A smorgasbord of emotions – passion, frustration, relief and then delight – were displayed at the Estadio Nacional – subdued for large periods of the match apart from the occasional chants of Viva Chile – as the 2015 Copa America kicked off with the hosts emerging victorious in a frustrating but ultimately pleasing encounter.
To prepare for the Copa America Jorge Sampaoli took his side to a former monastery in Rancagua 50 miles south east of Santiago, converted into training ground for Primera Division side O’Higgins. Plans for a training camp in Europe were shelved after key players, such as Alexis Sánchez, Marcelo Díaz and Arturo Vidal, completed their season only a week or two prior to prior to the start of the tournament.
The idea behind the decision was to keep Chile away from the hype and pressure, with comparisons made to Brazil in their hosting of the World Cup 12 months previously. Although similarities could be witnessed as a packed Estadio Nacional belted out Chile’s imaginatively named Himno Nacional de Chile, when the music ceased the players and fans continued on in unison – a feature of any match involving Brazil in last year’s World Cup or the summer before in the Confederations Cup.
The passion appeared to feed into the opening minutes with La Roja nearly ahead from their first foray forward. A direct and penetrative move through Charles Aránguiz, Jorge Valdivia then Sánchez saw the Arsenal man, like a modern day Houdini, wriggle free but he could only poke his effort agonisingly wide of the post.
Sampaoli had sprung a surprise in not so much his personnel but how they were set up. Expecting a 4-3-3, La Roja lined up in a loose 3-4-1-2 with Valdivia feeding auxiliary forward Vidal and Sánchez, while Eugenio Mena was played at left centre back alongside Gonzalo Jara and Gary Medel – is there any team in the world who opt for a back three without a recognised centre back? Just one of the many quirks of Sampaoli and this Chile team.
In that opening attack it was evident that Gustavo Quinteros and his Ecuador side were caught by surprise. Aránguiz, one of the best players playing outside of Europe dissected the midfield by firing a pass into Valdivia who drew Frickson Erazo up field leaving a substantial gap in the middle of the La Tri’s defence for Vidal to burst into dragging Juan Carlos Paredes with him; el nino maravilloso scampered in field from the right for the early chance.
Chile raged forward into the Ecuador half like the wintry waves that crash Chiloé. Despite having issues with his footwear El Mago Valdivia looked like he had fully recovered from a hamstring problem which had caused him issues in the build up to the tournament. He was instrumental in Chile’s early dominance, getting on the ball and conjuring some of his wizardry, constantly looking to release runners in behind the Ecuadorian defence. It was his quick thinking and clipped ball from a free kick which set Sánchez away having coming in from the right flank but his meek attempted lob of Ecuador’s 9ft goalkeeper Alexander Domínguez was easily plucked out of the sky, with Vidal left frustrated to the left.
And it was soon more than Vidal who was left frustrated. One of the principles of Chile’s play is their fast, high-energy starts. They chase, press, hunt and, like a plague, suffocate. It can leave opposition teams in a daze. But Chile need to pounce quickly or they can quickly get stuck in a rut. Ecuador survived the initial burst and soon packed bodies between Chile’s creators and their goals. La Roja were soon squeezed out of the final third with Sánchez trying to do too much, which he has form for doing when wearing the red of his country. Vidal looked like a midfielder playing as a striker and Valdivia’s influence waned. Even Marcelo Díaz, so Xavi-esque, composed, reliable, perceptive, appeared ruffled; seemingly misplacing more passes than he did in his time under Sampaoli at Universidad de Chile. The frustration found its way into the crowd who voiced their feelings whenever an attack broke down.
The defender-less defence stood up well to the sporadic physical and swift Ecuadorian attack. Swansea’s Jefferson Montero was the most likely to force a surprise goal, finding space behind Mauricio Isla and to the side of Gary Medel. They weren’t truly tested until the second period. Unsurprisingly the perennially ineffectual Jean Beausejour did not emerge to the pitch after half-time. He will hold a place in the hearts of Chilenos as the only Chilean to score in two World Cup, but far too many times games pass him by whether he is stationed in a wing-back or more advanced position. Sampaoli reconfigured the system with Vidal dropping back into midfield and Eduardo Vargas and Sánchez playing either side of Valdivia. Díaz moved deeper, alternating between the middle of defence and the base of midfield.
After the match Sampaoli, who has history with Ecuador having spent time in the country managing Emelec, told the press: “When a team is unable to an end product from their domination their opponent gains in confidence and starts to push forward.” Going into the interval level had a galvanising effect on Ecuador, their attitude was increasingly positive. They played higher up the pitch with Enner Valencia receiving more support and he should have edged La Tri ahead after Montero sped away to the by-line before producing a fine cut back which he steered wide.
Chile were in need of inspiration to rouse them from their slumber and stop the Ecuador momentum and it came in controversial circumstances. Struggling to get in behind their opponents, a quick switch of play opened up the right hand side for Vidal and Isla. The Juventus midfielder drove into the box and opted to plunge to la tierra after feeling an arm brush his body – a penalty was awarded and then converted by the man who won it.
As relief subsided around the ground the decibel level rose but still Ecuador sensed a way back into the game and it nearly bore fruit with under 10 minutes remaining as Valencia nodded the ball against the bar. But just as they could have turned zero points into one point, any hope was dashed when Sánchez, like a cat waiting for a mouse to surface from behind the skirting boards, pounced on an Ecuador loose pass before driving forward and playing in Vargas to slide home confirmation of Chile’s opening win.
Having only notched the one goal in three previous outings, two of which were against Iran and El Salvador, it was the first time La Roja had scored two or more since January’s win over the USA. It should give Sampaoli’s men huge confidence going into the remaining games in the group with one foot already set in the knock-out stages.
The games against Mexico and Bolivia should be used as a springboard for momentum and for Chile to find a ruthless streak so that they can puncture and even deflate opponents when they are dominant and in the ascendency. When teams play at such high intensity it is expected that they drop off at some point during the game and it is difficult to going through the gears again.
A satisfactory opening but still plenty of room for improvement if they are to turn the Estadio Nacional in the centre of Santiago into their own convent.