When the fourth official appeared at the side of the Estadio Nacional pitch and raised his board everyone in the ground, everyone watching at home or in bars and everyone playing, with the likely exception of the Mexican defenders, would have hoped to have seen ’99’ in bright red lights rather than the allotted three.
This was 93 minutes of exhilarating and exhausting football . . . and entertainment. Six goals were scored another two disallowed, the woodwork had been struck and there were many more narrow misses. If Jorge Sampaoli had hair it would have greyed, thinned and fallen out as he paced the touchline, stalking his players. And the linesman. Even watching it left you drained. But you knew the excitement and the adrenaline would have kept you going all night. Football Viagra.
Due to the nature of the competition – only four of the 12 sides exiting at the group stage – Chile knew a draw would all but secure passage to the last eight, similarly a win for Mexico. However with a raucous support behind them, albeit there was a sizeable Mexican contingent, there was only the single joint aim. Win.
Two changes were made from the defeat of Ecuador in the opener as the lacklustre Jean Beausejour made way for goal hero Eduardo Vargas, while Eugenio Mena dropped out for Miko Albornoz, taking part in his first ever competitive game for La Roja. Rather than begin with the 4-3-3 which Chile changed to in the second half as they squeezed through against the Ecuadorians, Sampaoli sprung a surprise with a 3-something-something. Seriously, something-something. Vargas played as an unorthodox wing-back, emphasis on the unorthodox, Alexis Sánchez was stationed in the centre of the attack and it appeared to be a diamond midfield with Jorge Valdivia at the tip and Marcelo Díaz at the base, flanked by Arturo Vidal and Charles Aránguiz – both may be the answer to the fossil fuel conundrum, possessing infinite energy reserves.
Unlike Thursday night’s opener where the famed electric start saw Chile on the verge of steamrolling Ecuador in the opening 15 minutes, there was no sustained period of Chile pressure. Rather than the fluidity which makes watching them so engrossing, they appeared restricted and indecisive. Vargas and Mauricio Isla were essentially bystanders on the periphery of the game. The former was spending more time chasing back than offering an incisive threat in the final third. Possession was going through Díaz, the side’s catalyst converter, but it was stuttering at best. He was dropping into the back three to find space but due to the effectiveness of the Mexican press he was passing sideways and backwards more than forward. This left Valdivia a frustrated figure; El Mago at one point standing in the middle of the pitch throwing his arms up in the air as Albornoz chipped the ball down the line.
Yet, the biggest effect of the system was on Sánchez. Played as the highest point of the attack he was smothered by the trio of Mexican centre backs. He is at his most influential when afforded a free role, Sampaoli said as much when the player was at Barcelona. He has to be allowed to be given certain liberties to play off the cuff and improvise. On Monday night he was akin to the type of striker Sampaoli does not appear keen on; static and lateral.
Atletico Madrid’s Raul Jimenez had already threatened from a ball played over the top of Chile’s back three before the invitees took the lead. Mexico had played with an aggression and vigour that was evident in its absence in their draw with Bolivia – the worst game of the tournament so far. However, at the Estadio Nacional they were more confrontational, snapping into challenges and pressurising Chile high up the pitch. When Chile’s defence are left to their own devices they like to attack the situation head on, trying to win the ball with a slide tackle or last-ditch intervention, rather than sitting off and staying compact. Gerardo Flores won the ball on the half way line before Mexico sprang Jara’s advance and worked it out wide where it was crossed and eventually bundled in by Matias Vuoso.
It only took a matter of seconds for La Roja to draw level thanks to a stupendous header by Vidal. After a disappointing World Cup where he struggled on manfully with an injured knee it has been a season of patchy performances. But he would soon come to the fore for Chile. Bringing them back level before driving them forward for the rest of the game. But before he could Chile fell behind again. It was another case of Mexico’s aggressiveness, stealing the ball in Chile’s half before Jesus Corona’s cross was spectacularly diverted onto the bar by Claudio Bravo via the head of Flores. From the resulting corner Mexico took the lead, Bravo perhaps feeling he should have done better with the Jimenez’s header which looped into the air.
But then it changed. Chile changed. The system changed. The red tide started to gather momentum. Sánchez was set free from his cocoon of Mexico defenders to a role which offered greater freedom. Vargas was set free from the purgatory of wing-back into the centre. Valdivia was invigorated while Aránguiz and Vidal continued to bound forward.
Similar to the move which won the crucial penalty against Ecuador; Sánchez drifted from the left flank and clipped a ball towards Vidal on the opposite side. The Juventus bulldozer swapped passes with Isla before swinging in a cross which was met by Vargas bang in the middle of the goal; 2-2 and a mixture of relief and ecstasy. The crowd had grown edgy. Prior to the goal a Bravo punt forward was met with groans which were then met with Bravo encouraging more encouragement from the stands.
Chile approached the second half in something approaching a 4-3-3 system, although it borders on redundant trying to pigeon-hole a Chilean system. It is either three or four at the back and then after that, anarchy. If the first half was a slow start, the second half was marked improvement; Mexico on the verge of being drowned by the red tide. Chile swept forward like the Mighty Ducks and their Flying V. It was only a matter of time before they went back ahead and they did so thanks to their dominant duo, Sánchez and Vidal.
In a deeper position Sánchez drove forward, committing players before slipping in Vidal who had stormed into the box before being felled for the second time in two games. This time there was no question it was a penalty. Vidal made no mistake.
And it looked like Mexico had finally been felled when Vidal sprang forward again and knocked the ball down to Valdivia who rifled the ball into the bottom corner. Only for the flag to be raised with Vidal in a seemingly offside position. A tight call. Which felt even tighter as Mexico levelled moments later when Vuoso ran free from Chile’s haphazard defensive line. It was similar to Jimenez’s chance in the first half and a clear sign of the vulnerabilities there are at the back for La Roja.
There would be an even tighter call to come when the ball was worked wide to Isla and then whipped back into the middle for Sánchez to convert, only for the linesman’s flag to deny Chile what would likely have been a winner. Replays showed Sánchez was onside.
La Roja continued to sweep forward with dazzling movement, zipping the ball forward then sideways then forwards, always trying to progress. Sir Alex Ferguson talked about Xavi and Andres Iniesta getting you on the carousel, well Sampaoli’s Chile have the tendency to put the opposition – and fans – on a rollercoaster. Although just as Mexico were left in a daze, Chile confused themselves at the same time; the ball was moved one pass too much, they tried to be too intricate, players got in each other’s road. They just wanted to win.
Win they did not. Entertain they did. But they want to win. Gary Medel says they need to win to confirm their place in the pantheon of Chile’s greats. Their place at the top. In an attacking sense there was progression. But just as importantly they showed they had the mentality to come from behind. Twice. Then pushing for their fourth goal to win the game in front of an expectant home crowd.
The team have their flaws but it only makes them more endearing. More likeable. If a system can be concocted whereby Vidal is a driving presence in midfield, Vargas is in the areas which make him such a threat for Chile and Sanchez is given the immunity to play off the cuff, to ad-lib goals will come and La Roja will overwhelm rather than frustrate.