I woke up this morning and sat down at my computer with a coffee looking at the blank screen.
I like to start my bet previews off with a narrative, and Costa Rica should be an easy team to do that with. They were the surprise team in 2014, all I need to do is take the famous moment and spin it into how this team is almost an exact copy of the one four years ago.
The only problem is, I could not think of the moment.
The only thing that I could distinctly recall from 2014 was Keylor Navas jumping around on his backline getting his hand on a ball at the very last second to avoid conceding a goal.
I thought some more…still no moment.
I must be missing something. I pulled up YouTube and searched Costa Rica 2014 World Cup Highlights. The first video that came up had almost 100,000 views. The first minute of the video – not a joke – were images of Costa Rican beaches mixed with goal kicks by Kaylor Navas set to a Coldplay track.
Was it really this bad?
I looked further. Sure enough, every match highlight reel posted by FIFA was two or three minutes of opponents pushing relentless pressure and Navas narrowly saving the day time and time again.
I dug deeper into FlashScore and pulled some shot data from 2014.
Costa Rica allowed 72 shot attempts against in 5 matches. 42 of the 72 were on target. Of the 42 on target, only 2 found the back of the net. Navas made 40 saves in 5 matches.
Yes, it really was that bad.
Savvy readers may want to jump through their screen and start shouting at me, “Past World Cup data does not matter!”
Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying it does nor am I trying to apply that logic, but I am using it to illustrate the talent level and style of play that team played with. This is extra important because Costa Rica are returning 9 of 11 starting players in this World Cup.
I do not know where to begin looking to prove such a fact, but, I have to believe that this is the only team in history to have a starting XI with just two different names from the World Cup prior? Some may look at the familiarity as a blessing, I look at it as a curse.
Costa Rica plays a very conservative and predictable 5-4-1 formation. They are one of two teams at this World Cup which will start out with a back line of five defenders. It makes them very difficult to break down and their strength is frustrating opponents.
This style can be difficult to effectively game plan against for a team that does not have time.
Costa Rica benefitted from the surprise factor a great deal in 2014 and the quick turn around kept opponents a step behind. Teams did not know how to handle the back five at first, but as the tournament progressed, shot totals against went up each match. Opposing players and coaches started to see match film and figure the team out.
Teams in the 2018 World Cup now have the benefit of time, especially Serbia.
The opening matchday has been scheduled for a number of months now and much of the prep time since December leading up to Saturday has been spent focusing on breaking down this backline.
Costa Rica is the perfect opponent for Serbia and Serbia is the worst opponent for Costa Rica.
Serbia has the biggest team in the tournament. Only one starter on the XI is under 6 feet tall. Only one player on the back line for Costa Rica is over 6 feet tall. Costa Rica has a very difficult time defending set pieces.
Serbia not only has the targets and advantage to play above the defenders in the box, but they have the finishing talent to put opportunities in the back of the net.
Serbia’s weakness is their back line. Costa Rica’s biggest weakness is their attack. With little risk of being stretched out by Costa Rican attackers, Serbia can press up and play with comfort.
Midfield is where the match will be won. Serbia is loaded with a mix of youth, skill, athleticism and creativity. This midfield which plays behind a lone striker in a 4-2-3-1 can match up with any team in the tournament. Costa Rica is willing to concede possession. This will allow the playmakers of Serbia time and space to generate the opportunity to get an early goal.
Never mind the out of form players on Costa Rica (Campbell hasn’t scored at an international level in two years, Gamboa has not played at a domestic level since October, Ruiz has struggled all year in Portugal) my confidence level grows due to a coaching twist this year.
In 2014, coach, Jorge Luis Pinto stuck to his game-plan, rarely deviating from the 5-4-1. This year, Oscar Ramirez is in charge and has shown a tendency to push forward only when trailing in a match with a 3-4-3 formation.
There have been many more lopsided results as of late because of it. When things went bad for Costa Rica four years ago, matches ended 0-1 or 0-2. This year, they end 0-4 and 0-5. Serbia is going to get an early goal, and then they can lean on their midfield advantage to create mini counter opportunities in transition. The goals could pile up.
The betting market tends to agree with my strong position on Serbia.
The European side has dipped in price and all signs point to the number continuing to shorten leading up to the match on Saturday. The public perception of Navas and recency bias of Costa Rica doing well in 2014 has kept this price much higher than it should be and presents the best betting opportunity of the opening matches.
I will back Serbia who should be priced near 1.70 at the generous price of 2.0 and risk 3x my regular stake.
Serbia at 2.0 (risking 3x)