The year is 1953. Dwight D. Eisenhower succeeds Harry Truman to become the 34th American president; Joseph Stalin passes away; Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay become the first men to reach the summit of Mount Everes; the first issue of Playboy is published by Hugh Hefner and Nat Lofthouse scores against Chile.
Much has changed in the intervening six decades but England have still to breach a Chilean defence after an assured, composed and mature performance from La Roja at Wembley, described by Jorge Sampaoli as the ‘cathedral of football’. A performance which belies their odds of 50/1 to win the World Cup.
Once again the men that learnt so much under Don Sampa for Universidad de Chile starred, with Marcelo Díaz and Eugenio Mena key figures – moves away from the respectable Basel and South American giants Santos, respectively, to teams at the highest echelons of European football should not be too far in the distance.
But even they, along with Gary Medel and ex-La U alumni Marcos González, were overshadowed by Chile’s wonder boy. Chile’s Neymar. Chile’s Lionel Messi.
On Friday night many eyes were either focused on or taking envious glances towards Lisbon where two giants of the current game, Cristiano Ronaldo and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, were taking part in what turned out to be Portugal v Sweden and not two men playing long bangers. While these god-like figures were squaring up, Alexis Sánchez was putting in one of Wembley’s eminent performances, certainly for an international. A performance of such standard that he deserves to be included in the montages which will dominate the internet and terrestrial TV adverts ahead of the World Cup. Messi, Ronaldo/Zlatan (delete as applicable), Neymar, Reus, Balotelli, Ribery . . . Alexis Sánchez.
The ex-River and Udinese starlet with the youthful grin and exuberance was ubiquitous. He is clearly enjoying his football again after a tough period last season at the Nou Camp. Now with the full-backing of Barcelona’s Argentine manager Gerardo Martino his confidence has piqued.
With Jean Beausejour, equally excellent and frustrating, on the left of what was at times 4-3-3/4-2-3-1/-4-1-4-1/3-3-1-3, such is the Chilean players instinctive and intelligent movement, Sánchez dovetailed marvelously with Eduardo Vargas as you would imagine Bunk and McNulty would do to bring down a serial killer terrorising the streets of Baltimore. Vargas was good cop, playing a peripheral role to allow Sánchez to torment the English rearguard. From first whistle to the moment he met José Pedro Fuenzalida’s deflected through pass to delicately make Fraser Forster look foolish, he had Gary Cahill, Leighton Baines et al on the ropes, hot under the collar, on the lookout for any kind of assistance.
He spoke positively in the build-up to the game of wanting to replicate the feat of Marcelo Salas 15 years previously when El Matador, who watched on from the stands on Friday, put England to the sword with a doblete. There was symmetry in his two goals, but also his all round performance. At certain times he drew ‘oohhs’ and ‘aahhhs’ from the home support, as well as applause. He was often the point of contact for his team mates when they were on the ball, in behind or to his feet where he thrives in twisting and turning, shuffling and shuttling, tying defenders in knots before accelerating away leaving the tormented with a mouthful of dust.
His development at Barca and at the Stadio Fruili means he has a real appreciation for space, picking up the ball in areas where he can hurt and penetrate. Lax defending displayed by Baines as Sánchez rose to nod in the indefatigable Mena’s cross only makes it easier for a player who already makes the game look a little too elementary.
In the opening 45 minutes England attempted to go toe-to-toe with La Roja and pressed high up the pitch. The back four were often squeezed up to the half way line, while Wilshere and Milner took it in turns to press Díaz. But so to did Chile, and it was the away side who played with greater confidence in possession, often taking on passes which on British shores would be deemed risky. Díaz again proved his role as the midfield fulcrum, dropping in between the two centre backs before popping up further forward as he shred the shackles of his markers, constantly keeping the play moving with short passes, leaving the longer switch of plays out to the wings to Matias Fernández who was ineffective in the final third before being replaced.
England did force mistakes as Claudio Bravo was called into action on a few occasions when the home side pushed men forward, with Mena deflecting wide a certain Lallana goal. But in the second period, amidst the changes from both sides, Chile seemed to grow in stature and grow as a team. Sampaoli, after the Columbia game, talked about the team’s inability to sit on and protect a lead. They were neither gung-ho or defensive but they committed men forward smartly. Carlos Carmona offered more steel in midfield and there were times where La Roja were on the verge of passing England to submission. It is this quality which well help preserve energy in Brazil when the all-out pressing game will be put under strain with games coming every few days in what could be unbearable heat, depending on where their games will take place.
When England did find space in the space behind the full-backs or in front of defence as Rooney moved into a number 10 position they were stopped by the dominant Marcos González and tenacious Gary Medel – where is this temper seen in Sevilla and at La Bombinera? Medel would go out to meet opponents while González assumed the role of stopper.
Much has been made of this being an England side missing key players. But Chile too were without the talents of Arturo Vidal and Jorge Valdivia. Although they did have Alexis Sánchez – the grande crack in what may be Chile’s coming of age performance ahead of Brazil 2014.