Chile put on a five-star show at the Estadio Nacional last night to complete what has been a turbulent week in and around the Chilean camp, seeing off an insipid Boliva side with an un mano performance.
It appears that last year’s World Cup was an anomaly for Chile. With little or no controversy, the one abiding off field talking point was regarding Arturo Vidal’s knee and whether he would be fit to play his part in the World Cup. The levels of attention on one man’s knee reached the devotion which the English media gave to David Beckham’s metatarsal in the build-up to the 2002 World Cup.
La Roja are known as much for their swashbuckling football as they are for their off-field indiscipline. The number of incidents/situations/something-gates deserve an article in itself. While not well-liked as manager of the national team, Claudio Borghi never recovered from the Bautizazo scandal where five players were banned from the national side after returning late from the baptism of Jorge Valdivia’s Chile, apparently intoxicated. One player involved was Vidal. And once again Vidal dominated the media’s attention. In recent months there has been political scandals in the country but Vidal’s face was plastered across the front and back of newspapers as well as across every TV station.
Earlier in the week the Juventus midfielder had used his time off to go to a casino with his wife before proceeding to crash his immoderate Ferrari at high speed. It was soon discovered that he was driving with 1.2 grams of alcohol per litre of blood in his system. Such an offence carries the possibility of a prison sentence of between 61 and 540 days. The full investigation is set to take place over the next three months to determine his punishment. A driving ban is expected.
But what about the more immediate future? Thankfully no one was seriously injured. The only serious injury being Vidal’s pride but not his delusions of grandeur; he told the arresting officer “handcuff me but you are going to shit on all of Chile”.
And as for punishment from the national team. A meeting between Jorge Sampaoli and Sergio Jadue swiftly took place before the manager faced the media and confirmed Vidal’s continuation at the tournament, stating that the incident wasn’t so serious that it should end Vidal’s participation. Sampaoli was reminded of his decision to drop Charles Aránguiz for sleeping in two years ago. Awkward.
It has been suggested that Sampaoli felt he owed Vidal and that the player deserved the coach’s loyalty after playing through the World Cup in severe discomfort, a decision which has plagued him in Italy throughout this last season. Then there is point no one can ignore. Vidal is an important member of the squad – arguably the best player in the squad and one of the best the country has ever produced. Chile, having reached 19 semi-finals and four finals with nothing to show for it, have a better chance of winning their first piece if silverware with Vidal playing. On home soil.
Unsurprisingly Vidal took his place in the team to face Bolivia with both teams having already qualified for the quarter-final stage. In the aftermath of the car crash two of Chile’s most important and senior players, Gary Medel and Alexis Sánchez, expressed their support for Vidal with the latter stating that he will have to break his ass for the team. Yet it was a subdued, under the radar, performance from the bulldozing midfielder, withdrawn at half-time along with Sanchez with the game and top spot all but wrapped up and quarter-final in mind.
By the half-time interval Chile were two goals to the good through Aránguiz and Sánchez. The former overshadowing his newsworthy fellow midfielder of similar ilk. Prince Charles is a player who strikes a particular chord with this writer (there is a separate piece to be written about him alone). As mentioned previously he is probably the best player at the tournament not playing in Europe.
Energetic and tenacious, he plays the game with a ferociousness which appeals to fans and excites them. The type of player managers want battling for him. The type of player players want alongside them. But he is not all hustle and bustle. He can PLAY. He knows when to use la pausa slowing the game down before bursting back into life. He thrives under Sampaoli because he thinks vertically. He plays vertically. He is the type of midfielder who should be turning in double-double numbers ie double figures in goals and assists. Goals are what he needs to add to his game and he did so against the Bolivians.
His forward runs have been a staple of Chile’s tournament so far and he opened the scoring in the game by bursting into the box and following up play. It was a long pass, similar to two that caught out Chile against Mexico, one of which led to the Mexican’s third, which opened up Bolivia’s defence as Jara searched out the running of Eduardo Vargas. A poor touch sent the ball backwards to Aránguiz who was following up to fire home. His second came not long after half-time, putting Chile three ahead and securing the three points, after some incisive build-up play which saw Angelo Henríquez find his former Universidad de Chile team mate at the back post.
Bolivia started the game akin to Juventus in the recent Champions League final, pressing intensively in the opening period. Chile’s north-east neighbours pushed three men high up on La Roja’s backline, causing some particularly interesting moments when the centre backs passed back to Claudio Bravo. Despite Mauricio Soria’s more proactive approach as Bolivia manager the intensity dropped with Chile not taking advantage of the space Jorge Valdivia was getting goal-side of their midfield. The game failed to settle into a rhythm with both teams guilty of being loose with their passing.
It was clear from the moment Bolivia backed off 20 yards or so that it was going to be a comfortable night for the Chilean back four, Sampaoli admitted pre-match that the team had played and defended better with a quartet rather than a trio. It was simply a case of how Chile would find a way past Romel Quiñónez who performed admirably against Ecuador.
Once Aránguiz had netted it became a matter of Sánchez getting of the mark. Twice he went close with free-kicks before he finally broke his duck for the tournament. Las hinchas have not seen the best of el niño maravilla so far. He has a tendency to hold onto the ball too long when wearing a Chilean shirt. It is as if it is expected of him to conjure up magic on his own, Win the ball himself, Create himself. Score himself. It leads to frustration among his team mates. Both Mauricio Isla and Vidal threw their arms out like drunk dads on the dance floor after failing to receive a pass.
But his enthusiasm never dampens. It is the opposite. It is contagious. Mistakes have the same effect to Sánchez as the mushrooms have to Super Mario. A quality which endears him to team mates and fans. He is always alive. A poor Ecuadorian pass on opening night was punished when setting up Vargas. And again on Friday night he pounced upon a loose pass, drove forward, found Valdivia wide, continued his run and his determination made Valdivia’s cut back, stopping and diving to head into the corner.
His job was done and his corn earned. He was not needed for the second half and to be honest neither were the defence or Bravo. Chile completely dominated proceedings against a rotten Bolivia side who have played one good, albeit freak, half against Ecuador in which they were aided by some abysmal defending. It was summed up in comical fashion with the final goal, Henríquez cutting the ball back where captain Ronald Raldes couldn’t sort his feet out quick enough, the ball hitting his foot before looping over Quiñónez and crossing the line via the back post.
La Roja knocked the ball about with ease and confidence, showing the balance between control and balls-out attack which Sampaoli has been trying to refine in his side. Between both halves Vargas should have netted a hat-trick but the moment of the match was provided by Gary Medel as Chile showcased everything which is interesting and engrossing about them. The ball was moved around, starting from deep, with players following the pass and running through and beyond the lines. Including Medel. A centre back. Valdivia found him with a lovely clipped pass, Medel brought it down on his chest and before letting the ball hit the ground flicked it over the advancing Quiñónez and it dropped into the net.
There is now a sense of momentum building for Chile. A siege mentality has been formed around Vidal. There is the major caveat in that it was only Bolivia they beat but will have provided a confidence surge throughout the team. With Brazil Neymar-less for the remainder of the tournament and Argentina still less than the sum of their parts there is an argument for Chile to be regarded as favourites. The easy part is done. Now the tournament begins.