Shunning the flamboyance and individuality that has previously characterized their game, Costa Rica and their collection of nimble attacking talents face Italy today ready to produce another World Cup shock.
The Central American nation were meant to be the sacrificial lambs in Group D, but stunned Uruguay 3-1 in their opening game.
In Fortaleza, Brazil, they showed admirable organization in defense and rapier-like speed on the break, setting themselves apart from previous Costa Rica teams who arrived at World Cups relying more on maverick individual talents.
“In the national team we’ve managed to build ourselves a little bit like Italy in 2006 — a solid defensive group with very good players in attack,” midfielder Celso Borges said in the run-up to the tournament. “When we win the ball we counterattack quickly. We don’t elaborate too much, it’s more like a knockout punch.”
With Joel Campbell, who scored their opening goal against Uruguay, spearheading their attack, they have a player capable of providing the cutting edge their smash-and-grab approach demands. Yet it remains to be seen whether they will be able to play in a similar vein against Italy, who will pose a different type of challenge.
Champions in 1934, 1938, 1982 and 2006, they delivered a reminder of their qualities of organization and patience in their 2-1 victory over England in the hot and steamy jungle conditions of Manaus.
Cesare Prandelli’s team have a long-established tradition of winning games without looking like world beaters and are unlikely to attack in the same manner as the more tactically naive Uruguay.
Andrea Pirlo showed against England that he remains the best midfield controller currently in the game and despite his advancing years, shrugged off the heat and humidity to dictate play against Roy Hodgson’s young side.
In Mario Balotelli they have a striker capable of capping largely anonymous performances with match-winning goals.
Costa Rica’s victory over Uruguay has also removed the element of surprise and put Italy on their guard against a similar upset.
“The game against Costa Rica is seen as the most dangerous game, because we play at 1pm local time and it will be really difficult,” midfielder Daniele de Rossi said, referring to the likely conditions in the northeastern city of Recife. “Can we beat Costa Rica? There is no longer a World Cup as it once was, like in Italia 90 when games ended 8-0. Teams are organized, with strong players, and you cannot afford to think Italy will beat Costa Rica just because we are called Italy.”
Italy hope goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon and defender Mattia de Sciglio will have recovered from injury in time for the game after both missed the win over England.
Buffon twisted his left ankle and was replaced by Salvatore Sirigu in goal, while De Sciglio has a calf problem.