Newspaper headlines talked of ‘The End’. Reigning World Champions Spain had been knocked out of the World Cup after only two games. Seven goals conceded and one scored. The reaction is understandable. After all this is the team which had made a rightful claim to the be the greatest ever: two European Championships and a World Cup in four years.
But what about the team that put the final nail in the coffin? The team which hunted those in a red shirt like men-possessed. The team which sprang forward at such a pace it was as if you could only make out the dust from their heels.
Chile, after an underwhelming last three outings, despite defeating Australia 3-1, announced themselves as possible candidates for the World Cup with the perfect performance. One of defensive resolute, a systematic game plan, buccaneering forward play and tireless energy. From Claudio Bravo to Gary Medel to Marcelo Díaz to Charles Aránguiz to Arturo Vidal, not forgetting Francisco Silva, Gonzalo Jara, Eugenio Mena, Mauricio Isla, Eduardo Vargas and of course Alexis Sánchez.
The joy of watching Chile is seeing a team attack and press to such an extent that it borders on recklessness. Run, tackle, attack, sprint, recover possession, pass, pass, attack, forward, press, hunt, pass, attack . . . oh, oh the opposition are in behind with a run at goal from 30 yards. That is Chile. The Chile of Marcelo Bielsa and now the Chile of Jorge Sampaoli.
However, in the 2-0 defeat of Spain, their first ever win over the Europeans, something seemed to change. Whether it was because of the ineptitude of the weary opposition or because La Roja mastered their game plan, Chile put in a perfect performance. One with balance. There was the swift attacks, the running, the pressing, the hunting in packs, the directness, the energy, the attacking, the running, the forward passing, the attacking. But there was also defensive structure, compactness . . . a defensive solidity.
There were murmurings in the Chile camp following the Australia match that Sampaoli was worried rather than ecstatic after winning his first ever World Cup match. His solution was to switch to a defensive line of three with three midfielders in it – Gary Medel, Gonzalo Jara and Francisco Silva who replaced Jorge Valdivia as Chile went to a 3-4-1-2.
As Chileans settled into their seats for the start of the game after rushing to the nearest watering hole from work their team went on the attack, nearly scoring through Eduardo Vargas. However, the game would settle into the rhythm of La Roja relentlessly pressing the Spanish who were forced to demonstrate the one-touch passing which is prominent in their upbringing and training. For the opening period Chile were working hard but were struggling to make an impact as Spain moved the ball about at lightning pace.
Yet Chile were in a comfortable position as Spain struggled to create openings. Even when they were able to break La Roja’s press they were faced with Marcelo Díaz, who covered more ground than anyone on the pitch running 12.6km, and then a wall of three protecting Claudo Bravo’s goal. There was no interest in turning the defence or going direct. The ponderous, slow build-up which has worked for them in since 2008 played into Chile’s hands as it allowed their workhorses to get back behind the ball and into defensive formation.
The contrast in the two teams’ ambitions with the ball is stark and the opening goal was a microcosm of Spain and Chile’s separate ideals. Sánchez and Vidal were joined by Aránguiz as they set about Xabi Alonso, like lions to an antelope. Possession was won and there was only one thing on their mind. Rather than wait for support and build up with the whole team in support, the ball was taken forward with speed through running with the ball and swift passing. There were exquisite passes and touches with Aránguiz making that burst into the box he does so well to cut it back to Vargas to finish. Eventually. While Tim Cahill’s volley against The Netherlands is the best strike so far, Vargas’ opener may be the best team goal.
La Roja’s pressing was led by Arturo Vidal who put in a superhuman performance considering the doubts about his fitness with even the player admitting that he wasn’t 100 per cent prior to the game. Yet, he was unstoppable in closing down the Spanish defenders, especially Javi Martinez when the Bayern Munich stopper came out from the back with the ball. He was flanked by Vargas and Sánchez with Aránguiz supporting from a deeper position which gave Chile a 3-3-1-3 look when out of possession.
Such a proactive approach to their pressing did not leave the defence exposed with both Eugenio Mena and Mauricio Isla working well defensively, allowing the central defenders to stay compact. Even when Spain were able to squirm their way into a good position, La Roja were able to squirm the ball free or had Claudio Bravo as an impenetrable force.
The second goal from Aránguiz, which followed a poor Iker Casillas punch from a Sánchez free-kick. Even though it came before half-time the second half saw a demoralised Spain rather than one revitalised to save their chances at defending their World Cup trophy.
No matter what they tried or who they threw on there was never the feeling, apart from the watching Chileans, that Spain would work themselves back into the match. They were reduced to long-range efforts which Claudio Bravo was equal to as he made up for a mistake for a David Villa goal four years ago in South Africa, while he also, time and again, took the pressure of his defenders by claiming everything that was crossed into the box.
The Chilean defence proved that they can see out a game. But the second half wasn’t a defensive performance. It saw La Roja continue to attack with vigour, looking the more likely to add to their score line. One moment in the second half summed up their attitude as an attack down the left saw Mena find Isla at the back post. That is Chile.
As the aftermath focused on the end of an era, behind everything Spain, arises the question, can Chile win the World Cup?
I am proud to be at the front of this group of players. This is a victory I will never forget. If this is the best team in Chile’s history, we will see in time. It doesn’t go through my head that Chile will be world champions. You have to take it game by game.
Those were the measured words spoken by Jorge Sampaoli. But after that performance the thoughts of Vidal and Medel, who claimed Chile can win the World Cup, can be taken more seriously.
It was the type of performance which suggested La Roja do have what it takes to reach their promised land. A combative, tireless and hungry team, pace, power and precision and now defensive solidity, overseen by one of the the world’s most talented coaches.
This is Chile and they have finally started.