History can repeat itself but there is a reason why surprises are just that. Costa Rica were shock quarter-finalists in the 2014 World Cup, separated from the semi-finals only by a penalty shoot-out, but defeat to Serbia offered the sense that this particular underdog has had its day. The initial impression is that 2018 will bring what 2014 was expected to: an early exit.
Costa Rica named their oldest ever World Cup side, but failed to revisit past glories. Aleksandar Kolarov’s lovely decider earned Serbia just a second win on the global stage in two decades. They had seemed the antithesis of Los Ticos in recent years, a talented team that was less than the sum of their considerable parts, but ability told. Costa Rica’s unstinting effort was not enough. They created too little in open play, while Keylor Navas’ fine goalkeeping, which brought three clean sheets in 2014, merely delayed the Serbian winner.
The parallels with the past had seemed encouraging. Costa Rica topped a group with one South American side and two European teams four years ago. In a pool with the same composition, they reprised their role as outsiders and revived their unadventurous tactics, yet lightning is unlikely to strike twice.
Inside the telling strike came from Kolarov’s left foot. The full-back has the capacity to choose either power or finesse at set-pieces. He opted for the latter, bending a free kick past Navas. The defender had seemed to injure himself in the warm-up. Instead, he completed the game as the match-winner. He was chosen as captain by Mladen Kristajic, with Branislav Ivanovic demoted, and this was a compelling form of leadership.
It was one of twin forms of vindication for the manager appointed after Slavojub Muslin had overseen qualification. The other was the promotion of the precocious Sergey Milinkovic-Savic, a player his predecessor overlooked.
Installed as the No 10, winning just his fifth cap, the Lazio midfielder allied a towering physique with a delicate touch and some deft footwork. He offered an indication of his ability with a spectacular overhead kick and, while Milinkovic-Savic was wrongly flagged offside, VAR would presumably have meant the goal would have stood had Navas not produced a fine save.
He was also Aleksandar Mitrovic’s supplier with a defence-splitting pass when the striker ought to have scored; Navas continued where he left off four years ago by blocking his shot. The striker’s profligacy denied Serbia a more emphatic win. Otherwise, he impressed in a powerful performance.
And there is a physicality to Serbia. Mitrovic’s replacement Aleksandar Prijovic escaped a red card after catching Johnny Acosta in the face with a flailing hand – technology was consulted to produce the correct decision – and they benefited from a strong base in the midfield, anchored by Nemanja Matic and Luka Milivojevic. The Manchester United man was also involved in a touchline scuffle with the Costa Rica coaching staff.
If a little unseemly, it was a sign of Serbia’s determination to reach the knockout stages for the first time since 1998. They improved after an undistinguished start. Costa Rica could rue two early headed chances that Giancarlo Gonzalez spurned. The first was directed straight at goalkeeper Vladimir Stojkovic, the second headed wastefully over the bar. They were moments of sloppiness from Serbia to support the theory they may be a side with a soft underbelly but Costa Rica, despite their set-piece menace, did not prove it.
It was as close as they came to piercing the Serbian defence. Thereafter, shots from Marco Urena and Francisco Calvo were off target. Tellingly, both came from outside the box. Even when Joel Campbell, a talisman four years ago came on, it was in place of the attacker Urena. It changed little. Costa Rica were toothless. This time, their limitations may be too pronounced to progress.
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