Costa Rica seal second shock, France lay down major marker
Costa Rica continue to confound us. Beating an ageing Uruguay without Luis Suarez was surely a fluke? Don’t you believe it!
Not only did Jorge Luis Pinto’s team repeat the formula of a shock victory against Italy, but they are through to the knockout phase and England are going home. There is a real and present danger Roy Hodgson and the Three Lions could return pointless too.
Odds of 7/2 on offer at Coral for Costa Rica to beat England look extremely tempting. Patriotism must be put to one side if punters want to make money. If better defences have been breached by the Central Americans, then the Three Lions backline must be worried.
Skipper Bryan Ruiz, a player not up for the Premier League relegation battle with Fulham and shipped off to PSV Eindhoven in January, was Costa Rica’s match winner against Italy. His header from a Junior Diaz centre humbled World Cup winners Andrea Barzagli and Gianluigi Buffon.
The latter’s return to the Azzurri XI was expected because he is vastly more experienced than Salvatore Sirigu, but Cesare Prandelli could not simply stop the tinkering there. A couple of other changes were made, but one placed a square peg in a round hole.
Pragmatic coach Prandelli could hardly have dropped Torino’s Matteo Darmian just because Ignazio Abate was available again. Instead, he started both right backs. At first, Abate operated down the opposite side, but the good partnership between Darmian and Antonio Candreva, which clearly hurt England, was soon broken up.
Alterations are only alright if Italy win. Prandelli made plenty as the match wore on, having fallen behind just before half time. First, he threw on Antonio Cassano after the break, going 4-4-2 with a midfield diamond. That became 4-2-4 when the Azzurri attacked with the subsequent introductions of out-and-out wingers Lorenzo Insigne and Alessio Cerci.
Different systems had the same result, though. Italy lost, and the margin could have been greater than 1-0 had Giorgio Chiellini received punishment for bundling Joel Campbell in the box.
The Azzurri remain odds-on ahead of Uruguay to advance at 2/5, however. Costa Rica, meanwhile, are as shocking as surprise packages get. It’s a strong odds-on price at 1/7 they top Group D, and nobody saw that coming.
As if that isn’t galling enough for England fans, old enemy France put in a five-star showing to sink neighbours Switzerland. Perhaps Didier Deschamps was right. Les Bleus may have omitted some of their best players from their squad for the Brazil finals, but they put out the best team. Eight goals in two group games are as many as anyone else has managed so far.
Five different names were on the French scoresheet too. Karim Benzema, rejuvenated at international level in recent times, could easily have hit hat-trick, had his first half penalty not been saved and the referee waited a few seconds longer to blow the final whistle.
Starting the match in a nominal left wing berth to accommodate Arsenal frontman Olivier Giroud, the Real Madrid attacker made the most of counter-attacks. The Swiss were clearly unsettled by the bloody facial injury sustained early on by centre back Steve von Bergen.
Already carrying one weak link in defence, Johan Djourou, another old Gunner in Philippe Senderos was summoned by Ottmar Hitzfeld. The German gaffer continues to ignore the useful attributes Basel youngster Fabian Schar has for set pieces in both boxes at his peril.
Lo and behold, Les Bleus striker Giroud nodded in a Mathieu Valbuena corner after a quarter of an hour. Some 66 seconds later, Blaise Matuidi broke clear, clinically converting a Benzema through-ball to make it 2-0.
Diego Benaglio then saved his spot kick, but Switzerland went in three down because strike partner Giroud turned provider to Valbuena. Pundits were left wondering why Paul Pogba dropped to the bench here, but Deschamps brought him on just after the hour mark and he played in Benzema to atone for the penalty miss.
Versatile Newcastle midfielder Moussa Sissoko capped a rampant French display by racing clear. Benzema notched another assist here. Swiss substitute Blerim Dzemaili restored some pride by taking the low road with a free kick, and that consolation was added to in the closing stages by Granit Xhaka.
Conceding late goals hardly takes the gloss off such a memorable Les Bleus victory, although Mamadou Sakho limped off with injury with a quarter to go. Hopefully this will not end a decent-looking partnership at the back with Rapahel Varane, who stepped out of defence magnificently at times to set France away on their forays forward.
Deschamps’ charges are almost certainly Group E winners then, and a likely last 16 tie with either Bosnia or Nigeria should hold no fears for them. They have come in under the radar, but Les Bleus are fourth-favourites for the tournament now at 9/1.
That Prandelli penchant for changing personnel did not pay off for Italy, but worked just fine for France. If a team from Europe is to triumph in Brazil, then, it looks to be one from five neighbouring nations. The Netherlands (11/1), Germany (4/1) and Belgium (22/1) are those others, but will as many South American nations join them in the knockout phase?