It’s known as the clasico that paralyzes the country, Saprissa versus Alajuelense. That takes on a new meaning when the two meet for the title.
That will be the case this season.
Below is everything you need to prepare for the Clasico Nacional final.
This isn’t the first time these two meet in a post-COVID world. Alajuelense hosted Saprissa in Jornada 19. The aim was to cut Saprissa’s lead at the top to four points. After jumping to a 2-0 lead, that seemed inevitable.
Then, Ariel Rodriguez happened.
Two goals in the final 25 minutes secured a much-needed draw for Saprissa. El Monstruo cruised to the liderato from there.
But what went wrong? How did Alajuelense go full…Alajuelense?
It’s no coincidence La Liga went ahead by two goals. Manager Andrés Carevic set his team up in a solid 4-1-4-1 shape. A restraining line was created just inside Saprissa’s half. Alajuelense had no interest in conceding space in behind.
The instructions were clear: press the living shit out of the attacker once he entered the zone.
It worked to perfection for the first 55 minutes.
David Guzman was the first victim. Pressure from a closing Jonathan Moya created the first costly turnover. Quick-combination play sparked the counter. Alajuelense eventually scored on that sequence, with Alan Guevara finishing from distance.
Mariano Torres fell victim early in the second half. Guevara—running like a chicken with his head cut off—forced a horrid switch that exited the touch line. Alajuelense gained possession. Just seconds later, Ariel Lassiter capitalized.
Inexplicably, Carevic pulled his men back from there.
Saprissa penetrated Alajuelense’s half with more ease.
They penetrated deeper…
Despite Rodriguez scoring his first, Alajuelense continued to drop. Now comfortable penetrating the final third, Saprissa mounted attack after attack. Rodriguez eventually broke through in the 84th minute.
Carevic’s decision to take his foot off Saprissa’s throat cost him. It’s up to him to determine which lessons were learned.
|23||L. Moreira||13||A. Cruz|
|36||F. Zabala||29||L. Hernandez|
|13||A. Machado||52||A. David|
|15||J. Diaz||32||A. Robinson|
|6||J. Salvatierra||12||R. Blanco|
|26||B. Alfaro||20||M. Torres|
|10||A. Lopez||11||M. Barrantes|
|16||A. Guevara||77||A. Rodriguez|
|11||A. Lassiter||7||J. Venegas|
|9||J. Moya||27||M. Ugalde|
|19||J. McDonald||2||C. Bolaños|
Both clubs changed systems since the last meeting.
Alajuelense reverted back to its favored 4-4-2. Jonathan McDonald returning from suspension played a role in that. A 3-0 loss to Guadalupe the following Jornada played an even bigger part. It was the club’s second loss in three games, with the Saprissa draw sandwiched in between.
Carevic needed to implement a change. He did.
Alajuelense is unbeaten (2-2-0) since.
Walter Centeno went a different route. Never the conservative, the Saprissa manager opted to keep Rodriguez on the field, partnering alongside Manfred Ugalde in what is essentially a 4-2-4. Torres and Michael Barrantes secure the midfield, with either striker dropping in at times to receive.
The change left Saprissa susceptible on the counter, but it also translated into a heavy return on goals. The match against La U aside—which we don’t count because Centeno rested his entire team—Saprissa is averaging 2.5 goals per game in its new formation.
Player Who Must Perform
Guzman was forced to leave the second leg of the semifinals with an injury. His status for the series remains a question mark, but it doesn’t appear he will make the start on Wednesday.
Is that a bad thing, though?
If you rewatch the last Clasico Nacional, it’s not. Guzman was partially at fault for both of Alajuelense’s goals. His turnover in the 29th minute eventually led to the opener. His inability to defend Moya in space conceded the second.
There are a multitude of options on the bench to replace him, with Alexander Robinson getting the start the most obvious. It’s just dangerous to assume that’s how Centeno operates.
One viable and overlooked option is moving Barrantes back to CB, and starting Esteban Rodriguez in midfield. Four years Barrantes’ junior, Rodriguez is capable of covering far more ground in transition. His passing spectrum isn’t half of Barrantes’, but that is mitigated with Torres alongside him in midfield.
Regardless of where he starts, Barrantes is the engine that makes Saprissa go. At 36, he doesn’t have many title runs left in him. It’s vital that he makes the most of this one.
Battle to Watch
Jose Salvatierra is going to have a long series.
As if battling Johan Venegas wasn’t daunting enough a task, it’s the resurgence of Byron Bonilla that’s sure to cause him fits.
The Nicaraguan winger has really come into form as of late. He was a catalyst in the first leg of the semifinals against Cartagines. Shortly after coming on, Bonilla contributed to two goals in seven minutes. He predominantly features down the left side of Saprissa’s attack, but isn’t likely to start.
Centeno prefers to bring him on as a change of pace.
With tired legs, that’s the last thing Salvatierra wants to deal with. If he can successfully burden the load, however, Alajuelense wins a significant battle.
Alajuelense is in better form, but Saprissa is the better team.
Besides, form is fallacy.
The first leg should tilt in Alajuelense’s favor, but Saprissa will get the away goal it needs. You don’t average almost two goals per game over the course of a season (1.8) and suddenly go dry.
The return leg being played at Estadio Ricardo Saprissa carries significant weight as well.
El Monstruo only lost one game at home all season. Ironically enough, it was last Wednesday—a 2-3 loss to Cartagines. Toss that aside. You can afford to not care when you start the match up 4-0 on aggregate.
Saprissa will care come Monday. No. 35 gets lifted in La Cueva.
First Leg: Alajuelense 1-1 Saprissa
Second Leg: Saprissa 1-0 Alajuelense