After the euphoria of reaching the Confederations Cup Final, Chile face difficult times ahead in World Cup qualifying
Chile coach Juan Antonio Pizzi could not hide his pain of his side’s defeat to Germany in the final of the Confederations Cup, but he was proud of what his players had achieved. “We’re not taking the trophy with us,” he said, “and we go home low on energy but full of glory.”
Those energy levels are going to have to rise very soon. Chile are back in action in World Cup qualification at the end of next month. Their place in Russia next year is by no means assured – and their plight could become worse by the time they next take the field.
Chile currently lie fourth, the last automatic qualifying slot. But they have been boosted by a stroke of the pen. Last September they were held 0-0 at home by Bolivia. The visitors, though, fielded an ineligible player. Nelson Cabrera, a Paraguayan-born defender, came on to play the last 15 minutes. Cabrera had been living in Bolivia for the previous three years – long enough to gain local citizenship. But FIFA regulations require a five-year period of residence. The game was awarded to Chile by a 3-0 margin. Take those two extra points away and Chile fall to fifth – and such a thing could happen. Bolivia’s appeal is scheduled to be heard in the next few days. Plenty of other South American sides are hoping that that Bolivia are successful and that the 0-0 scoreline is restored.
Even if Chile are allowed to keep the two extra points, they face a worrying run in, with a trip to Bolivia, at the extreme altitude of La Paz and a last game away to Brazil. At home they face Ecuador, whose athleticism has often given them problems, and first up come Paraguay, who must win to keep their qualification hopes alive.
Coach Pizzi certainly has much to be proud of. Reaching the Confederations Cup final means that Chile derived full value from finally becoming South American champions. Their travelling supporters appeared to thoroughly enjoy the experience of cheering on the team, which produced some trademark thrilling moments over the last few weeks.
The cold statistics, though, are a cause for concern. Chile played two warm up friendlies as well as five cup games on this European adventure. In seven games, they recorded just one victory. And in the five Confederations Cup matches, they managed just four goals – a poor return for such an attack minded side.
Two questions arise. First, is this ageing team still capable of carrying out such a high intensity gameplan? Secondly, might there be changes in personnel when World Cup qualification resumes?
The style of play seems non-negotiable. Chile are unlikely to be able to make radical changes in this area at this stage, even if they wanted to. And it seems clear from the Confederations Cup that Pizzi has limited faith in the coming generation. The younger players remain fringe elements of the squad. The heart of the side is still formed by the same group who have spent nearly a decade together in the national side.
But the spotlight may fall on two players. One of them has been part of the group for some time, though he has fallen from favour of late. Playmaker Jorge Valdivia has always been a controversial figure. But even at the veteran stage, he might add the capacity to play an imaginative defence-splitting pass – the type of thing that Chile lacked in the Confederations Cup, where their attacks sometimes generated more heat than light. Valdivia has just moved back to Chile, joining Santiago giants Colo Colo. If he is fit – always a big if – it could give him a platform for a recall.
A decade younger at 24, Nico Castillo could also be an important option. The Mexico-based striker promises to be the strong, penalty area presence that Chile have been lacking. A centre forward in his playing days, Pizzi would probably prefer to play with a traditional number nine, and but for an ankle injury Castillo would have been given a chance to lead the line in the Confederations Cup. The side’s lack of goals has surely worked in his favour, and, fresh after his lay off, Castillo may be called upon to give those flagging energy levels a boost as Chile seek to book their return to Russia.