Costa Rica 1-1 Greece: Costa Rica through on penalties despite playing an hour with ten men

July 1, 2014

The starting line-ups

The Costa Rica miracle continues – they’re through to the quarter-finals after a shoot-out victory over Greece.

Jorge Luis Pinto named his first-choice XI, having rotated for the final group game.

Fernando Santos continued with Georgios Samaras upfront following his great performance against Ivory Coast, while Georgios Karagounis continued in midfield.

Greece had the better of this game, even before Oscar Duarte’s red card.

Both sides press

Many predicted a slow, defensive game between these two sides – but both had shown ambition at certain points in this tournament, pressing in midfield rather than sitting back. That’s what happened here, with the two midfields closing down rather than dropping deep to protect the defence. Granted, there wasn’t a great deal of technical quality, but the game was certainly fast-paced and eventful.

In the first half, Greece had the upper hand, particularly in the centre of midfield. Here, Karagounis seemed to be the player causing Costa Rica positional problems, because while they had Yeltsin Tajeda and Celso Borges to press, the third Greek central midfielder overloaded them in this zone. This is similar to what happened in Costa Rica’s game against Italy towards the end of the first half, with Andrea Pirlo starting to pull the strings. Here, one of the centre-backs would often move up the pitch and try to shut down Karagounis, but they seemed scared of leaving the other two exposed to runs from the Greek wide players.

Greece played a lot of long, diagonal balls to Samaras upfront, and while his movement was good and his first-time control sometimes exquisite, he often lacked support. Karagounis didn’t have the legs to get upfront and support him, while the two wingers generally stayed in wider positions. Greece also had success by moving both full-backs forward, which pushed back Bryan Ruiz and the hard-working Christian Bolanos. The crossing of Jose Holebas and Vasilis Torosidis was impressive all night, and Keylor Navas was forced into some excellent saves from an early stage.


Costa Rica’s goal was against the run of play, with Ruiz’s (probably) fortunate strike into the far corner from Bolanos’ cut-back from the left. However, a key part of Costa Rica’s attacking strategy throughout this tournament has been their tendency to get the ball wide, and get midfield runners into the box. On this occasion, as it happens, they didn’t have many midfield runners in the box and Ruiz found space on the ‘D’ because the Greek defenders were all protecting the centre of the penalty area, despite the lack of Costa Rican attackers there.

Santos responded immediately, and a feature of Greece overachieving at both Euro 2012 and World Cup 2014 has been his ability to make quick, clever substitutions. He switched to 4-4-2, with striker Kostas Mitroglou on to replace Andreas Samaris, the busy midfielder.

11 v 10

Soon after this, Duarte was given a second yellow card, and so Santos made a second attacking change almost immediately. This time, the disappointing Dimitrios Salpingidis was sacrificed, with a third central striker, Theo Gekas, on upfront. This meant Samaras playing from the left, and Lazaros Christodoulopoulos switching to the right. 4-2-4.

Costa Rica, meanwhile, struggled. Sides playing a three-man defence often find it difficult to reformat after going down to ten men, and Pinto’s switch to 4-4-1 took a while to take proper shape – the wing-backs continued playing very wide, and eventually realised they had to play close to the centre-backs, conceding the flanks (or at least leaving them to the wingers) and protecting the centre of the pitch.

Greek approach

Greece took until stoppage time to get the equaliser, but their approach with 11 v 10 was actually very impressive. Santos’ third change was introducing Kostas Katsouranis in place of Giannis Maniatis, and now Greece had a very clear gameplan. Katsouranis and Karagounis lacked mobility in the centre of the pitch, with two energetic midfielders sacrificed, but they were intelligent in their distribution, always playing the ball out wide rather than hitting simple straight balls.

The full-backs, meanwhile, took up even more advanced positions and hit a stream of brilliant crosses into the box. Holebas looked to charge into the final third before swinging fast, lateral crosses into the penalty area, while Torosidis hit his deliveries from much deeper, and curled them in behind the Costa Rican defence. Both were excellent, and with three natural strikers prowling the penalty box, it put Costa Rica under huge pressure. Christodoulopoulos was the slight exception to the system, but provided dangerous dribbling from the right flank.

Navas made some more fantastic saves and also swept effectively from his goal – Greece relied on Sokratis Papastathopoulos for the late equaliser.


Throughout the hour with ten men, Costa Rica were boxed into their own third of the pitch, and unable to relieve the pressure. Upfront, Joel Campbell could hardly run for the final twenty minutes, although his control and link play when he received accurate long passes was actually very good, and Costa Rica got numbers forward when possible.

Inevitably, though, they relied on set-pieces for their goalscoring chances, and this almost backfired spectacularly following a corner kick, when Greece managed to waste a 5 v 2 break.

But the Costa Rican last-ditch defending was brilliant – some fantastic tackles, blocks and clearances inside the six-yard box. It’s not the ideal method of defending, of course, and some of it was pure desperation, but it’s somewhat forgiveable considering they played with ten men for an hour, and considering the technical limitations of the squad. It was this, rather than particularly clever tactics, that meant they reached penalties. Navas, the clear man-of-the-match, made the crucial save from Gekas – and later admitted he knew Gekas’ penalty style, because they briefly played together at Levante.


This is the first time Costa Rica have been fortunate. They outplayed Italy and Uruguay in the group stage before settling for a point against England, but throughout this game they were second best, even before the red card. Is this a classic case of an underdog uncomfortable when they become the favourites?

Either way, this was the Costa Rica we expected to see, relying on valiant last-ditch defending, superb goalkeeping and the odd counter-attack from the front three. Even if they rode their luck here, so have many quarter-finalists at some point – this has been a superb effort.

There was something really impressive about Greece’s strategy with a man advantage, even if it took desperation to get the equaliser. They put on extra strikers but didn’t simply hit the ball long – they stretched the play, forced Costa Rica to work hard, and whipped some magnificent crosses into the box. Holebas and Torosidis (and Samaras) have been excellent in Greece’s last two games. As always, Greece’s organisation is fantastic, particularly at the back, but they lack outright, consistent talent in the final third.

This is the end of the road for Santos, who has done a great job in getting Greece to the knockout stages of two consecutive major competitions. It’s also surely the last time we’ll see Karagounis and Katsouranis, ten years after they helped Greece to the most amazing upset in international football history. Perhaps Costa Rica can take their lead…

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