50-50 Challenge: Costa Rica vs. Greece
Costa Rica was the shock winner of Group D and now face another surprising team in Greece for a place in the quarterfinals of the World Cup. Our ESPNFC bloggers Matt Levin (Costa Rica) and Chris Paraskevas (Greece) preview the round of 16 tie.
Form and fitness
Matt Levin: The trailblazing Ticos arrive in Recife in superb shape. They're healthy and they're loving competing in Brazil's tropical weather. Only two players have even picked up a yellow card: centre-back Giancarlo Gonzalez and reserve midfielder Jose Miguel Cubero. And most importantly, La Sele are brimming with confidence after topping a group with Italy, Uruguay and England. Costa Rica should be well-rested, too. The Ticos clinched their spot in the knockout round in their second match, a 1-0 win over Italy. And so Costa Rica used their final encounter against England to play reserves and give a break to some starters.
Chris Paraskevas: Goalkeeper Orestis Karnezis is battling to be fit for the Costa Rica match after being forced off against the Ivory Coast. Panagiotis Kone, the attacking midfielder who has impressed for Greece at this tournament, will miss the game through injury. Greece delivered its best performance under Fernando Santos in their final group game to qualify: It was an unusually proactive display.
The big question for the Portuguese coach is whether he returns Kostas Katsouranis to the starting line-up. Katsouranis was suspended against the Ivory Coast and has been poor in Brazil, though he is one of Santos' most trusted players (they have worked together extensively at club level). If he does start, it will be at the expense of another Euro 2004 veteran, Giorgos Karagounis.
Beyond that, expect Lazaros Christodoulopoulos to retain his place on the left wing, with Georgios Samaras playing as the lone striker. The former Celtic man wrote his name into Greek folklore with an injury-time penalty against the Ivory Coast, taking Greece into the knockout stages for the first time in their history.
World Cup history
ML: Costa Rica and the Greeks have never met before in the World Cup or anywhere else. The Ticos are in the knockout round for only the second time in four tournament appearances. The Greeks are here for the first time in three attempts (However, Greece have the more impressive prize between the two sides after winning Euro 2004). Both teams will bring a similar style to the pitch. They rely on a shutdown defense and a lethal counterattack, and one goal might be all that's necessary to win this battle. This match also could very easily come down to penalties. In Recife -- the same sweltering city where Costa Rica beat an equally defensive Italian team -- La Sele hope at least to maintain an edge with their conditioning.
CP: This will be the first meeting between these countries, and the stage could not be bigger. Greece has a fairly short history when it comes to nations from the CONCACAF, so this promises to be a really interesting clash of styles, particularly because Costa Rica are reminiscent in set-up and approach to the Greek team that won Euro 2004.
ML: Joel Campbell vs. the Greek defence. Campbell is supposed to be the Costa Rica's trump card in this match. He spent the last season on Greek league champions Olympiacos on loan from Arsenal. He was a key contributor to the club, and Campbell has all the insights on how the Greeks play. The striker will even see a few of his Olimpiacos teammates on Sunday, including accomplished defender Kostas Manolas. La Sele coach Jorge Luis Pinto surely will incorporate Campbell's knowledge of the Greek side into his game plan. Campbell, who just turned 22 on Thursday, looks fully capable of keeping up his fantastic play in Brazil against a rival he knows well.
CP: Joel Campbell v. Kostas Manolas. These two were both stars for Olympiacos this season domestically and in the UEFA Champions League and will know each other's game inside out. They have also hit form at this tournament, with Manolas the stand-out Greek defender and Campbell suddenly a chance to nail down a place at parent club Arsenal next season.
Campbell's pace and direct running style has the potential to upset the Greece back line, which is why it's so important that Manolas is at his best. The latter has proven adept at covering his fellow defenders and reads the game superbly. He is also excellent in one-on-one situations. This is a key match-up in what will probably be a tight game.
Why does your side deserve to progress?
ML: The Ticos might be the tournament's Cinderella story, but this is a frightful team to prepare for. Costa Rica vanquished three former World Cup champions to take Group D, and La Sele managed to out-coach and outplay each of their three opponents. There's a lot to admire on the pitch, from the anonymous back line to the undervalued stars such as Campbell and Bryan Ruiz. And the Ticos have Keylor Navas, one of the best keepers in the world in goal. As Brazil's giant-killers, the crowd will be on the Ticos' side, which doesn't hurt either. After all they've accomplished so far, it could feel like a letdown to fall to a Greek team with minus-two goal differential. Costa Rica can best the success of their historic 1990 World Cup team with a win in Recife.
CP: In a World Cup that has seen a number of notable individual performances from the likes of Lionel Messi, Xherdan Shaqiri, Thomas Mueller, Karim Benzema and Neymar, Greece still draws its greatest strength from its unity. Football is still a team game, and it is difficult to think of a squad as devoid of "star names" as the Greek one.
Perhaps it is an unfashionable quality to have at a time when expensive commercials and colourful football boots are in vogue, but that is precisely why Greece are such an interesting team: because they are so simple, unified and hard-working in their approach. Unus pro omnibus, omnes pro uno.
ML: 2-0 Costa Rica. I don't see Greece scoring on a defence that has given up only one goal -- on a penalty -- all tournament. The creative Tico attack will wear down the Greeks. And this small, army-less Central American country will march into the World Cup quarterfinals.
CP: Greece 2, Costa Rica 0. With Samaras suddenly hitting form, I think Greece can get an early goal here and settle. Their experience in the knockout stages of major tournaments could be the crucial factor.