Chile seek to shock World Cup holders

South American side hope to produce a tournament shock as they take on Spain

The first week of this World Cup has seen events on and off the pitch conspire together for the perfect start.

On the field the football has been attack-minded, often thrilling and has produced several shock results already. Off it the hundreds of thousands of visiting fans have brought their own carnival atmosphere to Brazil, none more so than the South Americans, who have turned up in huge numbers to enjoy the first tournament on the continent in 36 years.

Today Chile will be hoping to combine these two elements to help produce what would be one of the shocks of the tournament, no matter what else happens over the next three weeks. After Argentina's weekend invasion of Rio de Janeiro it is now the turn of thousands of red-topped Chileans to arrive in town in order to spur on their side in its Group B clash against Spain at the Maracanã. At stake is qualification for the South Americans, survival for the defending champions.

It is 25 years since the South Americans last played in the legendary stadium when on an infamous night their goalkeeper deliberately cut himself with a razor blade hidden in his glove in a bid to have their match against Brazil abandoned and so avoid elimination for the World Cup qualifiers. It was the darkest episode in Chilean football history and led to the country being banned from competing in the 1994 tournament.


Sorry affair

As well as turning the page on that sorry affair there are all sorts of other incentives for Chile today. A win would mean three more points, classification for the knock-out stages, a step away from an undesirable second round clash against hosts Brazil and perhaps most importantly of all an injection of belief that the country’s exciting team can make a real impression on the tournament.

Four years ago many of the current squad went to South Africa under the command of Marcelo Bielsa. There they qualified from a group that then also included Spain but did not quite live up to expectations, going out meekly to Brazil in their first knock-out game.

But now, four years on, they will be hoping to go further. Bielsa is gone but the man in the dugout is his fellow Argentinian and Bielsa disciple Jorge Sampaoli. Though his charges are now a more mature vintage compared to four years ago he still sets up the team to play Bielsa's aggressive, high-tempo game in which they always seek to attack opponents.

Though confidence among the country’s supporters has only increased with the 3-1 opening game win against Australia on the same day Spain were humiliated by the Netherlands, Sampaoli still has some decisions to make.

He has typically preferred a back three for big games and will not have been happy at how much trouble a limited Australia caused his two-man central defence in the opener. Francisco Silva is likely to be drafted in alongside Gary Medel and Gonzalo Jara in a switch to a back three.

This would relieve the wing-backs Mauricio Isla and Eugenio Mena of some of their defensive duties. Mena in particular struggled carrying out his against Australia but with three central defenders he will be freer to help press Spain's midfield.

Sampaoli must also decide whether to stick with Juventus midfielder Arturo Vidal. A key element in the team's make-up, he looked short of match fitness against Australia after his recent return from knee surgery. Sampaoli must now judge whether that game represented valuable game time or evidence that Vidal is not yet ready to carry out the aggressive pressing game his system demands.

But given Vidal's quality he is likely to play. Unsurprisingly the player, who is nicknamed "The King", has declared himself 100 per cent fit. He could be pushed further up in attack to play in the playmaker role occupied by Jorge Valdivia for the Australia game.

Relegation to the bench would be tough on Valdivia, who plays his football with Brazilian side Palmeiras and looks keen to impress in his adopted home. He scored Chile’s second goal and was one of the side’s best performers who at 30 is finally showing signs of maturity after an intermittent career with the national team that has been dogged by disciplinary problems.

Certain to keep his place is the team's one recognised superstar – Barcelona attacker Alexis Sanchez. He scored the opener and set up Valdivia for the second against Australia and produced the sort of around dynamic performance so prized by Sampaoli.

Going into the match Chile will take confidence from its huge support and a 2-2 draw with Spain back in September, played in neutral Geneva.

Late goal

Spain needed a late goal from Manchester City forward Jesús Navas to avoid defeat that night. The South Americans imposed themselves on the world champions for much of the game and the author of their two goals was

Eduardo Vargas

who will be on the bench today, an indication that the squad has some of the depth it has lacked in previous tournaments.

Going into the clash the squad does not lack for confidence. “We have come here with one objective,” said Vidal at the squad’s camp before the game. “It is to be world champions. We know we have strong rivals ahead of us but we have what it takes to achieve our first dream which is to get out of the group.”

Do that at Spain’s expense and Chile at the Maracanã will be remembered for more than just razor blades.

Tom Hennigan

Tom Hennigan

Tom Hennigan is a contributor to The Irish Times based in South America