Why the Selecao fear Chile
You don't need to be Chilean or superstitious to feel a little spooked: for the third time in the past five World Cups and the second tournament in a row, Brazil and Chile will tussle for a place in the quarterfinals. It looks even eerier: just like in South Africa 2010, Saturday's game in Belo Horizonte will also be refereed by Howard Webb. Throw in the fact that none of their previous encounters troubled the Seleção even a tiny bit -- a 3-0 win in 2010 and a 4-1 win in 1998 -- and it would be simple to assume they must be feeling reasonably confident.
Wrong. The mood ahead of their clash at the Estadio Mineirão is far from absolute confidence. After a rocky ride in the group stages the Seleção have not stamped their authority on the tournament as their supporters would have liked them to. While Neymar has hit the ground running and will start the knockout stages as one the tournament's top scorers, the team as a whole has stuttered; only in the second half against Cameroon did they show glimpses of the swarm that suffocated all comers in 2013. More concerning is that they will now face a team that has taken giant killing to a new level.
It was impossible not to be impressed by the way Chile disposed of Spain in Rio a couple of weeks ago. Despite the obvious caveat that La Furia were still licking their wounds after being humiliated by the Dutch in Salvador, Jorge Sampaoli's side gave Andres Iniesta and Co. an impressive send-off. But even before the Spanish version of the Maracanazo, Luiz Felipe Scolari had already voiced some concerns. "I wouldn't really like to play Chile," Big Phil said a few days ahead of the start of the tournament.
The reason was simple: since taking over the Seleção in November 2012, Scolari has had the chance to measure his team twice against the Chileans. In both games the less fancied neighbors gave the Selecao a run for their money, including a 2-2 draw in April 2012 at the same stadium that plays host on Saturday.
In November they met again in Canada and Brazil's 2-1 win came with two important caveats: Chile were jet-lagged after flying from London, having a couple days before run rings around England at Wembley. And they scored with the only chance they created in that game.
"I do remember how many difficulties we had against them. Chile are a South American side that has evolved a lot in the last few years and they are quite organized," Scolari added.
Alexis Sanchez, Arturo Vidal and Co. are also desperate to finally beat Brazil at a World Cup. Starting with a Garrincha-led 4-2 routing in their 1962 World Cup semifinal (which Chile hosted), La Roja has never really threatened the Seleção. What changed now is that Chile has put together their best team in generations, backing it up with exciting performances that justify the hype. One would have to back to the 1980s to find the last time a Chilean team had been so talked about.
Unfortunately, that generation made the headlines for all the right and wrong reasons. Led by strikers Ivo Basay, Juan Letelier and a young Ivan Zamorano, they finished only behind Uruguay in the 1987 Copa America but sent shockwaves across the continent by routing Brazil 4-0.
When both countries were drawn in the same qualifying group for Italia 1990, Chile could be forgiven for feeling confident but it all went wrong; during the decisive game at the Maracana, goalkeeper Roberto Rojas faked an injury by cutting himself with a blade he had hidden in his glove after a flare from the crowd had landed near him. Newspaper pictures showed the farce and FIFA, led at the time by Brazilian João Havelange, not only disqualified Chile but also suspended them from the 1994 qualifiers. Rojas was banned for life and Zamorano would have to wait until France 1998 to finally play at the World Cup.
There has never been a better time for Chile to try to exorcise their demons. Despite their 2-0 defeat to Holland in São Paulo on Monday, they impressed by keeping 64 percent of possession and left the impression they could inflict damage to the hosts if the Seleção are caught napping.
This feeling is shared by some of Sampaoli's main opponents. After the Cameroon game, Neymar and Dani Alves pointed out the danger represented by Barcelona teammate Alexis Sanchez. Last Thursday, Fred also expressed his worries about the Chilean attacking trio formed by Vidal, Eduardo Vargas and Sanchez.
"Those guys are very technical and very fast. They move a lot, run relentlessly. We are going to have to play well and avoid mistakes to beat those guys. And I have a feeling they are fancying their chances to beat us," said the Fluminense striker, who admittedly spent some extra time over the past few days watching videos of Chile in action.
Most of all, Chile are not nearly under as much pressure as Brazil to perform and the Seleção's load weighs a ton more now that they are in far from peak form. It would still be a massive upset if the Chileans pulled it off, though, and facing them might actually make Brazil finally click.
For the first time in decades the Seleção find themselves properly worried about a footballing neighbour that isn't Argentina or Uruguay. That really says it all.
Fernando Duarte is a U.K.-based Brazilian football expert who has reported on the Selecao for over a decade. Follow him on Twitter: @Fernando_Duarte.