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Jun 20, 2014

Three Points: Costa Rica defeat Italy

RECIFE, Brazil -- In 1990, Costa Rica provided a World Cup shock, beating Sweden and Scotland to qualify for the second round. It's a period that Tico fans look back on with nostalgia as the greatest football moment in the country's history. Or at least it was. Now it looks like that side will have to make way for the 2014 edition after Costa Rica beat Italy 1-0 on Friday to qualify for the knockout rounds.

Here are three thoughts on a famous win for Costa Rica that stunned Italy and also confirmed England's elimination from the 2014 World Cup.

1. Ruiz steps up to turn Group D into a champions' graveyard

When the World Cup draw was announced in December, Group D, with the presence of Italy, England and Uruguay -- three teams with a combined seven World Cups -- was pronounced the "group of champions." That moniker certainly didn't apply to Costa Rica, but now the Ticos have beaten two of those teams, and in this instance it came down to a gritty defensive performance and a moment of brilliance from Bryan Ruiz.

Ruiz had struggled mightily to have an impact in the Ticos' 3-1 tournament-opening win over Uruguay. But against the Azzurri he was more involved, even if he did take a while to get going. A long-distance effort in the 39th minute was easily saved by Italy goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, but it served to get Ruiz going. Three minutes later, a half-cleared corner kick found Ruiz on the right side of the box, and his deft chip was headed just over the bar by Oscar Duarte.

Bryan Ruiz scores the winner for Costa Rica.
Bryan Ruiz's excellent header in off the bar proved decisive against the Italians.

The Ticos had all of the momentum at this stage, and should have had a penalty in the 43rd minute when Joel Campbell appeared to be bowled over in the box by Giorgio Chiellini, only for referee Enrique Osses to wave play on.

Ruiz made the non-call academic with the help of some trademark wide play from his nation. Wing-backs Junior Diaz and Cristian Gamboa had been bottled up for most of the half, but Diaz shook free on the left wing, and his cross was nodded in off the underside of the bar by Ruiz.

Ruiz and his side benefited from another strong performance from Campbell, who proved to be a handful throughout. One is left to wonder just how much of an impression Campbell's performances have left on Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger, and if the forward's run of three straight seasons on loan is set to come to an end.

Campbell is 'good enough' for Arsenal

This was Ruiz's day, however, and one he will no doubt savor. The past season has not been kind to Ruiz, as he struggled at Fulham and was eventually loaned out to Dutch side PSV Eindhoven. Friday's performance certainly added a bit more sunshine to 2014.

As the final whistle blew, many of the Costa Rica players fell to their knees, overcome with emotion. Given the magnitude of what they achieved, it was totally understandable.

2. Pirlo dissects, but Balotelli can't finish

Costa Rica opted for a line of confrontation about midway inside Italy's half, with one of Yeltsin Tejeda or Celso Borges stepping close to Andrea Pirlo whenever one of his Italy teammates was about to play him the ball. For the first half-hour, it had the effect of creating an immense amount of congestion in midfield, and it made for grim viewing.

But Pirlo has always had an acute sense of what spaces are available, and with the middle clogged, he started going over the top in a bid to find Mario Balotelli. Find him he did, on several occasions, only for Balotelli's finishing to let him down.

A Balotelli knockdown from Pirlo's lofted pass found Thiago Motta in the 27th minute, but the subsequent shot was dragged well wide. Pirlo then found Balotelli again four minutes later, but a loose first touch from the AC Milan forward forced him to try and chip over keeper Keylor Navas, with that effort going wide as well.

ItalyItaly
Costa RicaCosta Rica
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Match 24
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Pirlo continued to pick apart the Ticos' defence. Another lofted ball from Pirlo was flicked on by Motta right into the path of Balotelli, but his shot was drilled right at Navas, who covered up after failing to corral the initial attempt.

Between several offside calls and a penalty shout early in the second half that went unheeded, not to mention a yellow card for pulling down Diaz, it was a frustrating day for Balotelli and the Azzurri.

Now Italy are faced with a high-stakes match against Uruguay, one that would see them advance with a draw thanks to a superior goal difference. But with Balotelli misfiring, and Uruguay's Luis Suarez in electric form, advancement is far from guaranteed.

3. Navas and his underrated defence hold firm

Italy attempted to get back into the match in the second half, bringing on Antonio Cassano for Motta, as well as Lorenzo Insigne for the disappointing Antonio Candreva. But aside from one Pirlo free kick in the 53rd minute that was well-saved by Navas, the Ticos' highly organised defence kept the Azzurri at bay.

The five-man back line of Diaz, Michael Umana, Giancarlo Gonzalez, Duarte and Cristian Gamboa all play for modest clubs. Ditto for the two-man midfield shield of Borges and Tejeda. But the team's organisation, crafted by manager Jorge Luis Pinto, has indeed proved to be impressive, and it nullified the flank play that was so effective for Italy in its opening-game victory over England.

All that remains now is the group finale against England, a match where a draw will be sufficient to secure the top spot in the group. That would mark the most points Costa Rica have ever accumulated in the group stage at a World Cup, and it would write yet another chapter in the Ticos' burgeoning history.