Eight months ago it seemed like Jamaica was primed to take Costa Rica’s place in the upper echelon of CONCACAF. While “La Sele” struggled through a winless spell and a messy coaching change, Jamaica made an improbable run to the Gold Cup finals following a respectable showing in the Copa America.
Order has been somewhat restored since then, as La Sele coach Óscar Ramírez has sparked Costa Rica, while the Jamaicans have lost some head scratchers, including a 3-2 defeat to Nicaragua at home in September.
Jamaica and Costa Rica last faced each other at the start of the Gold Cup in which the Jamaicans earned a silver medal. That match ended with a 2-2 tie after the Ticos blew a 2-1 halftime lead.
Ahead of this Friday’s qualifier in Jamaica, it’s the Ticos who look to be the surging side.
The insertion of the defensive-minded Ramírez as head coach has revitalized La Sele since the Gold Cup. The team has a record of 5-3 under Ramírez, including 2-0 in World Cup qualifying as it vies for a spot in the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
Ramírez’s 3-2-5 scheme has locked up opponents, with Costa Rica giving up just two goals in its last five matches, including a 1-0 loss to Venezuela where the Ticos almost held on for a tie while playing with nine men.
Ramírez said at a recent news conference that he chose his 25-man lineup with Jamaica’s athleticism in mind, wanting to match the islanders’ speed at every position.
At least one selection on the defensive end was an obvious choice for Ramírez. The last time Jamaica and Costa Rica played, the Ticos were without ace goalie Keylor Navas, who will make his triumphant return for La Sele in the midst of a historic season with Spanish power Real Madrid.
As one of the world’s best in net, Navas gives an already strong defense an added sense of security.
In front of him on the defense, the imposing presence of Kendall Waston, at 6 feet, 4 inches, and the crafty skill set of Ronald Matarrita give La Sele even more tools this time around against the Reggae Boyz.
In last July’s Gold Cup opener, Jamaica consistently burned Costa Rica’s back line, making aging players like Júnior Díaz and Roy Miller look slow and out of place. Following the pattern of his other lineups, the back five starters under Ramírez on Friday should look something like the following: Cristian Gamboa, Giancarlo González, Óscar Duarte, Waston and Matarrita.
Ramírez utilizes the 21-year-old Matarrita as a hybrid defender-midfielder, where he has the range to help create on the offensive end and feed opportunities for La Sele’s fowards. His role for the national team has been crucial ever since he was first called up, and the budding star figures to be an important piece in neutralizing Jamaica’s speed.
What’s at stake
A 2-0 record so far in the CONCACAF region qualifiers gives Costa Rica six points, ahead of both Jamaica and Panama, which are tied for second with three points apiece.
If the Ticos win the first game of the two-leg series against Jamaica, it’ll seriously amp up the atmosphere at the National Stadium back in San José for Tuesday’s game, with a chance for La Sele to clinch a spot in the hexagonal round.
Early classification into the fifth and final round of World Cup qualifying would allow Ramírez to experiment with younger players and different lineups in the final two games of this round, the coach has said.
Midfielder Randall Azofeifa told reporters earlier this week that the team realizes that it has a special opportunity at hand with two straight wins.
“This is sort of an atypical situation for the qualifying round,” he said. “We hope to win Friday so that later we can come back and have the advantage of being comfortable at home.”
Though Jamaica lost to Panama by two goals in the round’s first set of games, it’s looking to regain the momentum it had when it made an unexpected run to the CONCACAF Gold Cup finals last July. German mastermind Winfried Schäfer has proven Jamaica can play with the region’s big dogs as he tries to get the team on track to make it to their first World Cup since 1998.
Though Costa Rica boasts the most talented lineup in its group and one of the two or three best in CONCACAF, the Jamaicans certainly have enough skill to topple Costa Rica.
Team captain Wes Morgan and Adrian Mariappa, a pair of English Premier League defenders, give Jamaica’s backline instant credibility. And on the other end of the field, forwards Darren Mattocks and Giles Barnes are scoring threats that La Sele needs to hone in on.
La Sele flies Thursday to Kingston in anticipation of Friday’s game, which kicks off at 6 p.m. Costa Rica time from the island.