Barcelona’s Alexis Sanchez ready to fuel potent Chile World cup attack
The sparkling form of Alexis Sanchez and some fine recent form have left Chile dreaming of progressing beyond the last 16 of the World Cup for the first time in more than half a century.
Four years ago, Chile tumbled out of the tournament in their first knockout game, beaten by Brazil in a repeat of their exit at the same stage, also against Brazil, at the 1998 finals in France.
Brazil could well be waiting for Chile in the last 16 once more if they finish as runners-up in a demanding Group B which also includes defending champions Spain, a powerful but unpredictable Netherlands side and Australia.
Yet even with the possibility of another encounter with the Brazilians looming on the horizon, Chile - who finished third as hosts back in 1962 - will head to the tournament fearing no-one.
They finished South America’s qualifying tournament as very much the form team, winning five of their last six games in impressive style after a faltering start to the campaign was put firmly back on track when Argentinian coach Jorge Sampaoli replaced the sacked Claudio Borghi in late 2012.
Chile served notice of their emergence in September last year, when they led twice against Spain in a Geneva friendly before the world champions scrambled a late equaliser to snatch a 2-2 draw.
They then outclassed England at Wembley, winning 2-0 courtesy of goals in each half from Barcelona forward Sanchez.
Only a 90th-minute Robinho goal denied Chile a draw with Brazil in another friendly in November, when they lost 2-1.
The Chileans were also unlucky to lose 1-0 to Germany in March, when they dominated the game to such an extent that German fans were reduced to booing their own team.
Under Sampaoli, Chile have resurrected the high-tempo pressing game they adopted to great effect under another Argentine, Marcelo Bielsa, who coached them at the 2010 finals.
Sampaoli has also benefited from the blossoming of Sanchez into a genuine world-class talent, and the 25-year-old will head to Brazil in the best form of his career and coming off a show in Barca’s final match of the La Liga season that saw him produce one of the true wonder goals of the European football season.
Sanchez is ably supported in attack by Eduardo Vargas, scorer of both of Chile’s goals in the draw with Spain last September.
Vargas, who has spent the latter half of this season on loan from Napoli to Valencia in Spain, finished joint top scorer for Chile during qualifying, with five goals.
While Vargas and Sanchez will spearhead Chile’s attack, the South Americans also threaten goals in midfield through Arturo Vidal.
The dynamic Juventus midfielder has gone from strength-to-strength in Italy after shining at the World Cup in 2010, becoming one of Serie A’s most admired foreign players.
Vidal is in no doubt a more mature Chile side can improve on their last-16 finish of four years ago.
“The side that’s going to Brazil is twice as strong and intense as the one that lined up in the last World Cup,” he told the BBC earlier this year.
“I think all the players from 2010 have matured a lot and we’re a better team that plays better football.
“We know we have to at least beat one of the reigning champions (Spain) and (2010) runners-up (Netherlands). But we’ll go out to win every game we play.”
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Published: May 26, 2014 04:00 AM