Costa Rica's Cinderella Story a Tale of Goalkeeping, Guts and Preparation

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Costa Rica's Cinderella Story a Tale of Goalkeeping, Guts and Preparation
Winslow Townson/USA TODAY Sports

For manager Jorge Luis Pinto, Costa Rica's upset of Italy was eight years in the making.

Back in 2006, as the Azzurri were making their way through the rounds of that summer’s World Cup, the then-53-year-old watched on in awe as Andrea Pirlo carved open team after team and bolstered his stature as one of the preeminent ball-distributors of his generation.

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Costa Rica manager Jorge Luis Pinto

"I have studied Pirlo since 2006, when he was the best player at the World Cup," Pinto remarked ahead of Friday's match in Recife, as per Goal. "We will have to block him because he is the Italy player that thinks the most."

As it happened, Pirlo still managed to touch the ball more than 100 times against Costa Rica, and he completed a typically precise 93 percent of his passes (all statistics courtesy WhoScored.com) at Arena Pernambuco. The best players simply can't be contained.

But their effects can be, and over the 90 minutes of the Ticos' unlikely 1-0 win, Pirlo failed to create the sort of clear-cut openings his teammates have come to thrive on. They were simply blocked off.

Pinto, a self-styled student of the Jose Mourinho school of pragmatics, had no doubt instructed the likes of Oscar Duarte, Giancarlo Gonzalez and Michael Umana—the three centre-backs in his five-defender set—to keep as close to the Italy forwards as humanly possible.

Gonzalez, in particular, had a career-defining match, as none of Mario Balotelli, Antonio Cassano and Alessio Cerci managed to find themselves with the necessary time and space to put the ball in the back of the net.

Michael Steele/Getty Images
Keylor Navas, left, was heroic against Italy.

And when they did have a sniff of goal, they had Keylor Navas to deal with.

The exceptional Levante goalkeeper was at his best once again on Friday, denying Balotelli from distance and punching away a Pirlo free kick. A transfer target of Liverpool according to talkSPORT, and Sevilla according to Inside Spanish Football, the 27-year-old only enhanced his credentials as one of world football’s most coveted shot-stoppers and will surely be heard from again before the World Cup is over.

He may well prove the final nightmare for England, who were eliminated from the competition as Costa Rica picked up the three points.

The Three Lions will also have to deal with an aggressive, tenacious opponent when they face the Central Americans in Belo Horizonte on Tuesday. Pinto's side may be capable of shutting down an attack and smothering a midfield, but they're not particularly blessed with offensive firepower—a shortcoming they make up for with an extra dose of persistence, of guts.

Michael Steele/Getty Images
Giancarlo Gonzalez stuck close to Mario Balotelli in Recife.

"They were very, very aggressive," commented Italy manager Cesare Prandelli after the shock defeat, as per Sky Sports. "We were trying to find different ways into the game but we didn't manage it."

Or Costa Rica didn't let them.

The Ticos have already become the predominant Cinderella story in a tournament full of feel-good narratives. And their tale, to Uruguay's, Italy's and England's chagrin, is not over yet.

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