For Alajuelense, one of Costa Rica's biggest clubs, the CONCACAF Champions Cup could not have come at a better time. Having endured a torrid recent spell, the continental championship could provide the perfect tonic for the club and their fans as they seek desperately to get back on the victory trail.
With 24 domestic titles and 17 runners-up spots to their name, Liga Deportivo Alajuelense have grown accustomed to success. They were the first Costa Rican side to win a CONCACAF trophy and are widely regarded as their country's most prestigious side. Despite carrying off the 2005 Clausura title, the year ended on a sour note for the side from Alajuela, who could only watch as archrivals Deportivo Saprissa strode to a historic third-place finish in the recent FIFA Club World Championship to add to their victory in the 2005 Apertura championship.
To add to their woes, Los Rojinegros have made a less than impressive start to the 2006 Clausura. Prior to this weekend's all-important win over Herediano, Alajuelense had picked up just 10 points from a possible 24, a return that led to coach Javier Delgado being dismissed in favour of Rolando Villalobos.
Change brings fresh hope
Villalobos has thrown himself into his new role, setting out clear objectives for the task ahead: "We've got to inject more dynamism and intensity into the team's performances in every game. According to my philosophy, even the keeper can score. It's the entire team's job to start the moves in the middle of the park or out wide. That's where goals come from."
New coach Villalobos did not enjoy the best of starts as Alajuelense slumped to a 1-0 defeat at the hands of humble Ramonense in his first game in charge. However, the team did show signs of improvement in the regional derby game with Herediano and crucially had something to show for it at the end.
With the Alejandro Morera Soto Stadium packed to the rafters, an incredible goal from Bryan Ruiz saw Alajuelense put the smile back on their supporters' faces. Ruiz latched onto a gem of a pass from Tico star Carlos Hernández to find the back of the net and seal a hard-fought victory. The three points provided much-needed relief for his side's new coach and a major boost to morale in the Rojinegros' camp.
Continental supremacy in their sights
The win could not have come at a better time with the Costa Ricans set to kick off a new continental adventure on 22 February against USA New England Revolution, who qualified by virtue of runners-up spot in the MLS Cup. With former England international Paul Mariner looking on from the stands, in his role as New England's assistant coach, it was vital for the home side to put in a good performance and send out a warning to their future rivals.
With the intelligence of Carlos Hernández, the movement of Costa Rican international Harold Wallace, the iron nerve of keeper Rolando Fonseca and the explosiveness of Bryan Ruiz, Mariner's report will have given New England head coach Steve Nicol a great deal of food for thought.
With the league table now having a more familiar look to it, and coach Rolando Villalobos bringing about a marked improvement after only a few days in charge, optimism is gradually returning to the Alajuelense ranks. The team now go into Wednesday's first-leg clash at Bermuda's National Sports Center looking to build on their recent good work and give a display worthy of one of Costa Rica's biggest and most successful sides.