Costa Rica celebrates after defeating Italy 1-0 in a FIFA World Cup match at Arena Pernambuco on June 20, 2014, in Recife, Brazil. (Photo: FIFA via Getty Images)
RECIFE, Brazil – A first-half goal from captain Bryan Ruiz and an outstanding defensive performance helped lead Costa Rica to a famous 1-0 win over four-time World Cup champion Italy on Friday at the Arena Pernambuco.
The victory guarantees the Ticos one of the top two places in Group D and a berth in the tournament’s knockout stages for the first time since Italia 1990. As a result, England -- which needed an Italian victory to stay in contention -- was eliminated.
The Costa Ricans were superb from the outset, playing a high defensive line that resulted in the Italians being whistled for offside a remarkable 11 times. That tactic severely limited in-form AC Milan striker Mario Balotelli to mere half-chances.
In the game’s early stages, it was Costa Rica that nearly got on the scoresheet first. A seventh minute corner kick found the head of Celso Borges, but his effort missed high over Italian goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon’s crossbar.
An awakened Azzurri side then created a period of sustained pressure, going close on three straight occasions. The most dangerous of which was a 30th minute volley from Balotelli that Ticos goalkeeper Keylor Navas did well to collect.
Turning the tables, Costa Rica then stepped up their defensive pressure and went on the attack.
A 32nd minute curling shot from Christian Bolaños forced Buffon into a great save, before Oscar Duarte missed barely with a glancing header just minutes later. Soon after, Joel Campbell went down in the penalty area, but his appeal for a penalty was waved off by Chilean referee Enrique Osses.
The Central American champion was not be denied and took a 44th minute lead, when good hold up play from Bolaños found defender Junior Diaz wide on the left. Diaz then whipped an inch-perfect cross to the back post, where Ruiz did well to head home off the underside of the crossbar to give his team a 1-0 lead.
Following the break, the motivated Italians came close to equalizing. Matteo Darmian cut in on his right foot and drove a shot from just outside the box that seemed destined for the back of the net, only to be tipped over the bar spectacularly by a sprawling Navas. The Azzurri then quickly threatened again, courtesy of a swerving 53rd minute free kick from Andrea Pirlo. Navas, however, was again there to parry the effort wide.
That was as close as the European giant would come as the humid conditions began to take a toll on both teams. The Italians last true effort came in the 81st minute, when an incisive pass from Pirlo found Lorenzo Insigne at the top of the box, only for the Napoli man to sky his half volley well over the bar.
Costa Rica can clinch the group title with a draw against England in its last group game on June 24 at the Estadio Mineirão in Belo Horizonte.