SANTIAGO (Reuters) - Chile’s dream of going far at the World Cup finals will hinge on how they perform against world champions Spain and the 2010 World Cup runners-up, Netherlands, in a tough group.
Some former players and analysts believe this could be the best ever Chile side, who could at least emulate the achievements of the 1962 team that reached the semi-finals when the World Cup was staged in Chile.
With the likes of Alexis Sanchez and Arturo Vidal, and a tactical discipline not often seen in the team from the far west of the continent, Chile could cause a number of surprises.
Chile finished third in the South American qualifiers, behind Argentina and Colombia, and a great spell in the final stages turned them into a respected and often feared team with Vidal, Sanchez and Eduardo Vargas all on top form.
Chile won nine of 14 games played in 2013 and lost just two: against Peru in the qualifiers in March and in a friendly against Brazil, their recurrent nightmare.
Among their victories was the excellent 2-0 win over England at Wembley with a stunning two-goal performance from Sanchez.
In this year’s preparations for the finals, Jorge Sampaoli’s team beat Costa Rica 4-0 and suffered a 1-0 defeat by Germany in a high level match in which they put Joachim Loew’s team in serious danger but failed to score.
This campaign has many Chileans dreaming of going beyond the last 16, the stage where they said goodbye to the World Cup in their last two appearances in 1998 and 2010.
But Brazil could be in their path in the second round and that is not so good for Chile. The World Cup hosts crushed Chile 3-0 in the last 16 in South Africa in 2010 and have won nine of their last 10 matches against “La Roja” (The Red).
Chile, who entered the top 15 in FIFA’s rankings in October 2013 and have stayed there since, have outstanding attacking skills with Sanchez and Vargas.
But Sampaoli must resolve a recurring problem: an unstable back line that shows fragility when they play against the big guns.
While goalkeeper Claudio Bravo is sure of his place, the defense sometimes shows a vulnerability that is the main aspect Sampaoli must work on if he wants to be the man to take Chile to the latter stages of the competition.
In midfield, Eugenio Mena is a regular and Juventus playmaker Vidal is a key player and a team symbol along with Sanchez.
Chile are set to play without a classic number nine and Sampaoli could use playmaker Jorge Valdivia or Mauricio Pinilla in the central striker position.
The 33-year-old Humberto “Lollipop” Suazo, a regular for Chile up front before Sampaoli’s arrival, is doubtful having only just come back for his Mexican club Monterrey from a four-month absence after a shoulder injury.
Weighing up the pros and cons, Chile just about come out on the plus column, but all that might count for nothing if they meet Brazil earlier than they would like to.
Editing by Rex Gowar and Mike Collett