5 Things for Chile Coach Jorge Sampaoli to Test in Friendly vs. Northern Ireland
Chile coach Jorge Sampaoli will use Wednesday’s friendly against Northern Ireland in Valparaiso to fine-tune his team prior to their FIFA World Cup opener against Australia on June 13.
Chile defeated Egypt 3-2 in their previous friendly and Sampaoli will be keen to work further on the positive takeaways, which included a sparkling performance from Alexis Sanchez. He will also want to try out solutions to the problems his side encountered in that fixture.
Here are five things for Sampaoli to test against Northern Ireland.
Egypt raced into an early two-goal lead in Chile’s last friendly, puncturing the Chilean defence with simple passes in behind. The ease with which they did so will have been of great concern to Sampaoli. His side tightened up a little thereafter, but he could still look to make some further tweaks against Northern Ireland.
Gary Medel, Gonzalo Jara and Miiko Albornoz were his starting back-three against Egypt. Towering Union Espanola defender Marcos Gonzalez was left out of the final squad, leaving Jose Rojas as the only other established centre-back in the 23. Sampaoli has, however, previously employed defensive midfielder Francisco Silva in the centre of his defence.
Chile are likely to utilise a back four in their World Cup opener against Australia’s three-man forward line. Northern Ireland are unlikely to show that amount of ambition but Sampaoli may still decide to test that alignment on Wednesday.
In training, Chile’s back four has consisted of either Mauricio Isla, Medel, Albornoz and Eugenio Mena, or Isla, Medel, Jara and Albornoz.
The Versatility of Miiko Albornoz
Miiko Albornoz only made his Chilean national team debut in January but the Swedish-born defender has already established himself as a key part of Sampaoli’s plans. He has been one of the most impressive performers during Chile’s pre-World Cup training camp and looks likely to have a starting role in Brazil.
Sampaoli was very pleased with his display in the victory over Egypt, citing, as per Prensa Futbol (in Spanish), strong defending and the ability to pass the ball accurately out of defence as the major attributes Albornoz brings to the side.
The Malmo player also offers versatility and as Wednesday’s match progresses, Sampaoli could be inclined to put that to the test.
Albornoz is likely to start in the centre of defence, but he would relish the opportunity to show what he can do at full-back or wing-back, the positions he normally occupies at club level.
Alexis Sanchez and Eduardo Vargas starred in the victory over Egypt. Sanchez provided the assists for all three goals, the latter two of which were dispatched by Vargas following well-timed runs in behind the visiting defence. They are guaranteed to be Chile’s starting forwards in Brazil.
Sampaoli will, however, be keen to give minutes to some of his other attacking options, aware that he is yet to formulate an effective Plan B for occasions when the Sanchez-Vargas axis is unable to break down opposing defences.
Esteban Paredes, Fabian Orellana and Mauricio Pinilla were the other forwards named by Sampaoli and each offers something slightly different. Paredes is a small penalty-area poacher, Orellana is a wispy forward who moves well across the line, while Pinilla, the squad’s only player over six-feet tall, is a target man.
However, the last time any of them scored for Chile was in March 2013, when Paredes netted in a 2-0 qualifying victory over Uruguay. Orellana’s last goal came back in 2009, while you have to go back to 2005 to find Pinilla's most recent strike for La Roja.
Sampaoli needs at least one of them to get on the scoresheet on Wednesday.
More Freedom for Alexis Sanchez
Alexis Sanchez’s three assists in the victory over Egypt highlighted his ability to create plays as well as finish them. His through-balls for Eduardo Vargas’ double were both superbly weighted and he was a creative live-wire throughout, dropping back to receive the ball, turning and running at the visiting defence.
Sampaoli was highly impressed with Sanchez’s performance and said as much at a press conference on Monday, as reported by La Tercera (in Spanish):
Alexis is such a versatile player. He can play as a centre-forward, on the wing or a few metres further back, as he did so well against Egypt. He is a difference-maker wherever he plays.
Sampaoli has been doing some individual work with Sanchez on the training ground and is keen to give the Barcelona forward the platform he needs to truly express himself.
“He doesn’t have the same freedom at Barcelona,” Sampaoli explained. “He has all the attributes to be one of the best players in the world but was subjected to a philosophy that didn’t suit him.”
Having empowered his star player, Sampaoli will hope for another strong performance from Sanchez on Wednesday.
Jorge Valdivia missed the victory over Egypt with a muscle strain, as per CDF (in Spanish), but Sampaoli has confirmed that he hopes to have the Palmeiras man at his disposal against Northern Ireland.
Valdivia is a wonderfully inventive playmaker, whose tight control and ability to spot and execute through-balls make him the ideal attacking hub for Chile’s system. Injuries and a fallout with previous coach Claudio Borghi limited him to just five starts during the qualification process but when fit he has been a guaranteed starter under Sampaoli.
Wednesday’s match will provide Valdivia with an opportunity to work on his match sharpness ahead of the World Cup. In good condition, he has the potential to be a match-winner for Chile and Sampaoli this summer.