0

Confident Costa Rica capable of more surprises yet

Italy defender Ignazio Abate (7) knocks down Costa Rica defender Junior Diaz (15) during the first half of a 2014 World Cup game at Arena Pernambuco. (USA TODAY Sports: Winslow Townson)

Italy defender Ignazio Abate (7) knocks down Costa Rica defender Junior Diaz (15) during the first half of a 2014 World Cup game at Arena Pernambuco. (USA TODAY Sports: Winslow Townson)

Costa Rica’s qualification for the second round of the World Cup certainly counts as a surprise but nothing about the manner of their 1-0 victory over the Italians on Friday suggests it is lucky or undeserved.

Group D rivals England are eliminated and Italy and Uruguay are left to fight for the second spot after Costa Rica produced another classy and confident display.

Christian Bolanos, Bryan Ruiz and Junior Diaz were not names that anyone expected to be talking about when it came to decisive players in a Group D that was considered one of the toughest in the tournament.

Yet all three were outstanding in Recife in an intelligent and controlled victory that was a credit to the astute work of their Colombian coach Jorge Luis Pinto.

A Costa Rica win over Italy should have been a major shock, with the underdogs battling it out with the four-times world champions, but instead it felt like a relatively routine win for the Central Americans.

After their 3-1 opening win over Uruguay, also achieved with a degree of comfort, Costa Rica qualify with a game to spare. A win against already eliminated England will make sure of top spot in the group.

If they do take first place, Costa Rica can feel realistically confident of reaching the quarter-finals for the first time - their opponent would be the second placed team in Group C - currently led by Colombia with Ivory Coast, Japan and Greece fighting for the other spot.

The performance of ‘Los Ticos’ so far is even more impressive when it is considered that prior to the tournament they lost their leading striker Alvaro Saborio to injury, adding to the absence of left-sided midfielder Bryan Oviedo.

Pinto and the team were left distraught at the knee injury to the hugely popular Saborio but they have responded by altering their system and arguably producing a more effective approach without their target man.

With Saborio as the focal point of their attack in qualifying, Costa Rica were at times too direct and somewhat predictable, but the forward pairing of Bryan Ruiz and Joel Campbell with the support from deeper of Yeltsin Tejeda, have become a modern, mobile trio that have stretched defenses.

Campbell was the star of the win over Uruguay but against Italy it was Ruiz who provided the main threat - not only scoring the winning goal with a firm header, but constantly irritating the Italian defense with his smart movement and close touch.

On the left, in the absence of Oviedo, Junior Diaz has taken on greater responsibility with his surging runs down the flank and his cross for Ruiz’s goal was perfectly executed.

The heart of the side though, as he was through an impressive CONCACAF qualifying campaign, has been Bolanos.

Like Ruiz at Fulham in England, Bolanos has not been in top form in Europe this season, but with his national team he exudes confidence bordering on arrogance when he is on the ball.

It is no mean feat to overshadow Andrea Pirlo in the creative midfield department but that is what Bolanos did on Friday with some style.

Pinto has created the flexibility in his midfield to allow the 30-year-old to float wide and push forward at will and that freedom has allowed Bolanos to shine.

The results so far are arguably the best that Costa Rica has managed at a World Cup.

True, ‘Los Ticos’ also reached the last 16 in 1990 with wins over Scotland and Sweden but their wins here have come against two top-ten ranked opponents.

And there is something about the business-like way in which they have dispatched Uruguay and Italy that suggests they may go on to cause a few more surprises yet.