There may have been more unlikely Round of 16 games in World Cup history, but pairings more surprising than Costa Rica and Greece don’t immediately spring to mind. On Sunday evening the two meet having been given little to no chance of getting past the group stage but one of them is bound for the quarter-finals.
They will play the winners of the day’s other game, which pits the Netherlands against Mexico. The Oranje impressed as they got out of Group B without dropping a point while Louis van Gaal’s tactical flexibility has also caught the eye. There’s a chance this match will be a battle of 3-5-2 formations but considering the future Manchester United Coach named Dirk Kuyt as a left-sided wing-back against Chile, predicting what system van Gaal will deploy is almost an exercise in futility.
Greece present another type of challenge for Costa Rica, Having taken on the heavyweights – actual or theoretical – of England, Uruguay and Italy, the situation is very different against the Euro 2004 winners. Greece will be happy to let Costa Rica control the game and won’t look to dominate, unlike the Central Americans’ three group stage opponents. How Costa Rica cope when they are denied space by a resolute Greek defence will be crucial.
Bryan Ruiz then becomes even more important. So too does Celso Borges, Los Ticos’ creative hub. Bigger reputation players than them have been smothered by Greece, both in this tournament and competitions prior. The need to take the game to Ethniki, and the changing expectation from outside, means this Costa Rica side has rarely experienced a state of affairs such as this.
Ruiz and Borges are the creators but it is Joel Campbell who provides the cutting edge. A familiar figure to watchers of Greek football after his year with Olympiakos, Campbell’s stock has sky-rocketed in Brazil. The tight defence of Greece is the same sort of opponent that Arsenal regularly face – narrow lines and no gaps – so it’s both a taste of what might come next season for Campbell and a clue as to how he will handle it, if he remains with the Gunners next year.
The return of an ex-Gunner gives the Netherlands an edge against Mexico. Robin van Persie missed the win over Chile through suspension but should return to his place alongside Arjen Robben. Mexico were one of only two teams to concede just once in the group stages – Costa Rica were the other – so the United forward will be badly needed.
Mexico’s defensive strength also suggests they won’t be ripped apart quite like Spain were. Rafael Marquez has continued to defy the years but defenders 10 years his senior have been exposed by the direct running of Robben. That battle, together with the space afforded to Wesley Sneijder, or not as the case may be, is where the tie will be won and lost.
But Mexico have to go up the other end and score too, and in Oribe Peralta have a striker with an extraordinary knack for international goals. Still, by rights the Netherlands should progress – but then again, by rights Sunday’s other game should feature anyone but Greece and Costa Rica.