The first game, yesterday, involved the two winners of Group D, Italy and Costa Rica. As against Uruguay, the ticos were not expected to be much more than a speed bump on the way to Italian domination.
Well, Costa Rica went with a five-man back line, and planned to be very dependent on the off-side trap. And that was working pretty well for them, the Italians were almost completely unable to play over the top to Balotelli. He was caught twice, just in the first fifteen minutes.
But beyond that, the Italians were just not finding a lot of space in which to play.
They did manage to play over the top in the twenty-third minute, for the first time, which got Balotelli the ball in the box. But he was immediately dispossessed, and almost got himself a card, as he threw one of the defenders to the ground, bodily.
The trap worked again in the 25th, but failed in the 31st, as Balotelli had one touch to try to chip the goaltender. But his soft shot went wide. It didn't save the ticos for long, though, as Balotelli put a great shot on goal in the next minute. The goaltender saved it, but it went to another Italian who couldn't put it in.
Costa Rica threatened a bit in the thirty-ninth, but Ruiz took the shot himself from a long ways out, and it was an easy save. Bad choice; he had several better options, including carrying it in deeper himself.
Ruiz did set up a good chance a couple minutes later, as his cross was flicked straight on by Duarte, but a hair over the net.
A minute after that, and Campbell finally got a good chance. He was mugged, trying to get between the two defenders, but no call (in the box; I'm fairly sure a call would have been made outside).
Basically, all those chances came from the Italian defense doing a bad job trying to move the ball up into the midfield, and the Costa Rican midfield was dispossessing them.
Just before halftime, the Costa Ricans finally broke through on a long cross to a header by a streaking Ruiz. The header went into the bottom of the post, bounced almost straight down, and out of the net. It was immediately ruled a goal, but I was leery until the goal camera confirmed that it made it a couple of inches over the line.
The second half, for a long time, was nothing more than Costa Rica playing defense; I imagine for the first 20-30 minutes of the half, Italy had close to 90% possession. The only Costa Rican possession was on counterattacks, which weren't leading to good chances.
But the Costa Ricans held on, and even started breaking up the Italian build-up earlier towards the end of the half, as the Italians got more desperate. Junior Diaz, on the left back, deserves especial praise for cutting off a lot of crossing shots before they could get close to the middle. (We'll ignore that his throw-ins were really terrible, with huge amounts of side-to-side spin, since no call was made on that.)
The Italians basically got one more good chance right at the beginning of stoppage time, but again were unable to convert.
So Costa Rica became the surprise of the tournament, officially eliminating England (who were on life support after their loss the day before) and pushing Italy and Uruguay into a must-win game in the third round. Both games should be interesting; one because the teams have nothing but pride to play for, the other because it's an elimination game.
Hats off to Costa Rica; their side has played brilliantly defensively, and just well enough offensively. I hope they score at least one more upset in the knockout rounds. Unless they're playing Germany or the US; then I'll be torn.