Chile have already reached a final. Tomorrow’s game against Netherlands will be treated as such by the team as they seek to win and advance to the second round as group winners where they will face either Croatia or Mexico rather than the dreaded match up with Brazil.
Go back 16 years and after three draws at France ’98 Nelson Acosta’s Chile emerged from the group in second place where they then faced Brazil in the second round. They fell to a 4-1 defeat. Twelve years later, and after failing to qualify for two World Cups, La Roja were back in the tournament in South Africa. Wins against Honduras and Switzerland saw Chile finish second behind Spain. The second round threw up another meeting with Brazil. La Roja fell to a 3-0 defeat.
So it is understandable that Chilean fans are apprehensive about finishing second, even if the attitude in the Chilean camp is one of ‘we’ll play anyone’ as suggested by Arturo Vidal.
We want to show that we are a team with hunger. To be champions we must face them all. This is the best generation in the history of Chilean football.
But this does not mean Chile will be taking the game with the Dutch lightly. As always Chile will go onto the pitch with the aim of attacking Netherlands and winning the game with Jorge Sampaoli in particularity poetic mood in the pre-match press conference.
We will not go out to destroy Holland’s dream but build our own dream.
The biggest decision Sampaoli will have to make is whether he plays the players who are one booking away from missing the second round match – Arturo Vidal, Charles Aránguiz and Eugenio Mena – or who have had injury concerns – Aránguiz, Mauricio Isla and Vidal.
Sampaoli said “we will not keep anything” and trying to predict what he will do is always tricky. Yet it is expected that both Isla and Mena will play with Aránguiz and Vidal dropping out for Felipe Gutiérrez and Jorge Valdivia.
In the last two World Cups La Roja have been hurt by suspensions in the second round with Moisés Villarroel, Nelson Parraguez and Francisco Rojas missing the game in ’98, while Gary Medel, Waldo Ponce and Marco Estrada all missed the game four years ago.
So there is previous to warn Sampaoli of the pitfalls of taking a risk. But for this writer the risk is worth the potential rewards of an, on paper, easier run to the semi-finals. Finish second and Chile will likely play Brazil. Cause an upset against the hosts and it is likely La Roja will face Colombia in the quarter-finals. A Colombia side who have looked, alongside France, the best at the tournament and a Colombia side Chile failed to beat in qualification.
Finish top and La Roja will play Mexico or Cameroon then there is possibly the winner of Ivory Coast and Costa Rica waiting for Sampaoli’s side in the quarter-finals.
Leaving out both Aránguiz and Vidal will see Chile lose their two prominent ‘hunters’. The duo set the tone for the team’s pressing. Gutiérrez and Valdiva are technically excellent players but they don’t offer the same dynamism as the duo they may replace. For Chile to execute their game plan they need this dynamism.
Netherlands will offer a different proposition as to Spain. Spain were all about controlling the ball. Their slower build-up allowed the likes of Aránguiz and Vidal as well as the front two, Eduardo Vargas and Alexis Sánchez to get behind the ball after the initial press and then press again.
Netherlands, who will line-up with a very similar shape to Chile’s, are more about pace and counter-attacking as they demonstrated against Spain. Get caught with too many players forward and the Dutch will be more likely to punish the space that is vacated by La Roja. The energy offered by Aránguiz and Vidal to cover the ground and get back into shape is vital.
The biggest danger will come from Arjen Robben who Gonzalo Jara compared to Lionel Messi. You know what both want to do but trying to stop them doing so is very difficult. Thankfully for Chile they have Gary Medel in fine form and coming into the game after keeping Diego Costa quiet.
Sampaoli will likely urge his defensive line to stay slightly deeper as they did against Spain. This should prevent leaving space for Robben to run into, although it does open space up for Wesley Sneijder in the middle of the park. But if the back three can stay as compact as the did against the Spanish they should close any central positions for Sneijder to feed the ball into.
Mena and Isla will, as always, be required to cover the whole flank as they help to protect against Robben but as Australia showed, Netherlands are not keen on facing pace with Matthew Leckie causing a number of problems.
One of the best qualities of Chile’s wing-backs is their bravery so they will look to force their opposite wing-backs back and if they don’t they will still go forward anyway. Isla and Sánchez will be an important combination down the right to pin Daley Blind in his own half. The wing-back has shown he is a capable provider of goals.
Sánchez, along with Vargas, will like their chances against the back three of Netherlands but they may have to do a lot of combination work unless Valdivia can use his intelligence to see off the combative and mobile do of Nigel De Jong and Jonathan De Guzman.
Everywhere you look there are interesting match-ups with the game likely to provide goals, excitement and put itself on the growing list of ‘game of the tournament’.
Between now and the final there will be a lot of talk from every country about each game being a final in itself. If Chile can win their final against the Dutch it may just open up an easier path to the actual final.