English optimism is a funny old conundrum. Every conversation here in Sao Paulo, the day after yet another disappointing defeat left Roy Hodgson’s men depending on other results to reach the knock-out stages of the World Cup, started with one line: “After Italy beat Costa Rica.”
Ignorance is bliss, and unaware of the ability of the dogged Central Americans, the more positive England fans amongst the crowd watching Italy’s toil in Recife were already plotting how the Three Lions could muster two or more goals, with Uruguay supposedly set to struggle against a rampant, well-organised Italian outfit in the Group D decider in four days’ time.
Yet, after England were undone by a route one winner, a type of goal made famous on our shores, Costa Rica showed the beleaguered England backline just how to defend, and how basic organisation and complete concentration can provide the platform for even the most unexpected results.
Italy coach Cesare Prandelli is an advocate of an organised unit, and with his work with Coverciano – the brain centre of the Italian game - the veteran coach has built on Italy’s reputation for defending to assemble an expansive side that were just too much for England in the humidity of Manaus.
Possession-wise, it was the same old story against the Costa Ricans in Recife. Enjoying 61% of the ball, Andrea Pirlo and the rest controlled large parts of the play in midfield, but whereas they were able to pick their moments against England, Los Ticos never looked troubled, and despite Prandelli’s numerous tactical changes, everything the Azzurri had in their attacking arsenal was simply not enough.
Immediately dismissed as the Group D whipping boys, Costa Rica were more than happy to prepare for the tournament under the radar, with their more illustrious opponents grabbing the limelight.
But if you take into account their impressive defensive record in qualification for this summer’s showpiece, it is not all that surprising that Jorge Luis Pinto’s men are more than capable of holding their own.
Costa Rica finished the CONCACAF qualification campaign conceding just seven goals, one fewer than group winners USA, and in goalkeeper Keylor Navas, they have one of Europe’s hottest properties.
The Levante stopper made more saves than any other goalkeeper in Europe’s top five leagues last season, 160 in total, and has proved on the biggest stage of all, that he is as dependable as they come.
Without having to make a top drawer save, Navas shut out the Italians by sticking to the basics, and keeping the ball away from the dangerzone.
Even when the multi-faceted Pirlo fired a dipping, swerving free-kick towards his goal, the 27-year-old not only got two hands to the ball, but diverted the effort well out of harm’s way.
Much like the fabled Italian defensive style of old, organisation was key to the Costa Ricans keeping out the plethora of Italian talent, and a perfect offside trap, which caught out the Italians 11 times, not only thwarting the Azzurri’s attacks, but adding to their growing frustrations.
England had their chances in their tournament opener in Manaus, which helped to maintain a sense of optimism amongst the travelling Three Lions faithful, a buoyant feeling which remained ahead of Italy’s meeting with such supposed inferior opponents in Recife.
Yet, after the Central Americans outplayed the Azzurri at their own game, attention has switched to a post-mortem of Roy Hodgson’s tactical acumen, and whether or not this current crop of English talent has what it takes to end 48 years of hurt anytime soon.
Group minnows to knock-out round progression after just two games is certainly a turn up for the books, but after going back to basics, and playing with a freedom Hodgson and his technical team can only envy, Costa Rica have proved that with the right organisation even the most unfancied can succeed in Brazil.