Cesare Prandelli faces a tough task in deciding his Italy approach against surprise package Costa Rica, explains Alasdair Mackenzie.
Costa Rica’s historic 3-1 victory in their opening World Cup fixture against Uruguay prompted an elated response from neutral fans, as they cheered on the underdogs against one of world football’s most decorated sides.
But as the Azzurri prepare to take on Los Ticos after an excellent opening win against England, an important question must be considered – should their win over the South American giants be considered only an upset?
Costa Rica’s record in the competition may not be the most impressive – once making it to the Last 16 in their debut in Italia ’90 and twice out in the group stage in 2002 and 2006 – but Uruguay paid the price for underestimating a dangerous opponent that thoroughly deserved their win.
Undoubtedly, Prandelli will benefit from Uruguay’s spectacular collapse. Not only does it give the Azzurri an advantage over one of their supposed rivals to top the group, but the result will ensure that Italy’s Coach does not take their second match lightly.
Not that he is the type in any case. But, Italy do traditionally struggle in their second group match in major competitions  and the challenge they will face on Friday evening will be a significant one.
Much attention has rightly been paid to the impressive, clinical manner in which the Costa Ricans took their three goals against Uruguay but their foundation still lies in defensive organisation. One of La Liga’s goalkeepers of last season Keylor Navas will provide stiff opposition to the Azzurri’s forward line as, along with his defensive colleagues, he only conceded seven goals in 10 qualifying matches.
Fans of the Azzurri will have been delighted with an excellent win in their opening game against England, but Gabriel Paletta and Andrea Barzagli did not look particularly comfortable up against the pacey Raheem Sterling and Daniel Sturridge. Joel Campbell will provide a similarly explosive threat with Bryan Ruiz shouldering the creative responsibilities, but by fielding Daniele De Rossi in a similar ‘enforcer’ role behind the midfield line their threat on the counter attack could be lessened.
With Prandelli’s organisation and a strong and experienced backline, it would seem that the Italians are less likely to be carved apart by the Ticos’ frontline than their haphazard Uruguayan counterparts. However, the Coach must also find a way of breaking down a robust defence that excelled in their opening match.
Michael Umana and Oscar Duarte have a good understanding and form an impressive partnership in the heart of defence. Goalkeeper Navas showed the world his undoubted quality with some stunning saves from Diego Forlan and Edinson Cavani in the opening match, and the Azzurri will have to be at their devastating best to get on the scoresheet at all.
Antonio Candreva impressed in the opening fixture, providing a vital link between the midfield and an often isolated Mario Balotelli. His contribution will again be vital, but it is likely that Andrea Pirlo and Marco Verratti will be allowed to dictate play, meaning that Prandelli has a difficult decision to make over what attacking approach to deploy against Costa Rica.
He is in a privileged position with some fantastic options available to him. Many would like to see Capocannoniere Ciro Immobile play up front alongside Balotelli, but the thought of Alessio Cerci, Lorenzo Insigne or Antonio Cassano running at full throttle is likely to be enough to wake up Costa Rican defenders in a cold sweat.
The potential return of Gianluigi Buffon and Mattia De Sciglio provides another huge boost and Buffon’s leadership particularly will be vital in ensuring his side do not become complacent. Prandelli thrived in his natural area of strength against England, a tactical battle, but he must now prepare his players to live up to their positions as comfortable favourites and ensure Costa Rica do not add another chapter to their fairytale story.