In the 77th minute Chile had a corner from the left when an almighty roar reverberated around the Estadio Elías Figuerora in Valparaíso. The camera swung around and behind Mauricio Pinilla there he was standing. Arturo Vidal – The Return of the King.
For an hour La Roja had been stuttering their way to an embarrassing draw with European-minnows Northern Ireland. While the defence which creaked wide open against Egypt wasn’t overly tested as José Rojas and Francisco Silva joined Gary Medel in the three-man backline, Chile’s attacks were ponderous and disjointed.
Jorge Sampaoli had made eight changes to the team which took to the Estadio Nacional against the Africans but by the 60th minute he had seen enough, summoning Charles Aránguiz, Eduardo Vargas and Alexis Sánchez from the bench in a triple-substitution. The introduction of the trio, especially the latter resulted in the atmosphere being cranked up a notch but it reached a new level about 15 minutes later when Vidal arrived onto the pitch taking the captaincy from the departing Gary Medel.
The Spanish doctor who operated on Vidal had the day previously recommended the Juventus player wait until July 7 at the earliest to return to action. But 29 days after surgery Vidal had returned to the pitch with groans from the Australia camp almost audible.
His 15 minutes are a pre-cursor to him starting against Australia a week tomorrow and he eased into action with a composed display from midfield, clipping passes out wide or playing short and simple without over exerting himself with rampaging bursts as you come to expect when watching him.
But while he was emerged as the main attraction with no one expecting to see him, Sánchez was once again the inspiration. The Barcelona player added another two assists to the three he conjured up on Friday as Chile turned a demoralising draw into an upbeat win as all the stars earned sufficient game time.
Northern Ireland had been stuffy opponents defending en-masse in deep areas with sporadic ventures into La Roja’s half. They did create the first half’s best chances from set pieces with Johnny Herrera alert and confirming his status as an able deputy to Claudio Bravo.
Chile’s pressing, in comparison to against Egypt, was much improved as they forced their opponents to play at a tempo which they struggled with. However, it was Chile in possession which was causing concern. Once in possession they did not play quick enough to move their opponents around and create spaces.
Jorge Valdivia was left with the sole creative responsibility, dropping deep and constantly looking to play in a team mate with either a threaded through ball or clipped pass over the top. But with Northern Ireland so deep passes had to be precise and more often than not they weren’t. The best route seemed down the left where Chile resembled Universidad de Chile with Valdivia taking on the Gustavo Lorenzetti role, supported by Eugenio Mena and Rojas advancing up the left. There were a few gorgeous passes to release the former although crossing let Mena down, except for one which was laid on a plate for Esteban Paredes who completely missed the ball.
It was a positive run out for Valdivia who had been left out against Egypt due to an injury concern. It appeared that early on he was set to go off injured, only to change his boots and return to the action. There was also a tenacious side to Valdivia’s play as on more than one occasion he embrace the physical side of the game and won back possession. Although his through balls may not have come off he’ll know that there’ll be more space in which to thread passes to against Spain and the Netherlands.
It wasn’t such a good evening for Paredes and Fabian Orellana who struggled to create, link-up or find ample space in which to threaten the score sheet. Coupled with Mauricio Pinilla’s tidy finish to secure the win, both are likely to be down the pecking order in a week’s time and it would not be a surprise if Paredes did not see any action.
Carmona faired slightly better in a midfield role alongside Marcelo Díaz, playing a role in the side’s pressing, however he lacked any real menace further forward with Díaz offering a better attacking threat.
But it all changed across 15 minutes as Sampaoli made five substitutions to reinvigorate the crowd and the game. Vidal’s surprise introduction may have been biggest and best news but it was Sánchez who flicked the switch and ramped up the positive feeling as the squad head out to Belo Horizonte today.
Having tipped Sánchez as an outside bet for top scorer, he was again eminent outside the box. Receiving a pass from Vidal, making some space and dinking a pass onto the head of a suspiciously offside Eduardo Vargas – who joins Matías Fernández has Chile’s 10th top goal scorer – before coming even deeper to leave Aaron Hughes paying to get back into the game and sliding a pass with the outside of his right foot into the path of Pinilla who duly scored his first goal for Chile since 2005 – the passing of 3353 days.
It was another performance that was far from La Roja’s best as they continue to be touted and talked up as the world’s most exciting. However, in the end the positives outweighed the negatives with another win prior to the start of this year’s football festival plus the return of the King to Chile’s midfield.
And for opposition coaches watching, be warned el Niño Maravilla is ready to wow on the biggest stage.
First 60 minutes
Last 30 minutes (from 31.22)