How They Got There:
Chile qualified directly to South Africa by finishing 2nd, behind only Brazil, in the ultra competitive CONMEBOL region. The Chileans enjoyed their most successful qualifiers since the all vs all format was adopted for France 98. Along the way, the Chileans won 16 of their 33pts away from Santiago, showing that this team is capable of getting it done on hostile grounds. They also defeated their rivals to the east of the Andes (Argentina) for the first time in Cup qualifier history in a now fabled 1-0 triumph in Santiago. Chile netted 32 goals in the 18 game round robin, which made them 1 goal short of the leader Brazil. This will only be the third appearance for Chile since 1982. Last time around in 1998, a talented group led by the world class striker tandem of Ivan “bam bam” Zamorano and Marcelo “el Matador” Salas made the round of 16 only to be ousted by Brazil 4-1.
What to look for:
Chile boasts a young, talented, offensive squad that will sacrifice defensive integrity for goals. Do not expect this team to enter into a defensive cocoon if it is paired against a better and more storied rival. Many teams play not to lose (Italy), this team will play to win. Despite finishing second in qualifiers Chile lead the region in total wins. This is not typical of Chilean soccer and the praise must be given to Argentine coach Marcelo Bielsa, who took over the team at the onset of qualifiers and changed the Chilean mentality. His aggressive 3 attacker scheme will make Chile an exciting team to watch. Chile will play an aggressive attacking style, with plenty of 1 touch short passing and ball movement typical of the South American style. The offensive mentality will leave plenty of opportunities for rivals to exploit but this team will play for the golden trophy under the maxim “live by the sword, die by the sword”. This is a young group whose projected starting 11 age average is slightly over 25 years.
Who to look for:
Young stars Matias Fernandez (Midfield-Sporting Lisbon-Portugal), Alexis Sanchez (Forward-Udinese-Italy), Arturo Vidal (Midfield-Bayern Leverkusen-Germany), and Humberto Suazo (Forward-Zaragoza-Spain) blossomed and became hot commodities when playing for Chilean club giant Colo Colo under then coach Claudio “bichi” Borghi (newly hired coach of Boca Juniors) between 2005-2007. This Colo Colo nucleus is complemented by Boca Junior standout Gary Medel, a take-no-prisoners defensive midfielder that can also play on the last line. His nickname “El pittbul” is a testament to his style of play. These young stars will carry the team in South Africa. Another former Colo Colo standout, who later became a hero in Brazil for the followers of Palmeiras, Jorge Valdivia will also be relied on to play the all important “10″ position. This gifted set up man has excellent field vision and is as good a passer as there is in the world. It remains to be seen if Bielsa will go with Fernandez or Valdivia as the creative midfielder, he might also decide on fielding both of them at the same time. Alexis Sanchez, a small but amazing talent with the ball in his feet, will need to be at the top of his game because Suazo (led the CONMEBOL in scoring during qualifiers) will be sidelined for at least the first two games with a groin injury. Suazo’s injury came early last week as a real blow to Chilean hopes because they have no first rate replacement for Suazo at the center striker position. He was the only pure goal scorer and his goals will be sorely missed. The word from the medical camp suggests he should be ready for the last game of the first round vs Spain, but that is the best case scenario.
The Pros and Cons
Chile’s youthful team is loaded with individually skilled players from the midfield up. The skill translate into lots of scoring opportunities and explosiveness that can change a game at any given moment. The team has fully bought into Bielsa’s scheme and they believe they have the recipe for success. The weak link on this team is the defense, which is undersized and inconsistent. The team in general is small, only 4 players at or over 6 feet, but 2 are goalkeepers. This could be a huge liability when facing taller European and African squads that could dominate dead ball situations. Along with being rather small, Chile is not as athletic as its European and African counterparts. Some have tabbed Chile as a darkhorse cinderella squad based on its skills and impressive qualifying record, but without its top goal scorer in form, I do not see a deep run very likely. It will be interesting to see how a talented youngl group handles the pressure of their first World Cup.
Outlook for World Cup:
What appears to be a good draw for Chile in the group stages is offset by what potentially lies ahead in the round of 16. Chile shares group H with heavy favorite Spain, Honduras, and Switzerland. Aside from Spain, the group has no favorites. Chile should be able to win the opener against Honduras and the second game against the Swiss might define who advances. If Chile advances they will be the underdog against whoever emerges out of the group of death (Group G). If favoritism prevails, Chile would qualify second in their group and face Brazil in the round of 16, in which case they will in all likelihood repeat their fate of 98.
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Written by The Gator Great