Costa Rica came away from El Salvador with a vital 2-1 win thanks to goals from Anthony Contreras and Joel Campbell in a tight affair to secure the ‘World Cup inter-confederation playoffs spot’ ahead of Panama.
Costa Rica went into the match in high spirits on the back of a grandstand victory against Canada on Friday and, as a result, unbeaten in 5 games.
The team fully understood that this was a must-win tie, with Panama playing the USA shortly afterwards and breathing down the Los Tico’s necks (just one point behind!). In the quest for the playoffs spot.
And with a difficult match against the USA awaiting in the final round of fixtures, who were 3 points above in the automatic qualification places alongside Mexico, the players knew the lesser opponents of El Salvador was a must-win contest.
With a 5 point gap favouring Panama just 5 matchdays ago, a playoffs spot seemed almost inconceivable for La Sele. But with Costa Rica picking up an impressive 13 points out of the last possible 15, and Panama dropping points, the tables turned, and now a World Cup playoffs spot is secured, and Qualification the tournament appears like an amazingly realistic prospect.
In terms of team news, Bryan Oviedo, Juan Pablo Vargas, Yeltsin Tejeda and Alonso Martínez came in for Rónald Matarrita, Gerson Torres, Orlando Galo and Johan Venegas.
The match started tensely in the historic Salvadoran Estadio Cuscatlán. And despite being unable to proceed to the World Cup, they faced a fiery and fully committed El Salvador side, who were also missing their influential captain Darwin Cerén.
The first clear cut chance was a brilliant save from Salvadoran goalkeeper Mario Martínez from a low Anthony Contreras shot from the edge of the box in the 17th minute.
Los Ticos took the lead on the 28th minute, with Anthony Contreras’s spectacular overhead kick after a poor clearance from a Joel Campbell free-kick. Quite the way to open your international scoring account. However, only a minute later, after the Costa Rican defenders switched off, El Salvador levelled proceedings through striker Cristian Gil.
Such a sloppy and frustrating goal for a defense who haven’t conceded a goal in 4 matches. The goal invigorated the home side, who looked fast and dangerous on the break.
Nonetheless, on the stroke of half-time, the away side restored the lead, thanks to a great run and cross from right-back Keysher Fuller who crossed for striker Joel Campbell to tap-in from close range.
At half-time Fernando Suárez replaced Alonso Martínez with the tailsmanic and experinced Bryan Ruiz. And not long after, Juan Pablo Vargas almost extended the lead after heading just wide from a teasing Campbell cross.
But overall, the second-half chances were at a premium, with it played out in classic Luis Fernando Suárez style. With the tactic of sitting back, soaking Salvadoran pressure and hitting them on the break.
On the 57th-minute defender, Kendall Waston was lucky to not concede a penalty after bringing down the tricky Gil.In the 87 minute, Watson agonizingly hit the post from a Ruiz set-piece, and Contreras scored the rebound, which was correctly ruled offside.
And despite some close shaves and nervy moments, notably the impressive Bryan Landaverde heading just wide in the final play, the stoic Costa Rican defence saw out the second half tremendously. And the 3 vital points were masterfully earnt, much to the relief of the players, coaches and amazing away support.
This joy was enhanced hours later when the USA thrashed Panama 5-1 to ensure that a CONCACAF playoff position was secured. There is a slim chance to qualify directly to the World Cup, but that would take a 5 goal margin victory against the USA, or a win against the USA, and a Mexico defeat to El Salvador as well as a 4 goal swing, which despite the miracle resurrection of the Los Ticos campaign in recent weeks, is highly unlikely, even for them!
But to be in a playoff spot is something all Costa Ricans would have gleefully taken just weeks ago and testament to the character and determination of the La Tricolor players. Below are my player ratings:
1) Keylor Navas-7.5/10 Had little to do, but what he had to do did well; his organisation and calming influence are crucial for the team.
3) Juan Pablo Vargas-8/10 A outstanding performance against high Salvadoran pressure
15) Francisco Calvo- 9/10 MOTM Arguably the best Costa Rican player of the campaign so far, put in another excellent shift. He must also be praised for his controlled work bringing the ball out from the back.
19) Kendall Waston- As usual, the powerful centre back was monumental in the air and made some vital clearances.
4) Keysher Fuller- 8/10 Fantastic assist for the winning goal, really cementing his spot in the right-back role.
8) Bryan Oviedo- 7.5/10 Tidy game from the reintroduced left-back
5) Celso Borges- 7/10- The heartbeat of the Costa Rican side understandably tired before being replaced and had one of his less notable performances, but still the anchor of the team.
17) Yeltsin Tejeda- 7.5/10 Tireless display from the essential midfielder.
16) Alonso Martínez- 6/10 Found it hard to get involved in proceedings and was replaced by Bryan Ruiz at half-time.
7) Anthony Contreras- 9/10 Fantastic goal, energetic, silky skills and important ball holding, arguably MOTM, he can be pleased with his performance.
12) Joel Campbell- 8/10 A few poor touches for his high standards, but still delivered when needed most.
10) Bryan Ruiz (46 minute for Alonso Martínez)- 7/10 The legendary playmaker found it hard to get into an ultra-defensive second-half set-up; however, he still provided some signature classy skills and touches.
14) Orlando Galo (72 minute for Celso Borges)- N/A
2) Carlos Martinez (72 minute for Keysher Fuller)- N/A
11) Johan Venegas (81 minute for Joel Campbell)- N/A
22) Ian Lawrence (89 minute for Bryan Oviedo)- N/A
Luis Fernando Suárez- 8/10 Has found an effective formula of grinding out results by taking the lead and then sitting back and defending in a low-block and organised manner. This is highlighted by the fact that each of the 6 victories in this campaign has been by a 1 goal margin. It may not be pretty on the eye, but it’s producing. In addition, he used all his experience to handle the game perfectly with his substitutes.
Next up for Costa Rica is the home match against the USA on Wednesday. The final game of the World Cup qualifying campaign will be played in front of a sold-out home crowd, hoping to recreate the electric atmosphere of the Canada contest, safe in the knowledge that their World Cup dreams are well and truly alive.