Chile entered the last World Cup as a darkhorse that only dedicated South American soccer-following nerds knew about. If you knew one of these people, they tried to tell you repeatedly that Chile were going to be a fun contender to watch, and you probably ignored them. Then you watched them play insanely fun soccer and understood what all the gushing was about. As a result, they're a bit less under the radar this time around.
They're also less under the radar because their big stars are now the world's stars. Alexis Sanchez has moved from Udinese to Barcelona, while Arturo Vidal has become the best two-way midfielder in the world at Juventus, though he might miss this game. They're also playing the same up-tempo style with a back three that they played under Marcelo Bielsa, but Jorge Sampaoli is a bit more calculated and controlled.
In their World Cup opener, they're up against a bit of an unknown quantity in Australia. The Socceroos struggled in World Cup qualifying, barely squeaking into the finals, resulting in the firing of Holger Osieck. Enter Ange Postecoglou, who is going to change things up a bit. He's a coach who has a reputation for playing pretty soccer with the ball on the ground, but he seems to know what he has and what he doesn't -- in recent friendlies, the Aussies' attack has centered around crossing the ball into the head of Tim Cahill.
The Aussies have a forward dynamo with a great scoring record up top and a rock in midfield -- Mile Jedinak -- who could play for almost any team in the tournament. But can their defense hold up against the swarming and unorthodox attack of Chile?
The only man in doubt for Australia is midfielder Mark Bresciano, who has insisted all along that he'll be fully fit by the time this game rolls around. With young midfielder Tom Rogic and veteran target man Joshua Kennedy left out of the Australia squad, they'll have to go to a less than optimal replacement if Bresciano can't start or if he re-injures himself early in the game.
Vidal is the big worry for Chile. He played 15 minutes in their final warm-up friendly and re-aggravated a knee injury, so he's expected to miss out. The big question about Chile is their formation following Matias Fernandez's exclusion from the squad due to an ankle injury. Will someone take his place directly, or will Sampaoli play a team without a true advanced playmaker? He'll probably have different lineups for different games, and expect this one to be his most attacking.
Projected lineups (left to right)
Chile's forwards vs. Australia's fullbacks - It's possible that Australia goes to a very defensive system for this game, but in their friendlies, they've been pushing their fullbacks forward so they can get in good spots to cross to Cahill. It's an effective means of attacking, but it leaves space in behind those fullbacks. When Chile wins the ball back, they'll look to attack through those vacated spaces, which probably means their strikers will drift wide. It'll be crucial for Australia's fullbacks to get back and cover that space.
Mile Jedinak vs. Jorge Valvidia - It's a classic pure defensive midfielder vs. pure playmaker clash. Jedinak will do a bit of getting forward, but his main jobs will be to pick up the ball to distribute to wide players and keep Valvidia in check. Chile's playmaker will probably do less pressing and defensive work than the rest of his teammates -- he'll simply be looking for places to pick up the ball. Jedinak needs to make that hard and deny him time on the ball when he does get possession.
Tim Cahill vs. a lot of defenders - Unless Postecoglou goes with an insane ultra-attacking strategy or busts out a surprise two-forward system, Cahill is going to be pretty isolated. Australia is going to send a lot of early crosses into the box, and it'll result in Cahill being outnumbered at least two-on-one pretty often. But he's so good at winning headers in traffic that it'll be worth the Socceroos' while to keep trying, even if it seems like Chile are clearing away their crosses with ease. Cahill only needs to win one to hit the back of the net, and he might do just that -- Gonzalo Jara and Gary Medel aren't even 5'10".
Four years from now, we might be thinking of Australia as a serious threat to get out of their group. Postecoglou is introducing younger players and seems to be striking the right balance between trying to introduce a more stylish brand of soccer and playing to his team's current strengths. But this Australia team has its limits and he hasn't had enough time to get them playing the way he wants. Chile, meanwhile, know exactly what Sampaoli wants from them. If their World Cup qualifying performances are any indication, they'll win this game comfortably. 3-0 Chile.