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Costa Rica’s football team limps into daunting test against Panama

Costa Rica’s win over Haiti in Friday’s World Cup qualifier may have given “La Sele” three points in group play, but it also cost the team three players who sustained significant injuries during the CONCACAF Group B match.

The team was already without some of its key players, including its best player, goalkeeper Keylor Navas. The most recent string of setbacks leaves La Sele even more vulnerable heading into Tuesday’s game with rival Panama.

In his first five games, Óscar Ramírez has mixed up his lineups significantly, looking for the best combination to suit his defensive-minded approach, which features a line of five defenders in front of goal. Now with more starters out than ever before — six in all — Ramírez faces his biggest coaching challenge to date in coming up with a lineup to defeat the Panamanians in their own country.

Midfielder Celso Borges, who is a key part of Ramírez’s scheme because of his adept defense and ability to counter on offense, was carted off the field in tears in the first half against Haiti on Friday. He apparently knew the severity of his foot injury, a fracture that will keep him sidelined for up to four months.

A pair of fellow starters, forward Johan Venegas and defender Oscar Duarte, were diagnosed with ailments after the game ended and will both be unavailable for Panama.

Even before the latest rash of injuries, Costa Rica’s offense looked disorganized and uncoordinated. Strikers like Venegas and Joel Campbell have had constant difficulties with finishing plays and always seem to be playing to make the spectacular happen rather than looking for an extra pass. Again against Haiti, despite dominating the first half, the Ticos looked panicky each time they had the ball and lost any semblance of patience.

A game that easily could have been 3-0 at halftime against an outmatched Haitian team ended up being much closer because of Costa Rica’s erratic behavior on offense.

“There was a 20- to 25-minute stretch there were we had three or four occasions to score against them or be scored on ourselves,” Ramírez said after the game. “We should have scored a second goal there to make it 2-0 and get rid of the chance of them tying it, but we knew it was going to be a complicated game.”

Against Panama, Ramírez will likely look to the burly Kendall Watson to take Duarte’s place on the back end, while 2014 World Cup team member Christian Bolaños should take over for Venegas. The 31-year-old Bolaños is coming off a brutal game in the first qualifying match, where he made a succession of bad passes and botched a potential breakaway opportunity after checking in in the 61st minute.

As expected, veteran Patrick Pemberton played another admirable game in goal and saved Costa Rica’s victory when he made a diving block on a Haitian shot that was headed for the corner of the goal. The Alajuelense goalkeeper has clearly maintained the trust of Ramírez, his former club coach, to be given the consistent nod in place of Navas. If it wasn’t for Pemberton’s heroics, Costa Rica would have started in a hole while trying to escape from the group that might be the toughest of the three CONCACAF qualifying brackets.

“There are some games that you just have to escape from,” Ramírez said. “It might be an ugly win, but we’ve been in these situations and we know how important getting those three points are.”

Panama also earned three points with its 2-0 win against Jamaica on Friday and now holds a slight lead over Costa Rica in group play because of the goal differential (2-1). As Panama looks for its first ever qualification into a World Cup, a win against its neighbor to the north would give it sole possession of first place and a leg up to be one of the six teams that qualifies for the next round of the regional tournament. In all, four teams from CONCACAF will be given bids to the 2018 World Cup. Besides the mainstays of Mexico and the United States, Costa Rica and Panama are favored to fill in the other two spots, although a surging Trinidad and Tobago team could easily steal one.

Fortunately for the Tico squad, there is a four-month layover before regional qualifying play resumes for CONCACAF, which should give all six of the sidelined starters enough time to get healthy.

Tuesday’s game will be the first of two World Cup qualifying matches between Costa Rica and Panama, which will meet again in the last day of group play on Sept. 6, 2016. Kickoff for Tuesday’s match is scheduled for 8:30 p.m. from Rommel Fernandez Stadium in Panama City.

La Sele’s injured players

  • Celso Borges (foot)
  • Oscar Duarte (calf)
  • Keylor Navas (groin)
  • Bryan Oviedo (hamstring)
  • Yeltsin Tejeda (leg)
  • Johan Venegas (nose)


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