When Khaled Kamar raced away from Chile’s static defence to clip a delicious finish over the helpless Claudio Bravo in the 16th minute an eerie silence fell over the Estadio Nacional for a split second before the crowd responded with deafening whistles to show their disapproval at La Roja losing 2-0 to their African counterparts.
However, despite the failings of la selección throughout the match they were bailed out by an inspired Alexis Sánchez performance and two goals from Eduardo Vargas to leave the crowd content rather than boisterous as they made their way home along Pedro de Valdivia, Marathon and Grecia.
In the aftermath Jorge Sampaoli told the Chilean media that there are many things to correct, beginning with a friendly against Northern Ireland in Valparaíso, a two hour drive west of the capital, on Wednesday by which time Sampaoli will have discarded two players from the squad, confirming the 23 he will take to Brazil.
Defensively, Chile reached what may have been their lowest point under Sampaoli with maybe the exception of the second half of the draw in Colombia when La Roja blew a three goal lead. However, it does not come as much of a surprise considering the back three in a 3-4-1-2 had no recognised centre back. Gonzalo Jara took on the role of libero with Gary Medel and Miiko Albornoz on either side.
The idea for Chile defensively is quite simple: push high up the park and keep the opposition away from Claudio Bravo. However, it is risky and difficult to put into practice. It relies on players higher up the park pressing the opposition and making the pitch as small as possible. But last night in the opening 20 minutes there wasn’t the required pressure, while the passing throughout the game was wayward. When passes go astray in dangers areas Chile are left too open due to the width of their defence. Sampaoli noted to the press that their inaccuracy in possession left them exposed to the pace of Egypt and that they have to be more savvy in possession if they are not to face a similar fate in Brazil.
For the first goal Gary Medel’s poor pass into midfield gave Mohamed Salah an easy run through on goal. Following that a simple clip over the top from midfield was all that was needed with the defence too slow to react. It is the sort of start which will end their participation at the World Cup before it has even started against Australia, while Vicente Del Bosque and Louis Van Gall would have been prompted to break into their best Mr Burns impression.
Medel was the best of the trio, aggressively stepping up to put pressure on the ball, while showcasing his anticipation and tenacity when on the back foot. However, the same could not be said about Jara who was ponderous in the centre role throughout. Albornoz grew into the game but started the game lost and unsure of which positions to take up with his best work coming further forward.
The defence weren’t helped by the performances of Mauricio Isla, Jean Beausejour and Felipe Gutiérrez. The Isla that turned up was the one that was constantly subbed during Juventus’ run to the semi-finals of the Europa League, rather than the powerful athlete who dominates the right for Chile. Beausejour was off the pace and offered very little with and without the ball, while Gutiérrez failed to offer the work rate needed having been lined up to take Arturo Vidal’s place if he is unfit for the opening game and any subsequent game.
With Jorge Valdivia sidelined Charles Aránguiz was pushed into a false nine role. Anyone who has watched the ex-La U player will know that is not his game. A more than capable footballer but one whose game is based around his energy and forward runs rather than the intricacy which the position demands. If Sampaoli opts for a 3-4-3 then in Aránguiz he has the ideal partner for Marcelo Díaz in midfield, after all they were excellent as a duo for La U.
As Vidal has grown in stature and importance at Juventus to become one of the best midfielders in the world he has over taken Sánchez as Chile’s star player, certainly in the eyes of many in the country. But el Niño Maravilla wowed the crowd at the Estadio Nacional. When those around him were struggling he, more than he normally is for La Roja, was a magnet for the ball. There were tricks and twists, turns and stepovers.
Like everyone in the team, Sánchez, playing from a right forward position, struggled to impose himself early on. Yet, with the team in a state of paralysis as Egypt raced into a two goal lead, it was the boy wonder who picked the ball up in a deep position, drove at the Egypt defence before picking out Marcelo Díaz to get Chile back in the game.
It would be the first of three assists, his two in the second half came when he moved into a deeper position to get the requiste space to receive the ball into feet before fooling an tight marker with a shake of the hips the finest Latin American dancer would be envious of. His probing passes behind the Egypt defence were every bit as good as the very best enganche could produce.
It was this creativity and improvisation in the final third La Roja were lacking in the opening stages without the injured Valdivia. If El Mago is unable to play three games in such a short space of time and with Matías Fernández out injured, Sánchez will be required to produce these moments of magic from a central position. It is not a position he is unaccustomed to. His best football at Udinese was in a free role behind Antonio Di Natale.
One man who showed last night that he will thrive on the service is Eduardo Vargas. His brace takes his tally to 11 in the 14 games he has played under Sampaoli for La Roja. El Grafico Chile have been pretty creative in saying that he is in the top 10 goal scorers of all-time. However, two players are on the same amount of goals, so he is actually 11th on the list with 13 goals in 29 caps, one behind Matías Fernández.
The instinct and composure in front of goals, coupled with smart diagonal runs to beat the offside trap suggest it won’t be long before he will eclipse Fernández.
His all round game wasn’t quite there against Egypt, there were loose touches of the ball and a lack of work without the ball or outside the box that fans in Chile know he can produce. However, the penetration offered with his verticality stands La Roja in good stead with it being unlikely a number 9 will start in any game.
Another ex-Universidad de Chile player, Eugenio Mena, also had a good evening, despite only playing the second half. The Santos man gave Chile an impetus and dynamism that was missed in the first half. Mena is a one-man left-side with tireless running and that’s what he offered as Beausejour was moved higher up the pitch then taken off for Mauricio Pinilla, who received one of the biggest receptions of the night.
He offered greater protection to Albornoz and there was no real surprise that he improved with Mena ahead of him. Then there were the forward runs he offered, providing an outlet for a switch of play with Felipe Gutiérrez and Sánchez both using him to good effect. He has been carrying an injury but if he stays fit he has to be one of the first names on the team sheet.
La Roja as a whole showed the art of recovery. This wasn’t a vintage Chile performance. At the start of both halves there was a lethargy about the team. Not a good quality in any team, but certainly not one which prides itself on a dynamic and up-and-at-em approach.
However, the way the game came to pass it may be the ideal reality check for the team to realise that they will need to be at their very best if they are to beat Australia and then live up to the billing that they have been given by pundits, fans and even opposition managers.
Bravery his needed in abundance to play the way Chile play. For them there is no other other way to play than that of the ferocious pressing force which they are. There wasn’t that intensity last night and a repeat start against Australia will see Chile needing to achieve the unenviable task of needing to beat Spain and the Netherlands.
Pics: All Agencio UNO