Can Chile survive European tests?
South American upstart Chile has yet to face any big, physical European teams
Under manager Marcelo Bielsa, Chile is headed to its first World Cup since 1998
European teams may be better equipped for Chile's fast-paced attacking style
Next year, there's only one FIFA date for international friendlies (early March) before World Cup squads are named. That means time is running out for those who want to force their way in. Can Ronaldinho come up with enough consistent form to win a Brazil recall? Is Walter Samuel needed to shore up Argentina's defense?
These are fascinating questions. Even in their absence, these players will be present in thoughts of many fans and pundits this weekend as Brazil takes on England and Argentina travels to Spain.
There are few such controversies in the Chile camp. Back in the World Cup for the first time since 1998, both the press and public are delighted with the team, and there's little pressure for changes in personnel. Even so, Chile's visit to Germany perhaps would have been the most fascinating of this weekend's matches featuring South American sides.
Saturday's game now has been called off after the tragic suicide of Germany keeper Robert Enke. The Chilean FA graciously accepted the German request to cancel the match, saying the Chileans would have been in no position to take the field had the same thing happened to one of their players.
Of course, a friendly international is nothing compared to the life of a young father, and the right decision about Saturday's encounter would seem to have been made. From a purely footballing point of view, though, there's no doubt we would have enjoyed a potentially fascinating 90 minutes -- important minutes for Chile, even though there are few big-name players pushing to be selected.
Apart from the self-imposed international exile of playmaker David Pizarro (whose position is well covered by Mati Fernández and Jorge Valdivia), it's hard to think of high-profile absentees from the Chile squad. Striker Mauricio Pinilla has all the talent required to make a contribution, but his career has been as wayward as his lifestyle. No, the intriguing aspect about Chile is not individual, it's collective. How will the current team perform on the global stage?
The Chileans' World Cup record doesn't make for inspiring reading. True, they finished third on home turf in 1962. Other than that, they have recorded only three wins, the last of which was a 5-2 triumph over the U.S. back in 1950. They have never won a World Cup match outside South America, either, returning empty-handed from their last four tournaments, all in Europe.
Can they break their track record in South Africa? Certainly, Chile's Argentine coach, Marcelo Bielsa, won't stand for timid displays, or even those of defensive tenacity. Bielsa is a self-confessed obsessive for attacking. His teams characteristically operate with two wingers and seek to play in the opponent's half of the field, exerting constant pressure. His methods and bold approach paid off fully in the qualification campaign: Chile won five of its nine away games (more than anyone else) and even managed to score more away goals than the counterattack specialists from Brazil.
Can Bielsa convince his team to be as bold in the World Cup? This promises to be one of the most interesting questions of South Africa 2010. The World Cup is a sore wound for Bielsa. He was in charge of his native Argentina when it sailed through qualification for the '02 tournament. Viewed with suspicion at first, his 3-3-1-3 formation conquered the hearts and minds of his players as they won 13 and drew four of their 18 matches, qualifying a massive 12 points ahead of their nearest rivals.
Argentina was justly placed among the favorites at Japan/Korea '02. But come tournament time, the wheels fell off. Beaten by England and held by Sweden, a win over Nigeria wasn't enough to prevent Argentina from being eliminated in the group phase. Aside from an awkward 15 minutes against England, Argentina had dominated its matches. But for all its attacking intention, it had created very few clear chances. What had gone wrong?
One explanation has to do with the physical condition of the players. Bielsa's high-energy, high-pressure game demands top levels of fitness. In order to avoid the monsoon season in Asia, the '02 World Cup was held unusually early, with no time for players to recover from the rigors of the European season. Argentina's players lacked the gas to match their intentions.
But there was something else as well. Two wingers, and a succession of crosses played in to the box, had worked well in qualification against South American sides. The Europeans, though, were more used to dealing with this line of attack, and time and time again were able to head the ball away to safety.
Now Chile finds itself up against this conundrum. Bielsa's methods have, once again, prevailed on his own continent. But against bigger, stronger teams from Europe and Africa, will Chile's three-man attack make its mark?
True, with Chile, Bielsa applies his 3-3-1-3 formation with more flexibility than he did with Argentina. Back then, he squeezed his center forward (Gabriel Batistuta) up against the opposing goal, with very little space in which to maneuver. Now, Chile's main striker, Monterrey star Humberto Suazo, has more license to drop deep and join in the build-up, leaving space behind into which Fernández can burst from midfield.
The problems, though, could well come at the other end. Chile is not a big side, and can struggle against balls played high into its own penalty area. Playing away to Germany -- big, strong and aggressive -- would have been so fascinating precisely because these questions would be posed.
Would Chile be able to defend in the air against such opponents? Would it have enough conviction to carry the fight to the Germans? An especially pertinent question since both first-choice wingers, Mark González and the hugely talented Alexis Sánchez, are currently out of action.
So we would have learned a little about Chile and, more importantly, Chile would have learned something about itself. Instead of which, and more importantly, we can only hope Robert Enke can rest in peace.