Key Battles That Will Shape Greece's Clash with Costa Rica
Greece face Costa Rica on Sunday in a round-of-16 clash no one predicted, but what can we expect from the tie?
Greece emerged from Group C with four points, behind a dominant Colombia side. Costa Rica's passage through Group D saw them emerge as the surprise group winners. They shocked the world with their 3-1 defeat of Uruguay and confounded expectations again by beating Italy 1-0.
Greece have grown into the tournament, saving their best football for the final 20 minutes of their victory over Ivory Coast.
But Greek head coach Fernando Santos insists his team can take nothing for granted against Costa Rica, as Sky Sports reported.
"We have to pay a lot of attention in this game, they came out top in the 'Group of Death,'" Santos said. "As a result, we cannot allow ourselves to underestimate them."
Here are some of the key clashes we can look forward to during this "battle of the underdogs."
Who Will Counter-Attack?
Greece's successes of the past decade have been built on a consistently defensive platform. They have rarely removed the handbrake of their conservative approach.
During qualifying for this tournament, they did not concede a single goal at home—and only conceded four on the road—but they did not manage to score more than two goals in a single game until their play-off against Romania.
Their forward play so far at this tournament has almost all been based on counter-attacking.
Costa Rica have also played largely on the counter. Playing a high defensive line and counter-attacking with incision has been Los Ticos' greatest strength.
This suggests neither side is used to playing on the front foot. It may be slightly counterintuitive, but it is possible that the team that persuades the other to attempt to dominate proceedings may be the favourite.
He who counter-attacks, wins!
Greece's Forwards vs. Keylor Navas
Karla Villegas Gama outlined Keylor Navas' importance to Costa Rica for Bleacher Report here. She writes: "[H]e has faced some of the most lethal strikers in world football, players like Edinson Cavani, Mario Balotelli and Wayne Rooney, but has kept his team safe."
The keeper has been in excellent form. Costa Rica managed to keep clean sheets against both England and Italy. Navas was only beaten from the spot against Uruguay and is thus yet to concede from open play.
Greece have scored the fewest goals of any team through to the last 16. Having only found the net twice, once from a penalty, Greece face an uphill battle to find goalscoring form.
They may have taken some comfort from their much-improved attacking play against Ivory Coast. However, it seems likely that a set piece will be their best chance to get the better of the in-form Navas.
Greece's Defence and Giannis Maniatis vs. Bryan Ruiz and Joel Campbell
Given Joel Campbell's dynamic forward play, ably supported by the guile of Bryan Ruiz and energetic running of Los Ticos' other forwards, it will be absolutely key for Greece to keep their shape.
Fortunately for the Piratiko, they are more than able to do so. With Giannis Maniatis screening in front of Kostas Manolas and Sokratis Papastathopoulos, Greece's shape is rarely disturbed.
Left-back Jose Holebas is key to their fine discipline, as he and Maniatis cover for each other excellently. When one goes forward to join in a counter-attack, the other fills the space.
It will be crucial that they maintain their concentration, as Costa Rica certainly have the firepower to capitalise on any mistakes.
The Battle of the Full-Backs
Costa Rica have set up with a back five in all of their group fixtures. Their wing-backs have contributed significantly to their attack. Junior Diaz provided the assist for Bryan Ruiz's goal against Italy, and Cristian Gamboa attempted five crosses against Uruguay, mostly from very advanced positions, per Squawka.
In spite of their defensive reputation and more conventional back four, Greece also expect their full-backs to contribute offensively.
Jose Holebas was excellent against Ivory Coast, as I discussed here, and more of the same will be required.
The flanks will be a key battleground in this game, and the amount that Greece's full-backs and Costa Rica's wing-backs are allowed to influence the game could be crucial.
Greece's 4-3-3 may help to pin back Los Ticos' wing-backs, who could have to play more defensively in order to avoid Greece's wide forwards exploiting the space behind the high Costa Rica defensive line.