SAMARA, Russia (Reuters) - After reaching lofty heights in the 2014 World Cup, Costa Rica were dumped back down to earth by a tough Serbia in the 2018 edition on Sunday, their ageing squad unable to repeat their heroics of Brazil in Russia.
The Ticos started brightly enough in the Group E opening match in Samara. But they squandered early chances and Serbia steadily began to impose themselves on the game.
After a superb free kick by captain Aleksandar Kolarov gave Serbia the lead in the 56th minute, Costa Rica's chances of again making an impact in the tournament started looking slim.
They now face Brazil, who are among the favourites, in St. Petersburg on June 22 and so may already have checked in online for their flight home by the time they take on a strong Switzerland side in their final group match.
"Those who've been to World Cups before know that first matches are complicated," a clearly disappointed coach Oscar Ramirez said.
"In the first 20-25 minutes, we were very close to achieving something. We tried to pressure them. I think it was a tight match. We should have capitalised on our opportunities the same way they did."
The Central Americans, considered minnows in 2014, proved the surprise team of that tournament, reaching the quarter-finals after topping a group that included three former world champions.
But since then, a new generation has been slow to come through. Sunday's starting line-up featured three players making their World Cup debuts -- Johan Venegas, Francisco Calvo and David Guzman - while the rest all appeared at Brazil 2014.
Their defence has a miserly reputation, conceding just eight goals in 10 qualification matches.
Had Giancarlo Gonzalez not missed two early chances -- one of them a clear header when he was unmarked in front of goal -- Serbia could have been on the back foot.
Among other positives, goalkeeper Keylor Navas was in great form and shut down a few Serbian scoring opportunities. There was little the Real Madrid stopper -- winner of three Champions League medals with the Spanish club -- could do to reach Kolarov's strike.
Striker Marco Urena also impressed as a busy operator.
"I think we still believe in our opportunities, we know it will be hard because we have to face Brazil and Switzerland. It would have been good to have a buffer. We are in the situation we are, we will do the best we can," said Ramirez, who as player appeared in all Costa Rica's matches in the 1990 World Cup campaign.
"Maybe we have lost a certain margin for qualifying. It's going to be difficult, but our intention remains the same. I told the lads in the locker room 'this isn't over'."
(Reporting by Angus MacSwan; editing by Neil Robinson)