You would be more than forgiven for putting money on Spain coasting through group H at this summer’s World Cup, collecting 9 points on their way. At first glance, Switzerland, Honduras and Chile appear to make up the numbers in that particular group, all battling it out for that runner up spot. Well, you just try and tell that to Marcelo Bielsa.
The Argentine-born Chile manager has put his team back on the footballing map that they appeared to fall off of after the 1998 World Cup. However, thanks to Bielsa, the people of Chile are realising that there is life after Marcelo Salas and Ivan Zamarano. “The Madman”, as he is affectionately known as in his home country, has long been an advocate of the use of fresh and exciting young talent, so it came as no surprise that he jumped at the opportunity of taking over the reins of a country whose youngsters took the 2007 under 20’s World Cup by storm, coming home with the proverbial bronze medal.
Bielsa’s nickname certainly rubs off on his team sheet. There are very few managers out there who play with only 3 at the back and 3 up front, sandwiching a diamond quartet in midfield. Now, typically diamond formations in midfield don’t go hand in hand with exciting, attacking play. By their very design, they tend to be more “safe”, with a holding midfielder to help out on the defensive side of things, an attacking midfielder to provide the link between midfield and the strike force, and two natural centre midfielders in between. But if there’s one thing we’ve learned about Bielsa, it’s that “safe” isn’t in his vocabulary. With the excellent Gary Medel as the holding midfielder, Bielsa’s defensive trio are in safe hands. At 22 years of age, Medel as been making waves in Argentina having recently moved to Boca Juniors. A former Chilean player of the year, he grabbed both goals in Boca’s recent 2-0 over fierce rivals River Plate just last week, and received a standing ovation in Chile’s 1-0 victory over Argentina in the qualifying stage for the World Cup. Medel is a similar player to England’s Owen Hargreaves, and his versatility is vital to his role in Bielsa’s team. When they surrender possession, the original back three of Jara (who is suffering a Beckham-esque “will he, won’t he?” metatarsal drama), Ponce and Cereceda shift left and Medel slots in at right back. Where tradition breaks for Bielsa is in his selection of the midfield two, where he invariably fields at least 1 full back. Ahead of the those 2 will most likely be Mati Fernandez who, despite not fulfilling his potential at club level, has become integral to Bielsa’s team.
The real threat with Chile comes from their strike force. The poster boy of the national football team is Udinese’s 21 year old Alexis Sanchez – a dynamic and skillful outside forward who partners goalscoring sensation Humberto Suazo. Suazo, 28 years old, has been somewhat of a journey man in South American football, plundering over 175 goals in 250-odd appearances before securing a recent loan move to Zaragoza. He has been in similar sensational form for his national side during the qualification stages, finishing as South America’s top scorer ahead of the likes of Luis Fabiano and Diego Forlan. To the left of Suazo is ex-Liverpool winger Mark Gonzalez, who has revived his career following an injury-plagued spell at the Merseyside club. In Fernandez, Sanchez and Gonzalez, Bielsa has young, eager players with blistering pace who will cause all sorts of problems for the best of defences.
Chile also seem to have a tremendous strength in depth, with the likes of Mauricio Isla, Rodrigo Millar and Jean Beausejour all submitting serious claims to a starting XI spot, which comes in very important given the hectic schedule of the World Cup.
Bielsa has put together a thoroughly exciting team in Chile, highlighted by their runner-up spot to Brazil in the South American qualifiers. They also came in as second highest scorers in the group, grabbing 32 goals for their trouble – only 1 behind Dunga’s side. They do concede their fair share of goals, but you get the feeling that with Bielsa, this isn’t too much of a concern. It’s more of a “if you score 4, we’ll score 5” attitude. Should they manage to get a draw against Spain, which is not beyond the realms of possibility, there is every chance that Chile could outscore the Spaniards in the other two fixtures and potentially finish top of their group. You get the feeling that Bielsa will go all out for that top spot – for a potential last 16 clash with Brazil awaits the runners up in Group H.
Chile open their World Cup campaign against Honduras on June 16th. The match is live on ITV at 12:30pm.