Key Battles That Will Shape Italy's Clash with Costa Rica
Having recorded a win in their respective opening Group D fixtures, both Italy and Costa Rica know that a positive result on Friday will put them in pole position for a place in the knockout stages.
The latter’s emphatic victory over Uruguay was perhaps the surprise of the tournament so far, and the Azzurri know that they will have to produce another sound performance against the Central American side.
After being thoroughly tested by England last Saturday, Cesare Prandelli’s men took three extremely hard-earned points with a display that should fill them with confidence in the matches ahead. That boost will be needed against a Costa Rica side who can be a highly frustrating opponent, and one who are unlikely to be underestimated after their impressive first outing.
Over the following pages are three key matchups that will shape this meeting in Recife—the head-to-head battles that should be watched closely as the action unfolds.
The Two Goalkeepers
It remains unclear who will feature between the posts for Italy, with the Azzurri waiting as late as possible before deciding whether Gigi Buffon is healthy enough to return. The captain twisted his ankle in training before the England game, missing out with an anterior tibial ligament issue according to chief medic Enrico Castellacci (h/t FootballItalia).
If Buffon does start against Costa Rica, it will be a huge fillip for Italy, but Salvatore Sirigu proved a more than capable deputy on Saturday. Only two teams have faced more shots than Italy did against England, according to WhoScored.com, and the Paris Saint-Germain ‘keeper was equal to the task.
His save from a swerving Leighton Baines free-kick was perhaps the best of them all, but Costa Rica can also call upon an excellent shot-stopper in Keylor Navas. “It was clear their goalie was very good,” Uruguay coach Oscar Tabarez said of the Levante keeper after the match, per the Daily Telegraph.
Having made more saves than any other keeper in La Liga this season, according to Fox Soccer, Navas made some outstanding stops on Saturday and will look to thwart Italy’s attack on Friday. The battle between the two men in goal could be a major factor in this matchup.
Joel Campbell vs. Andrea Barzagli
Much like with Buffon, the fitness of Mattia De Sciglio remains unclear, meaning Giorgio Chiellini could well remain at left-back against Costa Rica. If so, Andrea Barzagli’s ability to cope with the pace of striker Joel Campbell will be vital to Italy’s hopes of success.
The Arsenal-owned 21-year-old was perhaps his side’s best performer against Uruguay, netting a goal and an assist much to the delight of his nation’s fans. Juventus stopper Barzagli endured an injury-hit campaign and is not the fastest of defenders, but his excellent positioning and reading of the game make this an intriguing battle.
With Gabriel Paletta struggling against England, Prandelli will hope that De Sciglio can return and free up Chiellini but, even then, the Italy backline lacks genuine pace. Fans must hope that their tactical intelligence can overcome this problem, with Daniele De Rossi’s screening ahead of them a vital piece of their defensive scheme.
Giancarlo Gonzalez vs. Mario Balotelli
At the opposite end of the pitch, Mario Balotelli’s goal against England continued his excellent displays in the blue shirt of Italy.
Balotelli once again benefited from Prandelli’s perfect handling, and with the Milan striker at his best, the Azzurri are a dangerous opponent for anyone. However, Costa Rica’s Giancarlo Gonzalez might hope to provoke him in order to help his own side.
Balotelli’s ability to keep his notorious temper in check against such a player will be key to Italy's success, as losing him to suspension would undoubtedly hinder their plans.