Costa Rica stunned Italy 1-0 in Recife on Friday, booking their spot in the knockout stage of the FIFA World Cup 2014, courtesy of a Bryan Ruiz header just before half-time.
Formations and XIs
Italy played a 4-1-4-1/4-3-3 shape to start with, fielding Daniele De Rossi as an anchor and placing Giorgio Chiellini back in a central berth.
Costa Rica retained the exact same shape and personnel from their win over Uruguay, lining up in a 5-3-2.
Andrea Pirlo played a slightly unorthodox role—by his standards—in Italy's midfield on Friday, dropping into the wide areas to find space against an organised Costa Rica outfit.
The Ticos swamped out the midfield with numbers forcing him into deeper positions, and Pirlo often popped up on the left or right flank—far from his comfort zone in deep central midfield.
The work-rate of Yeltsin Tejeda and Celso Borges, in addition to the immense pressure generated by Junior Diaz, forced him into positions Ignazio Abate and Matteo Darmian were occupying.
His task was to play first-time balls in over the defence, flicking them into the direction of runners Claudio Marchisio, Mario Balotelli and Antonio Candreva. With Costa Rica playing a high line and compressing the midfield, it was the logical method of attack.
Costa Rica's high line was not without its risks; with little pressure on the ball in midfield it became easy for Pirlo to receive passes and fire them in behind.
A common trait for the Ticos in qualifying was to defend superbly when set out in a low block, but pushing up a little higher, they struggled in the channels.
They don't drop well as a line and they leave gaps. Often, fouls would occur high up as Giancarlo Gonzalez covered their tracks.
As much as Costa Rica deserved their victory, they got exceptionally lucky that the Azzurri mistimed almost every run in behind the defence, and the one that did stand—Balotelli's—saw him chip the ball wide.
Playing so high against such pace was a real gamble, and until they shackled Pirlo in the second half, they were living on borrowed time.
Cesare Prandelli tried everything possible to get his side back in the game, throwing on Antonio Cassano at half-time and later Lorenzi Insigne.
In doing so, he switched to a 4-2-3-1 (Marchisio initially on the right until Alessio Cerci came on) and created more outlets for through-balls.
Cassano, at his mercurial best, can be a match-winner, but he too was closed down quickly in the No. 10 role. Insigne looked jittery, and he mistimed a crucial run that would have put him through on goal.
Italy did all they could and fell short, but on another day it's unlikely the Ticos would have held out.