Chile are a South American secret no more. Jorge Sampaoli's side bulldozed their way past Spain in a 2-0 win at the Maracana on Wednesday to secure their place in the last 16 and condemn the World Cup holders to an early exit.
It was a performance that epitomised everything that has made Chile such a joy to watch since Sampaoli took charge in late 2012. They tirelessly hustled their opponents, forced errors and then poured forward in numbers, consistently seeking overloads in the final third.
With thousands upon thousands of their countrymen cheering them on, Chile dominated their illustrious opponents and were fully deserving of a famous victory—their first against Spain in 11 attempts.
Yes, the Spanish looked a pale shadow of the side who triumphed in South Africa four years ago. Yes, they were laboured in and out of possession. But it would also be unfair not to recognise that their poor performance was due, in large part, to the effort, application and quality of their opponents.
As B/R contributor Graham Ruthven hinted, Chile should now be considered contenders for the World Cup title:
Sampaoli sent his side out in a 3-4-1-2 formation, with Arturo Vidal leading the press from the head of the midfield. They made a strong start, and although Spain did enjoy spells of decent possession as the half progressed, Chile threatened whenever they went forward.
The first goal was typical of Sampaoli’s side. Alexis Sanchez won the ball high up the pitch, exchanged passes with Vidal and then played a lovely pass into the run of Charles Aranguiz. He, in turn, squared for Eduardo Vargas, who calmly took a touch around Iker Casillas before finishing into the empty net.
The second was more opportunistic—Aranguiz aiming a lovely poked finish into the corner after Casillas had punched a decently struck free-kick from Sanchez straight into his path.
Spain created a few good chances after the break, but Chile, too, had some promising breaks they failed to take full advantage of. They kept running until the very end—each and every player giving his all.
Indeed, it would be difficult to pinpoint a Chilean player who under-performed. At a push, Marcelo Diaz was slightly below-par but it was otherwise a highly impressive team performance.
Aranguiz—who was taken off after suffering what looked like a potentially nasty knee injury during the second half—regularly troubled the Spanish backline with his forward runs from central midfield. Mauricio Isla and Eugenio Mena bombed up and down the flanks, while Gary Medel was never more than a step away from Diego Costa and did an excellent job of marshalling the Chilean defence.
Sanchez and Vargas chased around in pursuit of the Spanish defenders, cutting off their route into midfield and making it difficult for their opponents to establish any rhythm. Whenever they won the ball, they drove forward with speed and skill.
There had been question marks over the fitness of Vidal, who has only just returned from knee surgery and was clearly not 100% fit in Chile’s opening match against Australia. But the Juventus man was superb throughout, displaying supreme energy to harry his opponents across the length and breadth of the field. He received a deserved standing ovation when he was substituted in the final minutes.
Claudio Bravo was generally very secure between the sticks, confidently claiming two or three high balls into the area.
Huge credit must also go to the ringleader, Sampaoli, whose perpetual movement on the sidelines mirrored the intensity with which his players hared about the pitch. He inherited a side who lacked direction under his predecessor Claudio Borghi, and has transformed them into a team capable of going toe-to-toe with the best in the world.
Netherlands are Chile’s next opponents in a match that will decide which of them moves forward into the knockout stages as group winners. Assuming results go as expected in the remaining matches in Group A, the prize for winning the group would be avoiding hosts Brazil in the last 16.
Chile have more reason than most for wanting to do so, having been eliminated by the Selecao on the three previous occasions they have reached the knockout stages of the World Cup. They were comprehensively beaten 3-0 in the round of 16 in 2010.
However, this current Chile side looks a match for any team. Their lack of height in defence may still prove to be their downfall, and it is also questionable whether they can maintain such a high-octane style of play for the duration of the tournament, but suddenly Vidal’s words prior to the clash with Spain don’t seem quite so far fetched.
“We came to Brazil with the hope of becoming world champions,” he said at a pre-match press conference, as per The Guardian.
It is still early days, but Chile edged a small step closer to that dream with victory on Wednesday.