After a surprise run to the quarter-finals in the 2014 World Cup and a slightly more favourable group draw than the one they were dealt in Brazil, Costa Rica will be cautiously optimistic about their chances in Russia.
Many of the heroes from four years ago – including Keylor Navas, Bryan Ruiz, Joel Campbell and Cristian Gamboa – will again be on show in Russia, but this is a team that will once more strive to be greater than the sum of its parts.
The likes of Ruiz and Campbell have barely featured for their clubs this season and there is feeling that this “golden generation” are perhaps not quite the force they were in 2014, but in Navas at least they possess a world-class goalkeeper at the peak of his powers.
Oscar Ramirez’s side begin their World Cup campaign against Serbia in Samara on Sunday 17 June, before taking on Brazil in Saint Petersburg five days later. Switzerland are Costa Rica’s final group opponents in Nizhny Novgorod on Wednesday 27 June.
The Road to Qualification
Costa Rica entered the CONCACAF qualifying section at the fourth-round stage and made light work of their group opponents, Panama, Jamaica and Haiti. Only the Reggae Boyz managed to hold the Costa Ricans to a draw, with the five other group fixtures going the way of Ramirez’s team.
Los Ticos qualified for the fifth round with a match to spare, scoring 11 goals and conceding on only three occasions en route to the “Hexagonal”.
Costa Rica started their “Hex” campaign in blistering form, a 2-0 victory over Trinidad and Tobago preceding a 4-0 humiliation of the United States in San Jose.
Joel Campbell scored twice off the bench in the routing of the US, with Christian Bolanos and Johan Venegas also on target.
This strong start meant that Costa Rica were never to dip out of the automatic qualification places, even after a subsequent three-match winless run which featured a 2-0 loss to Mexico and draws with Honduras and Panama.
Back-to-back wins in the return fixtures against Trinidad and Tobago and the US preceded a 1-1 draw with Mexico, which took Los Ticos to the brink of qualification.
A stoppage-time equaliser from Kendall Waston in the 1-1 draw with Honduras saw Costa Rica over the line before their dramatic final-day encounter with Panama, in which a “ghost goal” helped the Panamanians to a 2-1 win and their first ever World Cup qualification.
Costa Rica’s tally of 14 goals scored in ten qualifying matches was beaten by Mexico (16) and the US (17), while Mexico (seven) were the only CONCACAF nation to concede fewer goals than Costa Rica (eight) in the “Hex”.
Ramirez deployed a 5-4-1 formation throughout qualification – the same set-up used so successfully in Brazil four years ago by former coach Jorge Luis Pinto – and indeed in their subsequent international friendlies.
CONCACAF Fifth Round
Most starts: Celso Borges, Bryan Ruiz (10), Keylor Navas (9), Kendall Waston, Johnny Acosta, Cristian Gamboa (8), Christian Bolanos (7), Bryan Oviedo, Francisco Calvo, Marco Urena (6), Randall Azofeifa, Johan Venegas (5)
Most goals: Marco Urena (3), Christian Bolanos, Johan Venegas, Kendall Waston, Joel Campbell (2)
Most assists: Bryan Ruiz, Christian Bolanos (3), Rodney Wallace (2)
Costa Rica have contested five friendlies since qualification was sealed, with two matches still to come. Only one of those fixtures was at home – a 3-0 win over Northern Ireland – with the rest played on foreign soil. Defeats to Spain, Hungary and Tunisia were separated by a 1-0 win over Scotland in March.
The Key Targets
Joel Campbell (£6.4m on Fantasy iTeam | £7.0m on McDonald’s FIFA) was one of Costa Rica’s stand-out performers in 2014 and looks set to play a significant role in this year’s tournament.
Campbell is still on Arsenal’s books but has again spent another season away from north London – this time at Real Betis.
Fitness is a huge cause for concern, with knee and ankle injuries meaning Campbell was restricted to just two starts and six substitute appearances for the La Liga club in 2017/18.
Indeed, Campbell started just two of his country’s ten qualification fixtures, appearing as a substitute in a further four matches.
Two goals and an assist in those fleeting qualifying appearances hinted at Campbell’s attacking potential, but it was the Arsenal winger’s performance in the 3 June friendly with Northern Ireland that particularly caught the eye.
A goal and an assist capped off a man-of-the-match performance against Michael O’Neill’s men, with Campbell completing the full 90 minutes to suggest that he has returned to full fitness.
Though listed as a forward, Campbell will possibly play wide-right in Ramirez’s 5-4-1, cutting in onto his favoured left foot and supporting the sole striker in attack.
Campbell is likely to take his fair share of set-pieces too, having provided the assist for Francisco Calvo’s goal from a corner-kick in the 3-0 win over the Northern Irish.
Bryan Ruiz (£5.7m on Fantasy iTeam | £7.5m on McDonald’s FIFA) is the preferred option on the opposite flank to Campbell, but match-fitness issues dog the former Fulham man too.
Ruiz made just 11 league starts for Sporting CP this season, his first coming in January, and completed 90 minutes of action on only three occasions.
An ever-present in qualification, Ruiz scored one goal and supplied three assists in his ten appearances.
An unused substitute in the victory over Northern Ireland, Ruiz has friendly fixtures against England and Belgium to prove his fitness.
Ruiz top-scored for Costa Rica in the 2014 World Cup with two goals.
Keylor Navas (£5.9m on Fantasy iTeam | £5.0m on McDonald’s FIFA) has fond memories of that quarter-final run in Brazil, having conceded just two goals in five World Cup starts in 2014.
Three of Navas’ displays led to man-of-the-match awards and he was one of three goalkeepers to be nominated for the Golden Glove. The Real Madrid custodian made an average of 4.2 saves per game in his five appearances in Brazil, which would translate into healthy save points for Fantasy managers this time around.
Costa Rica’s group opponents in Russia – Brazil, Serbia and Switzerland – all scored an average of at least two goals per match during qualifying, which would suggest that Navas will again be busy this summer.
Navas kept four clean sheets in nine qualification appearances for Costa Rica, conceding six goals in those other five fixtures.
The Long Shots
Having cruelly missed the 2014 World Cup through injury, Bryan Oviedo (£5.5m on Fantasy iTeam | £5.0m on McDonald’s FIFA) will finally get his chance to play on the big stage this summer.
Oviedo will feature at left-back in a five-man Costa Rica defence, but – along with opposite full-back Cristian Gamboa (£5.5m on Fantasy iTeam | £5.0m on McDonald’s FIFA) – will be encouraged to bomb forward as much as possible and provide crosses into the opposition box.
Oviedo indeed collected an assist in the 1-0 win over Scotland in March, having supplied a low cross from the by-line for Marco Urena to convert.
Gamboa’s deliveries can be as potent as Oviedo’s and the Celtic man also collected an assist during qualification, creating Christian Bolanos’s opener in the 2-0 win over Trinidad and Tobago. Once again, the goal came from an attacking incursion made by the Costa Rican full-back deep into the opposition penalty area.
Listed as a midfielder in Fantasy iTeam, Johan Venegas (£5.4m) could find himself favourably out of position as Costa Rica’s sole striker in Russia.
Venegas featured in that advanced position during qualification – scoring once in the fourth round and twice in the “Hex” – and started as the lone forward in the 3-0 win over Northern Ireland, grabbing the opening goal. Venegas is priced up as a £6.5m striker on McDonald’s FIFA.
Marco Urena (£6.2m on Fantasy iTeam | £7.0m on McDonald’s FIFA), who scored four goals over two rounds of qualifying fixtures, is the other option for Ramirez up front.
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