It’s only been 75 days since Los Ticos secured their place in the World Cup play-offs, but the gravity of this contest has made it feel like a lifetime, as we all have been languorously counting down to this monumental fixture. And now, after the agonizing wait, the big game finally is upon us. Tonight Costa Rica and New Zealand face off in Doha, Qatar with the final World Cup place on offer, to join the other 31 qualified nations.
The weight of 2 nations will be felt by all 22 players who take to the pitch, even if the crowd in the stadium is relatively sparse. The Costa Rican government has declared a national holiday to allow people to watch the match (imagine if they win!)
For many players, this will be their only chance to play in the pinnacle footballing competition; for others, poignantly in the case of Keylor Navas, Bryan Ruiz and Celso Borges, their last opportunity to partake in the world’s biggest sporting event. A fitting swansong to their fantastic careers.
Decisively, at the end of the battle today, one of Costa Rica or New Zealand will be victorious in qualifying for the 2023 World Cup, the ultimate competition contested just once every 4 years. For fans, players, staff and anyone affiliated with the winning nation, a party, celebration, and emotion will ensue like no other. For the losing one, contrarily, disappointment, pain and dejection will be endured; such is the power of this beautiful sport.
So quite the prize dangles on these 90 minutes of football. Costa Rica has reached the last 2 consecutive World Cups (and 5 overall), But they are ravenous for more, most aspiring to replicate the beautiful experience and emotion of the 2014 World Cup.
When against all odds, La Sele reached the tournament’s quarter-final stage, and for a few dazzling weeks, the whole country was united in rejoicing the glory of the noble Tico players. Akin to tasting the finest champagne, one sip is not enough; you will always desire more!
New Zealand has qualified for just 2 in their history, the last being in 2010; despite being knocked out in the group stages, they never lost a match (drawing all 3), the only nation to do that in the whole tournament! So, both countries possess a reasonably proud footballing history.
Despite having almost identical populations (New Zealand 5.12 million and Costa Rica 5.14 million), Costa Rica (31st) are ranked a monumental 70 places above New Zealand (101st) in the FIFA rankings. Down in part to the low ranking of other Oceania football nations, meaning it’s hard to gauge an accurate ranking of this New Zealand side. But also, vastly due to football taking a tertiary standing in sports popularity in the country, with rugby and cricket much more prevalent.
However, this doesn’t mean a footballing World Cup wouldn’t mean a lot to the proud Kiwis, with a considerable number of fans making the arduous journey to Doha to watch the match and millions of others supporting from home hoping to witness redemption. As in both 2014 and 2018, New Zealand reached this stage of the qualification process, only to lose to Mexico and Peru, respectively.
And they have reason to be optimistic; the Pacific Island nation possesses several high-quality footballers. Commanding striker Chris Wood plays in the English Premier League with Newcastle, left-back Liberato Cacace plies his trade in Serie A with Empoli, and influential defender and captain Winston Reid played over 150 times in the Premier League with West Ham.
You can read a more extensive analysis of the New Zealand side here:
In today’s play-off encounter, The All Whites are rocked by the injuries of crucial midfielders Ryan Thomas and Sarpreet Singh in midfield, and in their absence, the side looks considerably weaker in a creative sense. However, with no World Cup in 12 years, for most of their players, this will be the game of their lives.
Here is the probable New Zealand lineup:
Oliver Sail (GK); Bill Tuiloma, Winston Reid (C), Tommy Smith; Joe Bell; Marko Stamenic, Liberato Cacace, Tim Payne, Matthew Garbett; Alex Greive, Chris Wood.
For Costa Rica, speculating the starting 11 is problematic, as so many positions are up for debate. Which formation will Luis Fernando Suárez choose, the 3-5-2 or 4-3-3? Will he favour the youth players who have served him well or pick experience in such a crunch game?
Who will start at right-back Keysher Fuller or Carlos Martínez? Who will start at centre-back with Kendall Waston, Francisco Calvo, Juan Pablo Vargas, Óscar Duarte all competing? Will the impressive Daniel Chacón start in midfield, or will Suárez rely on the trusted partnership of Borges and Tejeda? Amongst an array of other looming questions that only Suárez has the answers to. However, I would go with:
- GK) Keylor Navas (C)
- RB) Carlos Martínez
- CB) Kéndall Waston
- CB) Óscar Duarte
- CB) Francisco Calvo
- LB) Bryan Oviedo
- CM) Yeltsin Tejeda
- CM) Celso Borges
- RW) Joel Campbell
- LW) Johan Venegas
- ST) Anthony Contreras
I give Carlos Martínez the slight edge over Fuller due to his superior technical and defensive attributes, but I would also not be surprised if Suárez selected Fuller instead.
Against a side whose main goal threat is a 1.91m tall, strong and aerially dominant striker (Wood), a towering backline is imperative, hence my inclusion of Kéndall Waston, La Sele’s tallest defender and most commanding aerially. Also, my thought process behind setting up in a back 5, to help contain New Zealand’s most potent attacking threat.
Despite a lack of game time, I think Oviedo brings a vital big game experience to such occasions, like Borges and Tejeda, hence why I would include them all. And Campbell, Venegas and Contreras up top will scare most defenders with their quick and intelligent interplay.
The bench will also have a big part to play, with Bryan Ruiz, Gerson Torres and Brandon Aguilera all capable of changing matches. However, most importantly, the selections all come down to Luis Fernando Suárez, who can finally quell his persistent critics with victory.
There has been just one match between the 2 nations, a friendly held on March 24, 2007, at the Estadio Ricardo Saprissa Ayma in San Jose, Costa Rica. Costa Rica defeated New Zealand 4-0 thanks to a brace from Alvaro Saborio and goals from Alonso Solis and current captain Bryan Ruiz.
La Tricolorwill be hoping for another favourable result tomorrow. Still, with such a tremendous reward at stake, not to mention the relatively unknown quantity of this exciting and dangerous New Zealand side, everyone acknowledges that this play-off match is an entirely different proposition.
For both countries, this is the biggest football match in many years. Despite being played in a neutral country, the spirit of the 2 illustrious nations will be felt all around the Al Rayyan stadium.
Kick off for Costa Rica v New Zealand at 21:00 UTC.
Let’s hope the boys can bring the honor of another World Cup qualification to Costa Rica! Vamos La Sele.