rica win: 33/10
When and where: The 2014 World Cup Group D match will kick off from the Estadio Mineirao at noon ET. TV coverage will be provided by ESPN2.