This Chilean team has plenty to be optimistic about … if only they hadn’t been drawn into Group B with Spain, Netherlands and Australia. Still, that will just make it all the more impressive when they qualify, right? Meet your new second-favorite team:
1. The coach is in the Bielsa mold
Former Universidad de Chile manager Jorge Sampaoli is at the helm after replacing Claudio Borghi in 2012. Sampaoli encourages a free-flowing attacking style and is often compared to Marcelo Bielsa, the former Chile manager and legendary savant/mad-man.
Chile now has a national playing style
At the 2010 World Cup, Chile was one of the most attractive attacking sides and this year should be no different. La Roja like to get forward in numbers and press their opponents hard. Sampaoli has come in for a bit of criticism for his demanding workouts leading up to the World Cup, but his high-intensity system demands fit players.
3. The keeper is the captain
Real Sociedad keeper and national team captain Claudio Bravo comes back for his second World Cup and should be a stalwart in goal and a calming presence for a suspect back four on defense.
4. You don’t meddle with Medel
Gary Medel is unquestionably the defensive leader. My Chilean friends have a term for Medel, “flaite,” but I would call him an “O.G – original gangster” for his hardman style of play.
5. Vidal may miss the kick off
Juventus midfielder Arturo Vidal is not so much creative as he is a do-it-all force of nature. His quick recovery from knee surgery this spring is vital to Chile’s hopes. If Vidal can’t go full-strength, look for Twente youngster Felipe Gutierrez to deputize for him.
6. Beware the Chilean Mighty Mouse
Alexis Sanchez has had an up-and-down couple of years at Barcelona, but he is the undeniable goalscorer for La Roja. I think of Alexis as the Chilean Mighty Mouse: he is filled with energy and has a one track mind to put the ball in the net.
7. Gary has to carry the defense
Outside of Medel, the defense is suspect and especially vulnerable to set pieces. This instability will put great pressure on the midfield to be disciplined in covering the counter.
8. Eduardo Vargas is finally coming good
Much-heralded goal scorer Eduardo Vargas made his move to Europe in 2012 and promptly sat on the bench at Napoli behind Edinson Cavani and Ezequiel Lavezzi. His fortunes have improved with a loan move to Valencia, and his double in a friendly against Spain last year shows that Vargas is returning to the form that made him the all-time top scorer in the Copa Sudamericana.
9. They have a Swedish surprise for Group B
Swedish-born Miiko Albornez spurned the Swedish national team to play for Chile where his father was born and raised. A recent call-up despite having never lived in Chile, Albornez could be a wild card with his versatility and energy.
10. Expectations were high …
… prior to the World Cup draw. Expectations were tempered dramatically by drawing Spain and the Dutch. I was in Atlanta bar with my Chilean friend Daniel when the draw was announced and I could see the angst on his face immediately. I expect Chile to finish 2nd in Group B and make it to the knock-out round where it will likely meet Brazil.