Chile are the best team in South America – can Sampaoli make them the best in the world?
Even after their triumph in the Copa América there was one flaw in Chile’s claim to being the undisputed best team in South America – Brazil.
The last win of La Roja over the five-time world champions came in 2000 and this golden generation of Chileans has twice suffered elimination from the World Cup at their hands. So despite the turmoil of Dunga’s Brazil after their World Cup and Copa América exits, there was still a sense of trepidation ahead of the first qualifier for Russia 2018, but Jorge Sampaoli steered them to a 2-0 victory in Santiago and the top of South American football.
Beyond the symbolism of the win, it was the way in which Sampaoli took charge of the game via his tactical changes which makes it possible to imagine Chile as World Cup winners.
Chile 2-0 Brazil recap – Sampaoli breaks the spell
Chile’s initial 3-4-1-1 struggled as Brazil exploited the space behind the wing-backs Mauricio Isla and Jean Beausejour on the flanks, especially via Douglas Costa and Willian. The centre-backs were being left exposed with Gary Medel dropping deeper and deeper into a sweeper role and leaving dangerous amounts of space around the edge of the box. They were let off by the poor quality of delivery into the box and the lack of sharpness in Brazil’s shooting.
However Sampaoli was decisive, taking off Francisco Silva and putting on the energetic midfielder Mark Gonzalez to switch to a back four in the 40th minute (Sampaoli’s willingness to make a change when needed rather than waiting for half-time is one of his best traits). Chile began to control the wings better and Alexis Sanchez was pushed forward alongside Eduardo Vargas into a 4-1-3-2 where he immediately hit the crossbar.
After half-time, the game began to stretch out. Isla hit the post, while Brazil launched a series of dangerous counters in the centre through Willian, forcing Marcelo Diaz to pick up a yellow for a cynical foul. Again Sampaoli made a decisive change, taking off the tiring Jorge Valdivia for Mati Fernandez and pressuring Luiz Gustavo, Brazil´s defensive midfielder. Gustavo buckled under the pressure, fouling Fernandez and giving away a free-kick. Fernandez whipped it in and Vargas snuck ahead of the defence and volleyed it home.
Sampaoli´s changes had turned the tide and though the introduction of Ricardo Oliveira offered Brazil a more dangerous presence in the box it was the home team who struck the final blow. In the 90th minute Sanchez dribbled through the middle, laid the ball off to Arturo Vidal who surged from deep and pulled the Brazilian defence apart, before tapping it back to Sanchez to finish.
Peru 3 – 4 Chile recap – Sanchez shakes off his curse
The South American qualifying process is also unrivalled in its gruelling schedule of home and away matches against the 9 other teams. Chile’s visit to Lima in el Clásico del Pacífico is always a heated affair and coverage leading up to the match was dominated by the attempt of a Peruvian shaman to curse Alexis Sanchez using a tortoise to take away his speed. The match was remarkable, but not for the efficacy of the curse.
When Sanchez scored 6 minutes into the match, latching onto Isla’s curved ball from the right and outpacing the Peruvian defence to slot it home, it was clear the curse hadn’t worked. Sampaoli continued with the 4-1-3-2, with Eugenio Mena and Gonzalez starting as an orthodox left-back and left midfielder over Silva and Beausejour, a formation that gave Sanchez, El Niño Maravilla, plenty of chances.
However the tendency for Chile’s full-backs to play high up the field can also make the back four risky. In the 10th minute Jefferson Farfán was set free down the right and in a straight foot race against Medel, which he easily won and beat Claudio Bravo at his near post, in a very poor goal to concede.
The match was an end to end affair, with a goal disallowed and two close chances for Chile while Bravo almost gave a goal directly to Peru with a poor goal-kick. Then Christian Cueva had a moment of madness, throwing the ball in Valdivia’s face after a handball by Diaz, leaving the referee with no option but to give him a red card and leave the home side with ten men.
Peru then took the lead after a clumsy challenge in the air by Gonzalez led to a penalty which Farfán slotted away impressively. But Chile’s domination in the midfield shone through and in the 40th minute Sanchez worked himself a moment of space in the middle of the pitch and curved a stunning ball into the path of Valdivia making a run behind the full-back, leaving Vargas to finish the ball as it came across the six-yard box
Just a few minutes later Chile patiently worked the ball into the area from the right via Vargas, Diaz coming from deep and finally Sanchez to place it in the corner. Despite their numerical advantage both the second and third goals were great examples of team play from Chile, slick passing and movement carving open a massed defence.
Quickly after half-time the game was essentially over when a Chilean counter-attack sent Sanchez sprinting down the left before finding Vargas free on the other side of the box, who calmly feinted to shoot with his right, let the keeper dive and finished with his left. It was the calm finish of a striker full of confidence.
The rest of the second-half was a fairly wasteful procession for Chile. There was a switch back to three at the back with Silva coming on for Diaz and Felipe Gutierrez replaced Vidal in the center but the match fizzled out until Paolo Guerrero snuck in to the Chilean box in the 91st minute and gave Peru a consolation goal with a fine finish on the outside of his right boot.
Conclusions – Chile can start to believe
Despite the clumsy finish to the Peru match, Chile now have 6 points from their two qualifiers along with Uruguay and Ecuador, and have the two highest scorers so far in Sanchez and Vargas, both with 3 goals. They are clearly at the peak of their confidence and with good reason.
It is Sampaoli who has forged this team into something greater than the sum of its parts and the Brazil match was a great example of just how he might be able to lead them to a World Cup victory. His in-game management and tactical changes are excellent and he’s working with a squad he knows extraordinarily well, which possesses great flexibility and has totally bought into his vision. Chile’s best players routinely perform at their best for their country while lesser players raise their level.
Is that enough to win the World Cup? Possibly not, but it’s a good base to work from. No-one knows what might happen over the next two years. Injuries, squad disputes, loss of form, anything is a possibility over that time, but for now Chileans can dream of the ultimate prize.