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World Cup preview: Costa Rica

Ahead of this summer's World Cup in Russia, Sports Mole assesses the chances of surprise Brazil 2014 quarter-finalists Costa Rica.

Costa Rica will make the trip to Russia for this summer's World Cup looking to upset the odds again following their remarkable run in Brazil four years ago.

The Central American nation were barely given a chance when drawn in the group of death alongside Uruguay, Italy and England, but they won their opening two matches to seal qualification with a game to spare.

The Costa Rica team line up before their friendly game with Belgium on June 11, 2018© Reuters

Indeed, they finished top of that group and made it all the way to the quarter-finals, so hopes will be high that they can produce some similar shocks this time around.

Here, Sports Mole looks at Costa Rica's chances at Russia 2018.


GROUP

Costa Rica's group-stage draw is not as daunting as it was four years ago, but they will still have a difficult battle on their hands to progress from Group E.

World Cup Group E

Five-time champions Brazil will be favourites to top the standings, while Switzerland will be fancied by many to also book their place in the knockout rounds ahead of Costa Rica and Serbia.

Victory in their first match against the Serbians could therefore be imperative for Costa Rica if they are to head into their final match against Switzerland still in with a chance of qualifying for the last 16.

COSTA RICA FIXTURES

June 17: Costa Rica vs. Serbia (1pm, Cosmos Arena, Samara)
June 22: Brazil vs. Costa Rica (1pm, Krestovsky Stadium, Saint Petersburg)
June 27: Switzerland vs. Costa Rica (7pm, Nizhny Novgorod Stadium, Nizhny Novgorod)


HOW THEY QUALIFIED

Costa Rica's qualifying campaign began in November 2015, and they made short work of the first stage by dropping just two points from their six games in Group B, finishing top of the pile above Panama, Haiti and Jamaica.

Things began well in the second phase too, with a 2-0 victory over Trinidad and Tobago being followed by a statement of intent against the United States, winning 4-0 in San Jose.

Costa Rica's players celebrate qualifying for the 2018 World Cup© Reuters

Costa Rica would only win two of their following eight games, but they picked up points on a regular enough basis to stay clear of trouble and eventually booked their place at this summer's tournament with a game to spare following a 1-1 draw with Honduras - although they needed a 95th-minute equaliser to prevent it going down to the wire.

There was more late drama in their final match as Panama sealed their own place at the tournament with a 2-1 win, but by that stage Costa Rica had done enough to secure second place behind Mexico in the CONCACAF standings.


RECENT FORM

A lack of consistency that plagued Costa Rica's qualifying campaign is something that has also been present in their pre-tournament friendlies.

In seven outings since booking their spot in Russia, Los Ticos have won two and lost five. Victories against Northern Ireland and Scotland since the turn of the year have been overshadowed by losses to Tunisia, England and Belgium.

Costa Rica's Bryan Ruiz celebrates scoring their first goal in the friendly against Belgium on June 11, 2018© Reuters

Costa Rica were outclassed for large parts of their 2-0 loss at Elland Road and, either side of an impressive Bryan Ruiz opener in their 4-1 loss to Belgium, they offered very little in an attacking sense.

Scoring goals continues to be a problem, while keeping out the opposition - two clean sheets in 10, despite Keylor Navas's best efforts - is also proving a tricky task.


SQUAD

Costa Rica World Cup squad

Goalkeepers: Keylor Navas (Real Madrid), Patrick Pemberton (Liga Deportiva Alajuelense), Leonel Moreira (C.S. Herediano).

Defenders: Cristian Gamboa (Celtic), Ian Smith (Santos de Guapiles F.C.), Ronald Matarrita (New York City), Bryan Oviedo (Sunderland), Oscar Duarte (Espanyol), Giancarlo Gonzalez (Bologna), Francisco Calvo (Minnesota United), Kendall Waston (Vancouver Whitecaps), Johnny Acosta (Rionegro Aguilas).

Midfielders: David Guzman (Portland Timbers), Yeltsin Tejeda (FC Lausanne-Sport), Celso Borges (Deportivo de La Coruna), Randall Azofeifa (C.S. Herediano), Rodney Wallace (New York City), Bryan Ruiz (Sporting CP), Daniel Colindres (Deportivo Saprissa), Christian Bolanos (Deportivo Saprissa).

Forwards: Johan Venegas (Deportivo Saprissa), Joel Campbell (Real Betis), Marco Urena (Los Angeles FC).


STAR PLAYER - Keylor Navas

Keylor Navas in action for Costa Rica on June 3, 2018© Reuters

There is a debate to be had as to whether Navas is good enough for Real Madrid - former manager Zinedine Zidane would certainly suggest so - yet his status as Costa Rica's number one is undisputed.

Playing for arguably the world's biggest club means that the 31-year-old is a local hero back home, and now he has a chance to cement his legacy with a star showing in Russia.

Navas improved in the second half of qualifying for a side that conceded just eight times in their 10 group-stage matches - a record bettered only by fellow finalists Mexico, who shipped seven.

Now, four years on from Costa Rica's famous run in Brazil, Navas and this settled core of players will look to grind out points in an attempt to reach the knockout stages once again.


MANAGER - Oscar Ramirez

Costa Rica manager Oscar Ramirez on March 27, 2018© Reuters

Oscar Ramirez was not Costa Rica's first choice to lead the team into this World Cup, with legendary former striker Paulo Wanchope initially appointed as manager in August 2015 and Ramirez named as his assistant.

Just a week after his appointment, though, Wanchope was involved in a fight in Panama which led to his resignation from his new role, and Ramirez was the man to take the reins for the World Cup qualifying campaign.

Having also served as assistant to the national team between 2006 and 2008 and played 75 times for his country as a midfielder, Ramirez has plenty of knowledge of the Costa Rican setup, but his only previous experience as a head coach has come at club level in his home country.

The 53-year-old did appear at the 1990 World Cup as a player, though, and also took in a number of other major tournaments during his 12-year international career.


WORLD CUP RECORD

Best finish: Quarter-finals (2014)

Costa Rica's players celebrate qualifying for the quarter-finals of the 2014 World Cup© Reuters

Costa Rica's memorable run to the quarter-finals four years ago is their greatest ever performance at the World Cup, beating Uruguay and Italy along the way and only crashing out in a penalty shootout against Netherlands.

Russia 2018 will be Costa Rica's fourth appearance from the last five World Cups, although they failed to make it beyond the group stages in 2002, when they missed out on goal difference, and 2006, when they lost all three of their group games.

Los Ticos' first ever appearance at the World Cup came in 1990, and they did make it past the group stages on that occasion, only to crash out at the hands of Czechoslovakia in the last 16.


PREDICTION

Costa Rica may have overcome greater odds in Brazil four years ago, but we're predicting Group E to be the tightest of all the groups, at least in the race behind Brazil. Our projection for the tournament has Serbia, Costa Rica and Switzerland all ending on two points, but Costa Rica just missing out on goal difference.

VERDICT: Third in Group E

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Costa Rica manager Oscar Ramirez on March 27, 2018
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