Most would agree Brazil 2014 has been as exciting as any World Cup group stage in recent memory. The tournament began with an unbelievable twelve consecutive matches without a draw. Of those first twelve matches, five were come-from-behind victories with two of the five genuine upsets (Netherlands-Spain and Uruguay-Costa Rica). We've seen goals galore, open attacking play, and a few late game winners (kudos to you John Anthony Brooks—your pride/joy/shock/collapse celebration will be remembered by Americans for years).
That said, over the past four days we've also been subjected to three 0-0 results. Guillermo Ochoa's otherworldly performance in goal against Brazil (coupled with some atrocious Brazilian finishing) is the kind of 0-0 fans everywhere can appreciate, but Iran-Nigeria and Japan-Greece were both dreadful affairs. With Italy-Costa Rica we could be in for much of the same.
Casual followers of soccer, particularly in North America, have always struggled with the Italian approach to in-game tactics. For many, including this writer, Italy's hiring of former Fiorentina manager Cesare Prandelli after the 2010 World Cup signaled a sea change in Italian soccer. Prandelli, a tactical progressive, led an enjoyable, risk-taking, Italian side to a surprise appearance in the final of Euro 2012. Relying on the typically staunch Italian defense, Prandelli has built his team around incisive passing (mostly from the genius that is Andrea Pirlo) and intricate, often breathtaking, attacking in the final third of the field. Prandelli's Italy, at its best, allows players the freedom to express themselves.
Against England, Prandelli recognized Roy Hodgson's total inability to adjust his tactics, clogged the Italian back line, and strangled the English attack. It was the playground equivalent of a tall kid dominating at tetherball against a classmate yet to experience their growth spurt. England huffed and puffed while the Italians barely broke a sweat (in the steamy climate of Manaus no less).
However, Costa Rica should present a whole different set of problems for the Italians. Costa Rica are buzzing after the greatest win in the country's soccer history. The 5-4-1 Costa Rica employ is surprisingly durable and tough to beat (just ask anyone who regularly watches CONCACAF). A draw for Costa Rica against Italy should be considered nearly as valuable as a win. For the Ticos, four points through their first two group games would eliminate England from the World Cup and put them one step closer to the improbable—a place in the knockout stage.
Costa Rica bear more than a few similarities with another small, unheralded nation of recent World Cup History. In 2002, Senegal, participating in their first and only World Cup, stunned reigning champion France before securing a draw against eventual group winners Denmark. Senegal were solid defensively and relied heavily on a mercurial attacking talent from a less well-known French club side, experiencing the month of his life. In Joel Campbell, Costa Rica have their direct analog to El Hadji Diouf, a player who seemed utterly unstoppable in their opening match against Uruguay. This Costa Rica is better than that Senegal team—in addition to Campbell, Costa Rica are blessed with goalkeeper Keylor Navas. Navas, who fans of La Liga will recognize, was outstanding when called upon against Uruguay and, if hot, can be as unbeatable as any keeper at this World Cup. A solid, organized defense, an in-form striker, and a top notch goalkeeper is as good a formula as any small country could hope for in international play.
The onus to break the deadlock will be entirely on Italy and the Azzurri, a team that drew 0-0 with Ireland and 1-1 with mighty Luxembourg in their tune-up games, aren't immune to playing down to the competition. Can Italy breakthrough? They certainly have the talent to run away with this game. Will they? If not, we could be staring at our fourth 0-0 match of the tournament—a result that would suit both sides. If the game goes that route, lets hope it's a scoreless draw of the Brazil-Mexico variety.
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