Costa Rica can't stumble vs. Greece
After closing out the group stage with a scoreless draw against England, Costa Rica topped Group D. As a result, the Ticos find themselves in unfamiliar territory in the knockout round -- as the favourite.
Costa Rica busted up three former World Cup champions in Group D, defeating Uruguay 3-1 and then Italy 1-0 before the tie against England. Yet in every one of those matches, bookmakers saw the Ticos as the underdog. La Sele coach Jorge Luis Pinto acknowledged as much before the match against the already-eliminated English, saying he didn't plan to take England lightly since many prognosticators still had the Three Lions winning.
On Sunday, Costa Rica will go from heavy underdog to the favourite on paper against Greece. Pinto must prepare his side mentally to avoid a letdown after outplaying three football giants. With a win, the Ticos will break new ground and reach the World Cup quarterfinals for the first time, where they will likely be cast back into underdog status against either the Netherlands or regional rival Mexico.
But Costa Rica can't get caught looking ahead. Any team that reaches the round of 16 brings a formidable challenge. Costa Rica players insisted that they didn't care which team their side played in the knockout round, even saying they had an edge on Colombia thanks to Pinto's job history. The Colombia-born coach led his homeland's national team from 2007 to 2008.
Still, the Ticos should be relieved to have drawn the Greeks and not anticipated opponent the Ivory Coast. The tricky, star-powered African squad fell 2-1 to Greece after a heartbreaking last-minute penalty.
Both the Greeks and Ticos are fledglings in the knockout round, with Costa Rica making their second appearance and Greece there for the first time. Each side is promising not to underestimate the other. But after trumping the "Group of Champions", Costa Rica should have an upper hand.
The teams will meet in boiling Recife, the site where La Sele collected one of their most impressive victories by knocking off Italy. Once again, the tropic-loving Ticos face a defensive European squad in this northeast Brazil metropolis. While Greece has some scorching hot summers, the country doesn't receive anywhere near the humidity tolerated in Costa Rica or Recife.
Their advantages extend beyond the climate. Like Italy and Costa Rica, this will be a match between two defensive sides; Greece used their strong defence to win Euro 2004. Unlike Greece, the Ticos' offence has at least made periodic displays throughout this tournament. The Greeks failed to score in their first two matches. They opened with a 3-0 walloping from Colombia, then a 10-man Greece played Japan to a scoreless tie.
Costa Rica went into a defensive shell against England to get the result they needed to take Group D, but in the team's first two showdowns, La Sele showed flashes of a brilliant attack. They looked dominant in their three-goal barrage in the second half against Uruguay and had multiple chances to score on Italy before Bryan Ruiz's header banged against the crossbar and beyond the goal line.
Greece tallied both of their goals this tournament in the upset of the Ivory Coast, although the second came on a penalty. Costa Rica gave up only one goal in the group stage. That score came on a penalty 21 minutes into the Uruguay match. They have been perfect ever since. If Costa Rica scores first in Recife, that could be enough to send them to the next round.
The Greeks also have dealt with locker-room divisions, and crowd support almost certainly will be behind the tiny Central American country. One more key factor aiding the Ticos is the "spy" they had in the Greek professional league last season.
Joel Campbell, one of the tournament's breakout stars, competed for Greek champions Olympiakos while on loan from Arsenal. The striker, who turns 22 on Thursday, snared eight goals and 10 assists during league play. Campbell knows the Greek style and even played alongside three Greece national team starters as a member of Olympiakos. Tactical mastermind Pinto will be picking Campbell's brain for every insight he can get on their opponent.
On Wednesday, midfielder Yeltsin Tejeda called Greece his "least expected opponent" in the knockout round. He promised not to underestimate the European squad, and to demonstrate his point Tejeda said he has already queried Campbell for tips on outwitting the Greek midfield.
All Ticos anxiously await to see their side in this historic duel.
Matthew Levin is a journalist based in San José, Costa Rica, where he has thrived on gallo pinto and fried plantains since 2010. He is a reporter and editor at The Tico Times and has had stories published by Reuters, The Global Post and The Arizona Republic. You can follow him on Twitter @mattlevin.