Sunday, 10 July 2011

Chile add style to a Copa America desperately needing a show


Little over a year ago with only two group games still to be played at the 2010 World Cup, the pre-tournament favourites sat on the brink of elimination. Needing to win, Spain were understandably edgy that their World Cup dreams could blow up in their face in the most embarrassing fashion. Their nerves though stemmed not only from their perilous position, but their opponents – Chile.

12 months ago La Roja entertained the world royally with their unique 3-3-1-3 formation, ruthless pressing and extroverted coach Marcelo “el loco” Bielsa. One of only four sides to win their opening two fixtures, they starred where others stuttered early on. Indeed, the course of history could have been very different had Bielsa’s side made the most of their territorial advantage in the opening half hour against the eventual World Champions before a combination of Spanish brilliance and Chilean indiscipline saw them 2-0 and a man down by half-time.

A second-half consolation combined with Switzerland’s inability to beat Honduras saw them still advance, but only in second place which meant a meeting with Chilean football’s kryptonite, Brazil, in the last-16. In their past seven meetings Chile’s record reads: W-0 L-7 F-3 A-24.

Bielsa and with it the intense pressing may have gone, but again in a tournament in which the big guns have failed to live up to expectations, Chile have been a refreshing wash of attacking bluster on a stale low-scoring canvas.

The best side at the tournament by a distance, new coach Claudio Borghi has retained the 3-3-1-3, however it is not so much the system but the fluidity and movement with which it is operated that makes Chile so pleasing on the eye.

With opposition defences understandably most occupied with Alexis Sanchez, space is created for the likes of Mati Fernandez, Jean Beausejour and Humberto Suazo to cause problems.

Another impressive aspect of Chile’s play has been the depth of their squad. Again like last year, when Mark Gonzalez made significant contributions from the bench, Chile’s unbeaten start owes much to the contribution of substitutes. Esteban Paredes had barely come on when he poked home the crucial equaliser against Mexico and the introduction of Jorge Valdivia against Uruguay swung the game significantly in Borghi’s side’s favour. With Valdivia occupying the space that Fernandez had done more successfully against Mexico than his replacement Luis Jiminez did against Uruguay, the Chileans were able to pick holes in the Uruguayan defence. It was Valdivia’s excellent pass that sent Beausejour free on the left to set up Sanchez for the equaliser.

Unfortunately, obvious weaknesses remain and are likely to be found out as the tournament progresses. Suazo, prolific in Mexican club football, has found finding the net just as difficult as he did in South Africa. It is significant that for all Chile’s attractive play that of their three goals so far two arrived from set-pieces and the other when Sanchez found himself in the centre-forward position.

They also appear vulnerable at the other end of the field. Mexico’s only effort on goal found the net thanks to an error by goalkeeper Claudio Bravo, and Uruguay’s opener on Friday evening was aided by a degree of ball-watching in the Chilean backline.

Of even greater concern though for the Chilean players and public might be who await in the quarter-finals. Should Chile as expected top Group C with victory over Peru on Tuesday, the curse of Brazil could haunt them again in the quarter-finals.

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