In the country’s first ever World Cup quarterfinal against one of the most impressive teams in this competition, Costa Rica might be expected to go down rather meekly, content with their already substantial achievements. Yet nothing that Costa Rica have done so far in Brazil suggests that will be the case in their upcoming match with the Netherlands on Saturday.
Entering the World Cup, next to no one even gave Costa Rica a chance of emerging from their group. Drawn into the first group in history featuring three former World Cup winners, simply avoiding a trio of defeats would have been viewed as success by many. But Colombian coach Jorge Luis Pinto has from the start got his squad aiming much higher.
A 3-1 come-from-behind win over 2010 semifinalists Uruguay was a major upset, and a following 1-0 win over Italy was the biggest result in the history of the Central American nation and sent shockwaves across the globe. Costa Rica had improbably qualified with a game to spare. Even in an ultimately meaningless final match, England couldn’t find a way past their superbly disciplined defense. Against Greece in the Round of 16, Costa Rica were down to 10 men from the midway point of the second half and then suffered the enormous blow of conceding an injury-time equalizer, yet still had the mental and physical resolve to hold out and win on penalties.
Now, though, comes their next biggest test. The biggest match in the country’s history will be one that Costa Rica have to negotiate without Oscar Duarte, such a key part of the team’s fine defensive performance so far in Brazil. To make matters worse, his likely replacement, Roy Miller, has been ruled out through injury. Still, having come into this World Cup without two of their key men, Álvaro Saborio and Bryan Oviedo, Costa Rica are used to slipping different pieces into place.
That is something that Netherlands coach Louis van Gaal also knows plenty about. The Netherlands have been the most flexible team in the World Cup so far, switching repeatedly been the famed Dutch system of 4-3-3 and the very un-Dutch 5-3-2. Losing 1-0 to Mexico in the Round of 16 going into the final 15 minutes, Van Gaal came up with a new trick. To much surprise, he brought off captain Robin van Persie, replaced him with Klaas-Jan Huntelaar and implemented a style diametrically opposed to Dutch tradition by having his team hit repeated long balls forward to utilize the aerial prowess of Huntelaar and Dirk Kuyt. The decision, combined with moving Arjen Robben to the right flank came up big and led to two goals in the dying minutes.
Robben won the decisive penalty in extra time and it is the Bayern Munich man who has been the star of the show as the Netherlands have defied relatively low expectations coming into the tournament. Playing most of the competition in an unfamiliar central role, Robben has shown blistering pace to defy his 30 years and has combined it with supremely intelligent movement.
Robben and his teammates will have their rate of recovery put to the test in Salvador on Saturday. While Costa Rica may be drained from their exploits in the Round of 16, so too could the Netherlands, having been forced to chase a game in Fortaleza, where conditions were so oppressive that it forced the World Cup’s first ever cooling breaks. Van Gaal’s decision on his tactical setup for the match will also be impacted by an injury to Nigel de Jong, which rules the key defensive midfielder out for the rest of the tournament.
Costa Rica have proven themselves a supremely functioning team in this World Cup. While primarily defensively focused, their backline pushes up high in order to compress the space in midfield and provide a better springboard to pose a threat then they win the ball back. That should make it a tighter contest than many may expect. However, over the course of 90 minutes, it is hard to imagine Robben’s pace not breaking in behind Costa Rica’s defensive line, especially with it missing one of its key performers.
Netherlands 2-0 Costa Rica
Betting odds (bovada.lv)
In 90 minutes:
Netherlands win: 10/21
Costa Rica win: 6/1
Costa Rica: 13/4
When and where: The 2014 World Cup quarterfinal will kick off from the Arena Fonte Nova in Salvador at 4 p.m. ET.