Chile’s World Cup opener against Australia is seen by many as La Roja’s most important game – more important than the game with Spain in the Maracana on Wednesday and even more so than the final group game against the Netherlands a week on Monday.
Four years ago, on June 16, Chile started their Group H campaign with a 1-0 defeat of Honduras in a group which also contained Spain and Switzerland. Now with an even tougher group in front of them three points is essential if they are to live up to their billing as a possible World Cup surprise package – a surprise in their positive football and a surprise in possibly knocking one or two of world football’s giants out of the World Cup.
Defeat or draw leaves La Roja with a mountainous task in front of them to qualify. Can Chile beat both Spain and Netherlands? Most certainly. However, dropping points to Australia in the opening game would not only deflate the hysteria around the country but also have a psychological effect on the squad.
From La Roja’s perspective the build-up has been dominated by the see-saw ‘will he or won’t he’ surrounding Arutro Vidal. Jorge Sampaoli sprang a surprise in Chile’s final friendly when Vidal emerged from the bench at the Estadio Elías Figueroa in Valparaíso with 13 minutes remaining despite undergoing surgery 29 days previously.
Vidal’s inclusion indicated that Sampaoli was eager to have Vidal in the line-up in Cuiabá, however, during the week he missed training sessions as the swelling on his knee worsened to the point Rodrigo Millar cancelled his holiday to Colombia to continue to work in Chile if he had to be called in at the 11th hour to replace the Juventus-star. However, the national team’s medic said Vidal’s recovery is on track and he is expected to start with Jorge Sampaoli telling the press: “There is no forgetting his quality and importance. He is eager to play.”
If that is the case then Chile will arguably be at their strongest, lining up in a 4-3-3*.
Questions marks still and will always remain about the make-up of the defence and the risks which they take. Gary Medel has proven himself at the back with a number of inspirational display despite his height – as he sets the tone for La Roja’s aggressive approach in terms of pressing. However, his partner, Gonzalo Jara, is the weak link as shown in the game against Egypt. He never seems sure of his position, keen to safeguard himself by dropping slightly deeper.
It will be this high line which Australia will of course look to exploit. They are a similarly proactive side to Chile, playing a high line as they attempt to attack directly and at pace with Jorge Sampaoli saying it will be a more technical game than physical game. It should even play into Chile’s hands if assistant coach Aureilo Vidmar’s words are anything to go by:
“It’s (Chile) a very aggressive team in the way they play, they take many risks. We are not afraid. We certainly know how to play. And we will try to put them on the defensive, make him think twice to be aggressive when they want to be.”
That should mean that La Roja will have space to counter into, but they will have to be quicker in moving the ball than they were in their two pre-World Cup warm-up friendlies.
Australia are also similar to Chile in that they don’t have any stand-out recognised centre-backs with Ryan McGowan, who may be playing centre-back, a natural right-back. If anything there should be chances galore as La Roja are incapable of not allowing the opposition a chance or two whether it is from the space they cede in behind the defence or through set pieces. Claudio Bravo will have to be alert in both situations. Even if Tim Cahill, who is likely to line-up as the lone forward, does not possess great pace, the likes of Matthew Leckie who will be one of the supporting cast in midfield, do.
Back-up striker Adam Taggart told press: “They play a really high line and as we’ve seen in their previous games a lot of the goals scored against Chile were from balls in behind, early crosses, things like that. That’s something everyone seems to know now. That seems to be their weak point so we’ll try to exploit that as much as we can.”
Chile will of course also have to be wary of the aerial ability to Miles Jedinak and Tim Cahill not just from set pieces but also the early crosses which Cahill will thrive.
The key for Chile is to start much quicker than they did against Egypt and Northern Ireland. Against Egypt they were lethargic and laboured, while against Northern Ireland it was all very simple – get the ball to Jorge Valdivia and he knocked it behind a very deep defence.
The key player, to exploit Australia’s attacking plan, will be Marcelo Díaz. If he finds the correct position and space in deep areas to prompt attacks Chile should over run Australia with the two wings backs, Eduardo Vargas, Alexis Sánchez et al.
We will finish with Arturo Vidal. If he doesn’t make the starting line-up he will likely be used from the bench, only if Chile are struggling to open their campaign with a win. But with the obdurate nature of the side’s philosophy, the game plan will not change if he doesn’t play. Either Felipe Gutiérrez or Jean Beausejour will fill in. The former wouldn’t warrant a change in the formation but the latter would likely see a switch to 4-2-1-3.
Such is tournament football one 90 minute game can make or break four years of hard work and toil. For Chile it is Australia.
*This is to simplify matters but that will change throughout the match.