The two finalists of the Copa América 2015 meet again, with both keen to move into the automatic qualifying spots of their 2018 World Cup Qualifying Group. Chile currently lie fifth, with seven points and Argentina a place below them, with just five points.
Despite their Copa América win, being above Argentina and the match being played in the Estadio Nacional in Santiago, it’s Chile who will be feeling the more concerned. This is coach Juan Antonio Pizzi´s first match in charge after the resignation of Jorge Sampaoli and he has a number of key players out.
Chile’s expected 4-2-3-1 line-up.
Arturo Vidal, Eduardo Vargas, Jorge Valdivia and Charles Aránguiz will all miss the game either through suspension or injury, after their bad-tempered 3-0 loss to Uruguay in the previous round of fixtures.
Meanwhile Argentina will finally have Lionel Messi fit for the first time in their qualifying campaign, along with Sergio Aguero. But Javier Mascherano is also suspended. Gerardo Martino is likely to continue with his favoured 4-3-3, with Aguero and Ángel Dí María supporting Messi up front.
The only silver lining to the loss of four first-team players for Pizzi is that it gives him a good excuse to aim to stifle Messi the same way that led to Chile’s first ever Copa América victory after a goalless draw and penalty shoot-out last year.
Most reports from Chile suggest that Pizzi will opt for an initial 4-2-3-1 formation with Sanchez as a lone striker, but expect Sampaoli and Marcelo Bielsa’s legacy to live on in the form of flexibility that sees the formation constantly shifting.
In particular in the absence of some of Chile’s best attacking talent, the full-backs Mena and Isla will likely be needed to sprint up the flanks, especially Isla down the right who has an excellent understanding with Sánchez.
Meanwhile Marcelo Diaz will provide a valuable calming presence at the base of the Chilean midfield and between him and the talismanic Gary Medel they will hope they are equal to the task of muffling the world´s best player.
Diaz will frequently drop back between the centre-backs Medel and Gonzalo Jara to form a back-three while the full-backs head up the field. Claudio Bravo is also always ready to take up a sweeper-keeper role for when the ball finds its way behind the defence.
The lack of Aránguiz, whose incredible workrate was key in the Copa América final, will be sorely felt. His replacement in the deeper lying midfield role is Felipe Gutiérrez, who has long been around the fringes of the national team but suffered from injury. But he’s a fan favourite at Dutch club FC Twente and will know what´s required of him as Aguero and Ángel Di María pose their own threats.
It’s ahead of the defensive unit things get tricky, especially the three midfielders supporting Sánchez. In Vargas, Vidal and Valdivia, Chile normally have goals, boundless energy and creativity. Their replacements bring little of the same quality.
Jean Beausejour has been a good utility player at times for Chile but is losing his pace as he ages and too often drifts out of the game on the left wing, without the instinct of when to come inside. Expect him to occasionally drop back and help out in defence.
Matí Fernández is a dribbling and free-kick specialist who has never quite recaptured the spark that saw him declared the best player in the Americas in 2006. He could make good use of the central space in Mascherano’s absence, especially if he can draw fouls out of Lucas Biglia, or he could go missing.
Fabián Orellana is the most intriguing of the three. The right winger refused to be named by Sampaoli for the provisional Copa América squad after hearing he was unlikely to be in the final 23. But the Celta de Vigo man will want to continue his good recent form in La Liga and stake a claim for something more regular than his occasional substitute appearances for the national team.
But the real attacking hope is that Alexis Sánchez can get back to his best against his fellow Premier League stars Martín Demichelis and Ramiro Funes Mori, neither of whom has had the best of seasons so far. He could be isolated, but he will always be a threat if allowed a pocket of space to dribble or shoot.
Chile have muffled Messi once and they have a plan to repeat the feat, while hoping that Sánchez can break Argentinian hearts again. But it’s undeniable that in Aguero and Di María, Argentina have the more impressive back-up act to their superstar and it could be a tough start for Pizzi.