Costa Rica played their best half of football in several months in drawing Ireland, 1-1, in Philadelphia on Friday night. The Ticos had struggled mightily in recent friendlies -- appearing equal parts sloppy and timid since qualifying for Brazil last October.
- Report: Costa Rica 1-1 Ireland
But in the final half of their final warm-up before the World Cup, Costa Rica rediscovered the tenacity and smarts that took them to a second place finish in the CONCACAF region.
So at least they're heading to Brazil on a high-note.
Ironically, all of the Ticos' success came after one of their players was tossed from the match. Defender Giancarlo González received a red card after laying an elbow into Ireland's Kevin Doyle at the 41st minute. The contact sent blood pouring down the side of Doyle's face. He needed five stitches after the match.
The elbow came in retaliation for a harsh hit Gonzalez took earlier from Doyle. Costa Rica head coach Jorge Luis Pinto condemned Gonzalez's immature decision-making, acknowledging that playing with 10 players would be a death sentence for Costa Rica in Group D. González admitted to losing his own head in post-game interviews and apologized.
Doyle's dome played an important role at the 18th minute. The Irish forward headed in a goal, after surfacing unmarked in front of Costa Rica's net. The goal again exposed the weaknesses in the heart of Costa Rica's defense, a flaw that was exploited repeatedly in Japan's 3-1 win over La Sele on Monday.
With the ten-man Ticos forced to rally in the second half, the attack upped the pressure on Ireland. Striker Joel Campbell, held in check by Japan, became a constant nuisance for the Irish defense in the last 45 minutes. He penetrated well, and a crafty pass led to Marco Ureña getting taken down by goalie David Forde at the 62md minute. Celso Borges converted the penalty to equalize.
Costa Rica were losing the aerial battle for balls in the first half, so in the second half the squad relied on short, precise passes that produced longer possessions and more scoring chances. It was a strong enough second-half performance to allow Costa Rica to hold on for a tie against Ireland, who failed to qualify for the World Cup.
Patrick Pemberton made a glorious save on a Robbie Keane penalty to keep the match even. And Pemberton, who will back up Keylor Navas in Brazil, came up with a few more key stops to avoid another friendly loss.
Here are Costa Rica's results in friendlies since qualifying:
1-0 loss vs. Australia
4-0 loss vs. Chile
1-0 loss vs. South Korea
2-1 win vs. Paraguay
3-1 loss vs. Japan
And now a 1-1 tie vs. Ireland.
A couple of those losses came with Costa Rica resting their top players. And obviously too much weight shouldn't be placed on friendly results. Italy tied tiny Luxembourg this week and also played Ireland to a scoreless draw on May 31. Yet the Italians remain the odds-on favourite the win Group D.
Still, it seems Costa Rica got exactly what it needed out of this bloody exhibition -- some confidence, some gritty performances that created scoring opportunities and proof that even when the Ticos are struggling (and down a man) they're capable of turning their fortune around -- important traits for Group D's underdogs to uphold.