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2014 World Cup Team Preview: Chile

May 31, 2014, 6:13 PM EST

ChileFINAL

Getting to know… Chile
Chile won hearts in South Africa with a frantic style built around then-head coach Marcelo Bielsa’s desire to play the game in his opponent’s half. Four years later, the influential boss has moved on, but his legacy remains. Jorge Sampaoli, a Bielsa disciple that took Chilean club Universidad de Chile to continental success, has made the country’s national team a squad nobody wants to face – a nation that many are picking to get out of its group despite the presence of Spain and the Netherlands.

That draw, as well as a possible meeting with Brazil in the Round of 16, means Chile are unlikely to rewrite its speckled history at World Cups. Though the nation has a third place finish on its résumé (when they hosted in 1962), that was the only time La Roja made it beyond the first knockout round. While 2010’s 10th place finish was its best since 1962, it was the first time in three tournaments the Chileans qualified for the World Cup. This year’s appearance marks only the second time the team has appeared in back-to-back finals.

Record in qualifying

Going undefeated in their last six qualifiers, Chile surged to third place in South America’s nine-team, double round-robin tournament, losing only once after Sampaoli replaced Bielsa’s successor, Claudio Borghi. Though the team’s 25 goals conceded was tied for most amongst the region’s qualified teams, only Columbia managed to score multiple goals in qualifying against Chile after the former “La U” boss took over in Dec. 2012.

Group B

Defending world champion Spain is the favorite in one of the World Cup’s toughest groups, but on South American soil, it’s possible the Chileans can play Atlético Madrid to the Spaniards’ Barcelona. The Netherlands are the group’s other big name, but transitioning in new talent after a disappointing Euro 2012, the Oranje could be on track for a third place finish. Full points against Australia, the group’s weak link, may prove crucial.

Game schedule

Friday, June 13 at 5 p.m. ET: Chile vs. Australia (Estádio Beira-Rio, Porto Alegre)

Wednesday, June 18 at 3 p.m. ET: Chile vs. Spain (Estádio do Maracaña, Ro de Janeiro)

Monday, June 25 at 12 noon ET: Netherlands vs. Chile (Arena de São Paulo, São Paulo)

Star player
Since moving to Juventus from Bayer Leverkusen, Arturo Vidal has proven to be one of the best midfielders in the world – a box-to-box presence that can compete in the air or on the ground while playing an advanced, central, or defending role. For Sampaoli, Vidal looks most likely to play behind the strikers in a 3-4-1-2 formation, a role that will prove crucial to converting turnovers won high up the field into chances on the opponents’ goal.

Manager
After a decade as a head coach at club level, mostly in Peru and Chile, Sampaoli was appointed Chile’s national team head coach with the hope he would revive the spirit of Bielsa. Under Borghi, Chile had lost its way and was in danger of staying in the bottom half of South America’s competitive qualifying tournament. Once Sampaoli brought the team back to its core principles, Chile resumed the menacing success it had under last cycle’s boss.

Best known for his Copa Sudamericana-winning success with Universidad de Chile, Sampaoli won three straight domestic tournaments with the Chilean powerhouse before moving into the international area. Leading his team to a 2013 surge, the 54-year-old Argentine has Chile up to 13th in FIFA’s World Ranking – the second-best ranking in Group B.

Secret weapon
Eduardo Vargas isn’t a secret, but for those who saw him fail to make an impact with Napoli, the fact that he’s a weapon may be news. Reunited with the head coach who fostered his success in Chile, the 24-year-old attacker his regained his stride, as evidenced by his two goals against Egypt on May 30. Expected to start with Alexis Sánchez up top, the recent Valencia man has a chance to reclaim some of his faded reputation as well continue a strike rate that’s produced 13 goals in 29 international appearances.

Prediction
None of Chile’s group games are unwinnable, and with a knockout round matchup against Brazil looming for the group’s second place finisher, an upset over Spain would prove particularly valuable. Even if La Roja can’t derail the champions, the team has every reason to expect a fourth game. Missing out to either of the group’s transitioning squads should be seen as a significant disappointment.

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