Who saw this one coming? Costa Rica are through to the World Cup quarter-finals for the first time in their history after beating Greece 5-3 on penalties following a 1-1 draw after extra time. The game meandered, swinging one way when Bryan Ruiz's early second half strike gave Los Ticos the lead, before turning on its head thanks to Sokratis Papastathopoulous' 91st-minute equaliser.
But after a drab period of extra-time, with the CONCACAF nation hanging on for dear life having been down to 10 men since the 66th minute after Oscar Duarte's red card, Costa Rica held their nerve to win on penalties, send a country wild with joy and set up a last eight clash with Holland in Salvador. A nation with a population of just over 4 million inhabitants and only 50,588 registered footballers now marches on to the last eight, taking its place at the top table of international football. Here's how Stats Zone saw it.
Greece’s entire game plan for more than a decade now has been built on percentages, giving very little away in their own half and griding teams down with sheer defensive tedium. So it was a shock when, as early as the fifth minute, Andreas Samaris gave the ball away under no pressure in midfield, resulting in a Costa Rica counter-attack led by Joel Campbell. Los Ticos pushed forward with menace but Giorgos Karagounis got back to tackle Bryan Ruiz well.
Greece began the game sitting slightly deeper with Costa Rica on the front foot, the Central Americans seeing more of the ball in the early stages.
Costa Rica’s 5-3-2 system has brought them great joy at this World Cup, helping them maintain a solid defensive base and balance further forward. It’s a system that’s not often seen in the Premier League – Liverpool one of the few teams to use it early last season under Brendan Rodgers. In the offensive phase Costa Rica's wing-backs are basically auxiliary wingers. The centre-backs then spread out to almost become full-backs themselves and a midfielder drops into that central space to provide cover and distribute the ball from deep.
But Costa Rica’s 5-3-2 is reliant on a striker to get on the end of the width provided by the wing-backs, and in the first half striker Campbell was all over the place, working hard but playing pretty much anywhere except as an out-and-out striker. This was in contrast to Greek hero Georgios Samaras, who was providing a useful outlet for his well organised side.
Greece looked the more solid team in midfield; Yeltsin Tejeda, one of Costa Rica's weaker performers in at this World Cup thus far, was having a fairly ineffectual game, and despite Greece only managing 40% possession in the first 35 minutes they were content to remain solid defensively and dominant in the tackle.
Chances were at a premium, but in the 37th minute Keylor Navas makes a world-class save to deny Dimitrios Salpingidis after a brilliant cross from the left by Jose Holebas. It was one of the saves of the tournament, an instinctive stop with his leg that saved his team. Greece were marginally the better team in the first half, Costa Rica looking laboured and out of ideas in the final third.
The intensity and energy that had carried Jorge Luis Pinto's team to wins over Uruguay and Italy had vanished and – battering ram Joel Campbell aside - they were struggling to cope physically with their Greek opponents.
Fans in the stands were not impressed. At half-time both teams were booed off by a Recife crowd starved of entertainment. Perhaps understandably so after just 2 shots on target in the entire first half.
Neither side was having much joy in the final third, with several stray passes.
Greece’s defensive line was higher than it was against Ivory Coast, perhaps a sign of their increasing self-belief, but where Vasilis Torosidis was the main outlet down the right hand side against the Ivorians, Holebas down the left had been the main man in Recife.
Finally, in the 52nd minute, a breakthrough! Torosidis gave the ball away in midfield leading to a break down Costa Rica’s left. Christian Bolanos' cross found Ruiz on the edge of the area and his pea-roller trickled in almost as sluggishly as the game’s first half. 1-0, from Los Ticos' 1 and only shot on target of the whole match.
Minutes later Costa Rica should have been awarded a penalty; Torosidis' blatant handball in the box missed by the referee, a certain penalty. Costa Rica had come out with greater intent for the second half, perhaps inspired by a rocket from their tactically impressive manager Pinto.
Greece brought Kostas Mitroglou on for the disappointing Samaris and in the 66th minute they received a welcome gift when a poorly timed challenge by Oscar Duarte was punished with a second yellow card. With Campbell already tiring in attack, the red card changed the game's complexion completely.
Holebas down the left was causing all kinds of problems for Costa Rica.
With 10 men Costa Rica switched to a four-man defence and, energy resources waning, came to a decision. They would sit back and cling on for dear life – even with 25 minutes remaining. Considering Mexico’s fate in Fortaleza, having tried the same strategy against Holland, it was a risky game plan.
Their number of passes completed dipped dramatically as the whole team wilted. In attack Campbell was offering nothing, raising questions about his stamina levels - a shell of a man hobbling about completely exhausted.
As we've seen so many times at this World Cup already, the sitting-back tactic didn’t work. Costa Rica failed – or were just physically incapable – of learning the lessons from the earlier game, and after switching off at the back Greece got an equaliser through centre-back Sokratis, who'd had a good game.
Extra-time it was. By now Costa Rica were virtually playing with nine men due to Campbell’s complete and total fatigue, and they created 0 shots in the first period of extra-time. Greece, who by now had three strikers on the field - a gigantic leap from their norm - failed to create too much themselves either, despite the extra man.
In the 17th minute of extra-time Navas – who along with Nigeria's Vincent Enyeama and Mexico's Guillermo Ochoa has a legitimate claim to be considered the best goalkeeper at this World Cup – made another stunning save, darting off his line to deny Theofanis Gekas after a razor-sharp through-ball split Costa Rica’s defence open.
The player influence graphic summed up extra-time perfectly…
...and in the last minute of extra-time Navas rescued his team again, this time with a phenomenal save to deny Kostas Mitroglou. Just like Brazil vs Chile, this one went to penalties. While Costa Rica buried all five penalties, Navas saved from Gekas to cap off a man-of-the-match performance and send his country through to their first World Cup quarter-final. Physically this game left Costa Rica an empty shell, but by the end they were dancing joyously with their fans, almost miraculously. Such are the healing powers of an unprecedented win that will live in Costa Rican hearts forever. Now for Holland.
Facts and figures
- Oscar Duarte is the first Costa Rica player to be sent off at the World Cup.
- Bryan Ruiz scored with Costa Rica’s only shot on target in the match.
- Sokratis’ goal was the first Costa Rica had conceded from open play in the 2014 World Cup.
- Sokratis scored the 145th goal of the 2014 World Cup. The 2010 World Cup featured 145 goals in total.
- The Greeks have scored 5 goals in 10 World Cup games.
- Greece had 70% of possession in the second half of the match.
- Greece enjoyed more possession in the whole game (60%) than in any other World Cup match in their history.
- This match featured the joint most cards in a game at this World Cup (7: 6Y 1R), the same as Brazil vs Chile.
- There were just 2 shots on target in extra-time (both from Greece).
- Costa Rica have remained unbeaten in 4 World Cup games for the very first time (W2 D2).
- Greece have drawn 2 of their last 3 World Cup matches (W1); having drawn 0 of the first 7 (W1 L6).
- Only Alexis Sanchez (24) has been fouled more than Georgios Samaras (21) and Joel Campbell (19) so far a the World Cup.
- The last team from CONCACAF to go further than the last 16 at the World Cup were the USA in 2002.