Costa Rica provided their second-straight upset over a former champion at the 2014 World Cup to beat Italy 1-0 in Recife and secure progress to the Round of 16 with a game to spare. On what was 24 years to the day that the Ticos progressed out of a World Cup group stage for the first and only time in their history, Bryan Ruiz’s header right before half-time supplied undoubtedly the greatest result in the nation’s history. And, as with their 3-1 opening win over Uruguay, it was a result that was fully deserved.
In a group that featured the winners of seven previous World Cups, it is a country that previously had just three match wins in the World Cup to its name that have become the first to advance. Italy and Uruguay will now meet for the right to join them in the second round next Tuesday, with the Azzurri needing to avoid defeat to secure progress. Costa Rica, meanwhile will now have thoughts of ensuring they top the group when taking on an England side whose elimination from the competition has now been confirmed.
While set up in a 5-4-1 formation, Costa Rica caught Italy cold by far from simply sitting back and waiting to repel attacks. Instead they pressed the Italians high in midfield, crucially denying space for Andrea Pirlo to dominate the flow of the game as he did in Italy’s opening 2-1 win over England. Cesare Prandelli’s team also played at a far slower tempo than against England. Having admitted to struggling desperately in the stifling conditions of Recife in last year’s Confederations Cup, Italy appeared preoccupied with conserving energy from the off. Either that or they simply had none to give after their display in Manaus.
Costa Rica didn’t mount many attacks, but almost whenever they did they caused a lackluster Italy side problems. Just a minute before taking the lead they should have had a penalty when Girogio Chiellini blatantly brought down Joel Campbell in the box. Instead, captain produced a far-post header down off the crossbar and over the line to give the country its finest hour.
Veteran coach Jorge Luis Pinto deserves much credit for his approach to the match that elevated his team of largely unheralded players from the lesser leagues of the world above mere backs-to-the wall underdogs. There was a purpose about Costa Rica’s play from the off, which contrasted sharply to Italy’s approach. Gianluigi Buffon was back in goal after injury but had a couple of nervy moments early on. When Claudio Marchisio sent an errant back pass past Buffon 16 minutes in and the veteran goalkeeper plodded over to try in vain to keep it in play, it provided a neat encapsulation of both Italy’s slackness and lack of energy.
Midway through the half, Italy appeared to have figured out the way to counter Costa Rica’s high line. Pirlo, who was forced to drift wide in order to find space, on a couple of occasions quickened the match’s pedestrian tempo with instant balls hit over the top of the defense. Unfortunately for Italy, Mario Balotelli lacked the sharpness to take advantage. The Milan striker had two fine chances, but first his touch let him down before he lobbed harmlessly wide of the target and two minutes later his shot was too close to goalkeeper Keylor Navas.
On other occasions, Balotelli and the rest of Italy’s attackers timed their runs poorly; with Italy’s total of 11 offsides the most of the tournament. Meanwhile, Costa Rica showed far more energy going forward. In a spell of three minutes right before the break, they created three great chances and crucially were able to take one.
After defender Oscar Duarte headed over Buffon and the bar, Costa Rica really should have had a penalty. Campbell’s pace saw him hare down on the Italian goal and as he cut inside looking to shoot, Chilleini decided the only way to stop him was a blatant body-check. The dissent at the failure of Chilean referee Enrique Osses to point to the spot was still going on in the stands when it was rendered immaterial.
Junior Diaz was allowed too much space on the left, as Italy failed to close down, and the wing-back swung in a fine deep cross that Ruiz stretched for at the back post to power a header down off the crossbar and a clear yard over the line.
Italy changed their shape and personnel in the second half. Thiago Motta, whose position in the side in place of Marco Verratti did nothing to aid Italy’s problems in midfield, was taken off and Antonio Cassano added up front. But if anything Italy’s threat in the second half was even less. Perhaps with the heat and humidity taking even more of an effect, Italy’s play was increasingly one-paced. Neither Cassano, nor fellow substitutes Lorenzo Insigne and Alessio Cerci were able to alter the sense that Costa Rica were inexorably heading to victory. Indeed, if anything, the Ticos finest win ever could have been made even more emphatic late on.