Continuity could be key to Chile’s World Cup challenge
The old saying goes there’s method in the madness, and that can certainly be said of Marcelo ‘El Loco’ Bielsa. Chile, who are 33/1 shots to win the World Cup with Coral under successor Jorge Sampaoli, certainly owe him an awful lot.
La Roja – a nickname Chile’s football team shares with former colonial overlords Spain – qualified for their first finals of the new century under Bielsa, went to South Africa and caught the eye. Sampaoli, a self-confessed disciple of ‘El Loco’, got them to Brazil using a similar style.
Playing a 3-4-3 formation is too bold for most modern coaches, but with the slight modification to a 3-3-3-1 when Chile were not in possession, it worked for both Bielsa and Sampaoli. Brazil were a roadblock in South Africa, however, so they did not progress beyond the last 16.
Reaching the knockout phase again is definitely the minimum requirement for Sampaoli but, drawn in a group that once again contains holders Spain, last beaten finalists the Netherlands and Australia, that will not be easy for Chile. Odds of 9/2 say they can top this pool, and it’s 11/10 to qualify from Group B.
Tactically, this team are set up to attack. Chilean footballers on this roster are seldom over six foot, as low centre of gravity proved pivotal in qualification, and in an impressive friendly win over England in November. It is almost as if Bielsa finally gave them a modern football identity.
Defending is not Chile’s strong point, so why pretend otherwise? A centre back trio that only crosses the halfway line for set pieces makes a lot of sense.
If one of the three defenders does step up, then it is Cardiff City’s so-called pit-bull Gary Medel. A serial offender when it came to being sent off in the Seville derby at his previous club, there has been precious little evidence of his rugged reputation during a difficult season in south Wales.
Medel is joined in a makeshift defence by Nottingham Forest and former West Bromwich Albion utility man Gonzalo Jara. Centre half is neither man’s natural position, but Sampaoli supplements this diminutive pair with the 6ft 3in Marcos Gonzalez, who turns 34 on the eve of the tournament.
Naked aggression is the mentality asked of this trio in front of Chile captain and keeper Claudio Bravo. Mauricio Isla (Juventus) and Jean Beausejour (Wigan Athletic) are tailor-made to be attacking outlets at wing back, but Sampaoli sometimes uses the latter further forward, so Santos’ Eugenio Mena slots in on the left.
In midfield, the emphasis is very much about going forward. Juventus star Arturo Vidal typifies this with his box-to-box abilities. Matias Fernandez (Fiorentina) and Jorge Validiva (Palmeiras) are the most attacking options.
Carlos Carmona (Atalanta) can anchor along with Marcelo Diaz (Basel) and Francisco Silva (Osasuna). Charles Aranguiz of Internacional and Felipe Gutiettez (Twente), meanwhile, are adept at various midfield roles.
Barcelona star Alexis Sanchez (66/1 to be leading marksman) heads the wide options. He netted four in qualifying – one fewer than joint-top scorers Vidal and Eduardo Vargas (on loan at Valencia from Napoli). The likes of Jose Pedro Fuenzalida (Colo-Colo), former Liverpool man Mark Gonzalez and Fabian Orellana (Celta Vigo) are also in contention.
Junior Fernandes (125/1), meanwhile, has struggled since coming to Europe two years ago, but looks to be finding his feet during a loan spell at Croatian club Dinamo Zagreb. The centre forward spot looks set to go a senior striker, as the three leading candidates are all aged 30 and over.
Mauricio Pinilla (Cagliari) got the nod in Sampaoli’s squad, but he played two up top against Germany with Vargas (80/1 to be top scorer) and Sanchez splitting to their natural wide areas, leaving the central area vacant. It is the Chilean forward line that is given the most licence to be expressive.
Esteban Paredes (Colo-Colo) and Humberto Suazo (Monterrey) complete the likely attacking options, with this tournament coming too early for Manchester United prospect Angelo Henriquez (on loan at Real Zaragoza).
With more than half of Bielsa’s squad from the last World Cup still in contention, Chile have a great chance to take advantage of the result recorded between Spain and the Netherlands. They won two of their three group games in South Africa 1-0, and a repeat result against Australia in their opener in Brazil is attractive value at 9/2.