The journey for a World Cup bid begins in the right direction for Costa Rica football, which beat Haiti 1-0 Friday night in the opening qualifying game at National Stadium in San José.
“La Sele” played its most complete game under Óscar Ramírez, who is now 3-2 as head coach, dominating the CONCACAF rival from the start. Haiti had little space to work with on offense and struggled to win possession away from Costa Rica, which was constantly forcing the ball downfield.
In the 28th minute, Cristian Gamboa scored off a rebound when Haiti’s goalkeeper Johnny Placide deflected a shot from Johan Venegas back into the box. The goal seemed inevitable after Costa Rica set up camp in Haitian territory during the opening minutes.
With the win, La Sele earns three points in Group B of the CONCACAF World Cup qualifying tournament, and is currently tied for the group lead with its next opponent, Panama.
The Ticos never missed a beat against Haiti, even without their best player, goalkeeper Keylor Navas. Navas’ replacement, Patrick Pemberton, was almost never challenged until the closing minutes of the first half. When Haiti began threatening, the 33-year-old answered with a pair of clutch saves, including a diving deflection of a near-goal while Costa Rica was down to 10 men with midfielder Celso Borges nursing a foot injury on the sidelines.
Borges, one of Costa Rica’s most important pieces in its quest for a World Cup berth, was carted off the field before halftime, reportedly in tears on his way to the hospital. Spanish-language media said after the game that Borges suffered a fracture in his foot. If that’s the case, it means Borges will almost certainly miss Costa Rica’s game against Panama, leaving La Sele without its best midfielder against one of the better teams in the region.
Though Costa Rica passed its first test with relative ease, a win over a low-tier CONCACAF team doesn’t mean La Sele is suddenly a lock to make the field of 32 in Russia. On numerous opportunities in the first half, La Sele attackers looked timid and panicked when given open field, fumbling the ball away instead of making quick decisions. Ramírez gestured to his players to calm down after one especially egregious turnover where a promising breakaway collapsed after a poor pass from Ronald Matarrita.
“We weren’t as fluid as I would have liked to be during the game,” Ramírez said at a news conference after the game. “We had some chances to go up 2-0 but Haiti didn’t give too many opportunities.”
Panama, which beat Jamaica 2-0 Friday in the other Group B World Cup qualifier for CONCACAF, presents a far tougher challenge for La Sele than the outmanned Haitians. In the last meeting between the two teams – a March 31st friendly in Panama City – the Panamanians beat Costa Rica 2-1, led by a pair of early goals.
“It’s always a classic when we play Panama now,” Ramírez said. “They enjoy playing us and we’re looking forward to the challenge.”
Costa Rica v. Panama kicks off at 8:30 p.m. local time on Tuesday in the second leg of the World Cup qualifiers.