Expect Italy not overlook surprising Costa Rica in Group D clash
JUN 19, 2014 9:18p ET
If Costa Rica believe in omens, they may well think their rendezvous with Italy comes at exactly the right time. The Azzurri have a curious second-match disorder. Since beating Belgium comfortably in Euro 2000, they have failed to win their second tournament outing for six consecutive major finals. Three World Cups and three European Championships in sequence have passed with an Italian hiccup on matchday two.
Most of the time it hasn’t caused them too much long-term damage. Usually they manage to overcome the glitch and qualify from the group stage anyway. Twice, memorably, they didn’t. At Euro 2004 there were mutterings about a conspiracy theory. The so-called Nordic fix, as Denmark and Sweden played out a draw so they could march on together into the knockouts and eliminate Italy in the process, was of course pure coincidence. More recently, at the last World Cup in South Africa, it was not just the second game that caused Italy problems.
Costa Rica will bring a sense of adventure to this fascinating match in Group D. They earned that billing with a thrilling display to upend Uruguay and supply one of the enchanting shocks of this World Cup in Brazil. Having watched that, and having absorbed Los Ticos’ qualities, Italy feel forewarned. “There is no longer a World Cup as it once was, like in Italia 90 when games ended 8-0,” mused midfielder Daniele De Rossi. “Teams are organized, with strong players, and you cannot afford to think Italy will beat Costa Rica just because we are called Italy.”
Thiago Motta went so far as to say Italy had to approach this match as if it was a final, such was the importance of not underestimating their opponent. “Costa Rica played very well against Uruguay, ran a great deal and are not a surprise,” he assessed. “They have players in attack who can make the difference. Costa Rica are very quick at passing it forward and also accustomed to these temperatures, so we need to be very careful. In modern football there’s no such thing as an easily beatable team. Now there are two or three better than the rest, but if they are not playing at 100 percent then those sides struggle too.”
Italy’s core of experienced players know exactly what to expect. Perhaps one of the most pleasing elements of the win in their opening fixture against England was the blend between old and new. Matteo Darmian and Gabriel Paletta were playing a competitive game for their country for the first time. Marco Verratti and Andrea Candreva were World Cup debutants. There was so much encouragement taken from their performances, even if Italy still lean on their established stars. Andrea Pirlo, Mario Balotelli, and goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, who was back in training during the week, exert such vast influence, and they remain key to this contest in Recife.
This is a particularly intriguing match for Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger, who will have the chance to examine two potential strikers for next season in opposition. Joel Campbell put in an exhilarating performance in Costa Rica’s opening game, but he knows how helpful it would be to his cause if he can show some consistency of performance to add another string to his potential. As for Balotelli, he is hardly a secret.
Most pre-match wisdom suggested Group D included far too much power for Costa Rica. Having confounded expectation already, they aim to “keep surprising the world.” That was the message from their assistant coach, Paulo Wanchope, once a player who embodied the enigmatic technique and enthusiasm that was a hallmark of their opening performance against Uruguay. If they can repeat the feat against Italy, an extraordinary qualification to the knock-out phase would be in their hands.
On the flipside of that coin, if the Azzurri end the curse of matchday two, control of Group D will be theirs.