Tipped by Pele as one of the tournament favorites and boasting its best ever squad for a World Cup, Chile must handle soaring and previously unseen expectations ahead of the team’s opening match against big outsider Australia on Friday.
Spain and the Netherlands - the 2010 finalists - are hogging many of the headlines surrounding Group B, but Chile’s talented lineup and impressive results over the past 18 months demand they are taken seriously. Not just as a group qualifier but as a nation that can go far in the tournament.
Thrown into a tough group, the Chileans are starting with what should, in theory, be a straightforward task. Australia, the lowest-ranked side in Brazil at No. 62, is in a rebuilding phase and has picked a young squad seemingly with future competitions in mind.
An early three points would give Chile a solid platform to put pressure on a losing team in the Spain-Netherlands game later in group play.
Of course, Pele’s predictions have been way off in the past - the Brazil great was confident an African country would capture the World Cup before the turn of the century and also believed Colombia would win it in 1994. Neither of those tips turned into a reality, but he may be onto something with Chile.
In powerful Arturo Vidal, who is an injury doubt for the Australia game, Chile has one of the world’s best midfielders while speedy forward Alexis Sanchez had a good season at Barcelona and could light up the tournament. And following the appointment of Jorge Sampaoli - an Argentine - as coach in December 2012, Chile lost just two of 15 matches last year, including a 2-2 draw with world champion Spain and a 2-0 win against England at Wembley Stadium.
Sampaoli’s expansive and high-tempo tactics have been embraced by his players and comparisons are being made between him and compatriot Marcelo Bielsa, who led the Chileans to the last 16 of the 2010 World Cup.
Chile and Australia drew 0-0 the only time they have met at a World Cup, in 1974 when the Socceroos picked up their first ever point in the tournament. How they would welcome a point in Cuiaba on Friday.
“For us, it’s perfect,” Australia forward Tim Cahill said of the low expectations on his inexperienced teammates.
“Some of these kids are pretty special and nobody knows about them. Hopefully in this World Cup, everyone is going to know about them.”
One player the whole of the football world knows about is Vidal, the powerhouse Juventus midfielder, but he is struggling to be fit as he recovers from right knee surgery last month.
“Arturo Vidal’s spirits are fine, but if he’s not (available) against Australia, we hope he’ll be ready for the next match,” Chile defender Gonzalo Jara said. “Every goal Arturo has set for himself in life, he has achieved.”
Sanchez, who scored 19 league goals last season for Barcelona, has been experiencing shoulder pain after last week’s friendly win over Northern Ireland but should start.
The Australia squad has been in Brazil since May 28, long before any other foreign team, and in that time key midfielder Mark Bresciano appears to have overcome a back problem.
Coach Ange Postecoglou’s game plan is likely to center around New York Red Bulls star Cahill, the country’s all-time top scorer and chief goal threat - particularly using his great spring to meet crosses.
Don’t expect Postecoglou to sit back and hope for a 0-0, either. He adopts just as an attacking approach as Sampaoli and with neither defense especially solid, there could be plenty of goals.
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