After what feels like an eternity, the opening fixture of Costa Rica’s World Cup campaign is finally upon us. Against the old foe Spain a nation that colonized Costa Rica for over 300 years until 1821.
And the European country head into the game as the heavy favorite. A nation 9 times the population of Costa Rica (47.3 million v 5.1 million), placed 24 spots higher in the World rankings (7th compared to Los Ticos 31st placement) and possesses one of the most famous domestic leagues in the world in La Liga.
12 years ago, they won the World Cup with their innovative tiki-taka football, but a lot has changed since then, and Sergio Busquets is the only surviving member of that infamous squad.
Since winning the tournament in 2010, La Roja have crashed out in the group stages in 2014 and was knocked out on penalties by Russia in 2018 in the last 16.
However, they are now seeing an exciting new generation form, with stars like Pedri, Gavi, Alejandro Balde, and Ansu Fati all under the age of 20. In fact, they have the fourth youngest squad in the entire tournament.
And they are reaping the rewards of this emphasis on youth, comfortably securing their spot in the finals of the World Cup by finishing top of Group B. Picking up 19 points from their eight matches courtesy of a record of six wins, one draw, and one defeat.
But there are also reasons for Los Ticos to be optimistic; no other nation has lost more World Cup opening matches than Spain’ (losing 7 in 13 appearances. And La Sele are one of the in-form sides in the tournament, winning 9 out of 12 fixtures in 2022, drawing twice, and losing just once.
As a result, they have climbed 14 places in FIFA’s World rankings this year – more than any other nation in the competition.
Spain have no current injury problems in their squad, and head coach Luis Enrique has big decisions to make regarding his forward line, and Ansu Fati and Ferran Torres could ultimately get the nod alongside Alvaro Morata, who is the leading goalscorer in the squad with 27 goals.
It is set to be an all-Barcelona midfield, with Gavi and Pedri playing alongside Sergio Busquets, while Pau Torres is expected to get the nod alongside Aymeric Laporte in the middle of the defence.
Unai Simon will start between the sticks, while Dani Carvajal and Jordi Alba are preparing to line up in the full-back positions for Spain, who should be in a 4-3-3 formation.
Costa Rica’s head coach, Luis Fernando Suárez, is expected to continue the tactics that served him so well in recent months, an organized, resilient, compact, and defensive set-up in a 4-3-3 formation, which would become a 4-5-1 when they do not have the ball.
Expect Spain to dominate possession, with Los Ticos aiming to contain them and hurt them on counter-attacks and set-pieces.
There are a few selection dilemmas for Fernando Suárez to consider before the match, with Keysher Fuller and Carlos Martínez battling for the vacant right-back spot. On recent evidence, it appears as though Martínez has the edge for the position.
At left-back, the experienced Bryan Oviedo has a slight advantage over Rónald Matarrita due to the FC Cincinnati man still recovering from a severe tendon injury. But expect Matarrita, a player vital to La Sele’s turnaround in fortunes in CONCACAF qualification, to still play a significant role in the tournament.
If Fernando Suárez decides to go even more defensive, then the man mountain that is Kendall Waston would most likely slot into the middle of a back 5 at the expense of Gerson Torres, but this is a formation he prefers to use to see out games rather than start with.
Talisman keeper Keylor Navas is assured of a starting berth more so than any other playing at the entire tournament, highlighting his importance to La Sele. Francisco Calvo and Óscar Duarte form a formidable partnership at center-back, with the experienced duo of Yeltsin Tejeda and
Celso Borges complimenting each other in the middle of the park. Striker Joel Campbell will lead the line, with young attackers Jewison Bennette and Anthony Contreras using their pace to make use of any counter-attacking opportunities.
Luis Fernando Suárez’s heavy usage of his substitutes is also a prominent factor of his tactics, so expect the likes of veteran captain Bryan Ruiz, Johan Venegas, and Brandon Aguilera to revitalize the team in the second half.
Spain’s style emphasizes possession-based football with intricate passing and probing in front of the opponent’s goal.
They are a hard team to predict, capable of incisive, exciting football, yet also frequently finding themselves struggling to break down sides. Especially when it comes to getting through resolutely defensive sides.
Spain have beaten Greece, Switzerland, and Sweden all only by a 1-0 score-line, and in fact, La Roja scored the joint-fewest non-penalty goals in World Cup qualifying of any European side that made it to the finals (15).
And this can actually play into Costa Rica’s hands, who thrive on the defensive side of the game, having conceded just 8 goals in 14 qualifying games, and kept six clean sheets in their last seven matches.
Goalkeeper Keylor Navas is integral to any successful result for La Sele, and, as proven in the past, he can single handily keep a side at bay with his imperious shot-stopping ability. And Los Ticos will be hoping to utilize this strength to frustrate and nullify a Spanish side that lacks a plan B.
Spain’s possible starting line-up:
Simon; Carvajal, Laporte, P Torres, Alba; Pedri, Busquets, Gavi; F Torres, Morata, Fati
Costa Rica’s possible starting line-up:
Navas; C Martinez, Calvo, Duarte, Oviedo; Tejeda, Bennette, G Torres; Borges, Contreras, Campbell
In 3 previous meetings between the 2 countries, Spain won 2, and the other ended in a draw. The last encounter ended in a crushing 5-0 defeat for Costa Rica in 2017. Let’s hope history doesn’t repeat itself on Wednesday!
Kick-off is at 10 am UTC at the Al Thumama Stadium
Vamos La Sele!