RECIFE, Brazil — Costa Rica has turned the table on the team’s World Cup expectations.
Or at least on everyone else’s expectations.
Costa Rica followed up its surprise win over Uruguay with another World Cup stunner on Friday, beating four-time champion Italy 1-0 to secure a spot in the next round and eliminate England in the process.
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After entering the tournament as an expected underdog in a group featuring three former world champions, Costa Rica is now on top.
"Maybe there are a lot of people who didn’t have faith in us because we were in the ‘Group of Death,’ said Costa Rica captain Bryan Ruiz, who scored the key goal. "But the other guys are the ones who are dead and we’re going to the next round."
Ruiz gave his side the lead in the 44th minute, heading in off the underside of the crossbar following a cross from Junior Diaz. Goal-line technology was used to show that the ball bounced down and in after hitting the bar.
There was a frenetic end to the first half, as moments before Ruiz’s goal Costa Rica had a penalty appeal waved away when striker Joel Campbell was bundled over by Giorgio Chiellini.
Costa Rica leads Group D with six points, while Italy and Uruguay have three each before Tuesday’s showdown. England has zero points after losing to Italy and Uruguay.
Italy (1934, 1938, 1982, 2006), Uruguay (1930, 1950) and England (1966) have won a combined seven World Cups.
Costa Rica’s only other appearance in the knockout phase came in its World Cup debut in 1990, when it beat Sweden and Scotland under experienced coach Bora Milutinovic before ultimately getting eliminated by Czechoslovakia.
"Those who haven’t supported us may believe in us right now," Ruiz said.
Italy, meanwhile, can still advance with a win or even a draw with Uruguay, since it leads on goal difference which is the first qualifying criteria.
"We gave our all. They did well to block every pass," Italy coach Cesare Prandelli said. "There’s no worry now. We just need to regain our energy."
It was exactly 24 years ago to the day that Costa Rica beat Sweden 2-1 to advance at the tournament in Italy.
"There are no more Cinderellas in football, especially in a competition like the World Cup," Italy captain Gianluigi Buffon said.
It marked the fourth consecutive World Cup in which Italy failed to win its second match, although only in 2010 did the Azzurri not advance.
"We’ll play a great match against Uruguay," second-half Italy substitute Antonio Cassano said. "I’m convinced we will. … If we regain our energy we can (advance) comfortably."
While it was nowhere near as hot as Italy feared at the Arena Pernambuco — 29 C (84 F) and 70 per cent humidity according to FIFA — the Azzurri still struggled to keep up with the speedy Ticos for long stretches.
Costa Rica coach Jorge Luis Pinto lined up five defenders but his squad was able advance forward with one swift, sweeping movement — just like in the 3-1 win over Uruguay.
"We did what we needed to do, we took away the game from the Italians," Pinto said.
The Azzurri hardly threatened until Mario Balotelli had chances in the 31st and 33rd minutes.
First, Balotelli was set up with a long, vertical pass from Andrea Pirlo and tried to lift the bouncing ball over the charging goalkeeper’s head but missed the target. Then the Azzurri forward had an effort from beyond the area stopped by goalkeeper Keylor Navas.
"If we had scored goals on those two chances for Balotelli, the match would have changed," Prandelli said.
Costa Rica kept its poise after the threats from Balotelli and in the 36th minute Buffon had to make a diving save to stop a shot from midfielder Christian Bolanos.
In the 43rd, Chiellini made an uncharacteristic error — gifting the ball to Campbell near midfield — and then raced back and committed what appeared to be a clear foul. However, Chilean referee Enrique Osses motioned to play on.
Prandelli attempted to stir things up by adding Cassano, Lorenzo Insigne and Alessio Cerci in the second half, providing the Azzurri with four forwards instead of just Balotelli, but the 2006 winners rarely came close to equalizing.
"It’s a deserved defeat," Prandelli said. "They were much more aggressive than us. They kept coming constantly and we weren’t able to stop them."
Italy: Gianluigi Buffon, Ignazio Abate, Andrea Barzagli, Giorgio Chiellini, Matteo Darmian, Daniele De Rossi, Antonio Candreva (Lorenzo Insigne, 57), Thiago Motta (Antonio Cassano, 46), Andrea Pirlo, Claudio Marchisio (Alessio Cerci, 69), Mario Balotelli.
Costa Rica: Keylor Navas, Giancarlo Gonzalez, Michael Umana, Celso Borges, Oscar Duarte, Christian Bolanos, Joel Campbell (Marcos Urena, 74), Bryan Ruiz (Randall Brenes, 81), Junior Diaz, Cristian Gamboa, Yeltsin Tejeda (Jose Cubero, 67).