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La Sele looks to clinch spot for final round of World Cup qualifying

One point is all Costa Rica needs to move on to the final round of World Cup qualifying. Whether it’s through a win or a tie in Port-au-Prince on Friday night against Haiti, La Sele can secure a spot in CONCACAF’s Hexagonal, the six-team round-robin where three automatic qualifying bids are up for grabs.

Following a disappointing showing in the Copa América earlier this year, the Costa Ricans should be able to bounce back against a Haiti side that is winless in group play.

Despite its flop on the world stage at the Copa, Costa Rica has been playing well enough in World Cup qualifying to build a comfortable lead in CONCACAF’s Group B over Panama, Jamaica, and last-place Haiti. With the 10 points the team made off its 3-1-0 record against those teams, La Sele players say they’re now heading to Haiti looking to lock up the group and move one step closer to the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

“We’re just thinking about getting that one point,” said starting defender Óscar Duarte at practice earlier this week. “We’re coming in thinking about winning right away against Haiti and closing it out.”

Giancarlo’s Return

One of Duarte’s buddies in the middle of Costa Rica’s defense, center back Giancarlo González, is back for La Sele after not being called up for the Copa América. It’s no secret that the defender that plays for Palermo in Italy’s Serie A has not been the same since his amazing play in the 2014 World Cup, and his loss of form may be one reason why coach Óscar Ramírez didn’t take González to the U.S.

Without González manning the heart of the defense, Ramírez’s backline looked extremely shaky in all three of its Copa América matches. Johnny Acosta, who took González’s place in the Copa América and the two March qualifying games against Jamaica, has looked outmatched against more talented competition and is clearly not the long-term answer going towards the World Cup.

It’s essential that the 28-year-old González get back in form to revitalize the five-man backline that has become more and more shaky over the course of Ramírez’s year-long tenure.

Since right-winger Cristian Gamboa is joining the team late after just signing with Scotland’s Celtic, the backline against Haiti should look like this (in order from left to right): Ronald Matarrita, Duarte, Kendall Waston, González, and Bryan Oviedo.

No Navas, No Problem

World-class goalie Keylor Navas, who has only played in two games for La Sele in the past 15 months, will remain in Spain for the final qualifying matches as he recovers from the Achilles surgery that kept him out of the Copa América. Though Costa Rica is immediately made weaker without the Real Madrid star in net, his top backup Esteban Alvarado is returning from an injury of his own.

That’s encouraging news for the selection, as aging third-stringer Patrick Pemberton has turned in some uninspiring performances for La Sele lately. The bigger, more athletic Alvarado gives Ramírez’s group a much more stable option in goal against both Haiti and then at home against Panama on Tuesday.

Surely Navas will be needed in the final round of World Cup qualifying against the likes of Mexico and the United States, but against this round’s lower level of competition, Alvarado will do just fine in front of a Haiti side that poses no scoring threat. After Haiti lost to Costa Rica in the first match of the round in November, where it had zero shots on goal, the Haitians have failed to score a single goal since then in qualifying play.

Finding Some Offense

Costa Rica’s only offensive success in June’s Copa América came against a Colombia team that played most of the match with its backups. Even still, Colombia’s B-team is a lot more talented than most CONCACAF squads.

The biggest takeaway from the 3-2 win over “Los Cafeteros,” was the emergence of Johan Venegas in the striker role, where he showed he can do this:

Venegas later followed up that beautiful goal in the second minute later with an awesome nutmeg of a Colombian defender and a volley that ended with Colombia scoring on itself.

Costa Rica has long seen stagnant play from usual striker Marco Ureña, who seems to disappear for entire games and inspires little confidence as a finisher. Now it seems to be Venegas’ job to lose.

Haiti and Costa Rica will kick off from Port-au-Prince’s Stade Sylvio Cator Stadium at 6 p.m. Costa Rica time on Friday.

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