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May 31, 2014

32 Teams in 32 Days: Chile

With the likes of Alexis Sanchez and Arturo Vidal, Chile will be hoping to escape a treacherous Group B.

Group B | Spain | Netherlands | Australia

Team DNA

In the last World Cup, Chile captured the hearts of many, and the bold approach of manager Marcelo Bielsa's team was a breath of fresh air. Current boss Jorge Sampaoli is a Bielsa disciple, and the philosophy remains the same. As he says, Chile's style is non-negotiable; they will always seek to impose themselves, pressing the opponent in their half of the field and creating 2-against-1 situations down the flanks.

But that does not mean the formation is set in stone. Sampaoli was in charge for the last seven World Cup qualifiers; in three of those matches, Chile defended with a back three, while the others featured a line of four. In both cases the fullbacks are expected to push up at the same time. Against weaker opponents the tendency is to field two centre-backs, one to mark and one to cover, and this is the likely template for Chile's opening Cup match against Australia.

In front of the defensive line, Marcelo Diaz has a vital role -- reading the game, closing down the spaces and organising the play. The Australia match could be an important occasion for Jorge Valdivia, a talented but wayward playmaker set to be used as a "false nine," who can thread passes through for Alexis Sanchez and Eduardo Vargas and run from the midfield of Arturo Vidal and Charles Aranguiz.

But there may be changes from the start in the other matches. In a friendly against Spain last year, Gonzalo Jara came in on the left of a back three, the midfield had more protection and Vidal was pushed forward behind the two strikers. A back three was also used against Germany, and it would seem a logical step to use it in the meetings against Spain (to combat their midfield possession) and Holland (as protection against their speed on the transition).

Starting scenario

History

This will be Chile's ninth World Cup appearance. Four years ago in South Africa, with an exciting young team full of promise, they won their first World Cup matches outside their home continent. Their best showing was in 1962, when they hosted the tournament and finished third overall.

How they reached Brazil

Chile had a good start in qualifying under then-manager Claudio Borghi, winning four of their first six games to sit atop the table. Then, the wheels fell off. They suffered four consecutive defeats, leaving them sixth in the table and outside the playoff slot. They were also suffering from the disciplinary problems that occasionally blight the Chilean national team.

In November 2012, they lost 3-1 in a friendly against Serbia and Vidal was sent off for the second consecutive game. Borghi was fired in the dressing room after the match. In came Sampaoli, the electric coach who has had a remarkable run of success with the Universidad de Chile club.

He quickly turned Chile into the continent's form side, closing the campaign with five wins and a draw (3-3 away against Colombia after Chile had led 3-0 at the interval). They have kept the good times rolling in subsequent friendlies, cruising to an easy win against England at Wembley and losing 1-0 away to Germany in a game they could have easily won.

The numbers never lie

Calculating a nation's passion for the game based on how well it pays its manager, attends its games and gets out to play:

Key battles

Beating Spain would be a dream victory for Chile in group play, especially considering Spain's prestige as reigning world champions and the history of recent matches between the two countries.

Chile should edge Australia, which means a win against Spain in the Maracana would come close to ensuring a spot in the round of 16. At the 2010 World Cup, Chile and Spain met in group play and the Spaniards won 2-1. Two subsequent friendlies have been even closer. In September 2011, Spain rallied to win 3-2, while Chile let another lead slip in a 2-2 draw last September in Switzerland.

Chile will be looking for it to be their turn this time.

Most important player

For Chile, Sanchez is the undisputed leader of the attacking line, and he relishes the responsibility. He may be used wide on the right or through the middle as a central striker. Wherever he plays, his low centre of gravity and reduced-space dribbling skills are a threat to the opposing defence. He also packs a surprisingly fierce shot and, as he showed at Wembley, can also sneak into the box to score from headers.

Chile sometimes have a problem turning their fine football into goals, as made clear by the recent 1-0 defeat against Germany. The nation trusts that Sanchez will help ensure this does not hold back Chile's campaign in Brazil.

Definition of success

By popular consensus, this is the best Chile side in history, and expectations are higher than at any point since 1962.

The obvious problem is the draw. In order to get out of Group B, which includes Spain, Netherlands and Australia, they will need to finish in front of one of the 2010 World Cup finalists. Should they do it, there is a good chance of meeting Brazil, who have ended Chile's past two World Cup campaigns.

Video: Chile odds in World Cup (Australia only)

Sampaoli would probably define success in terms of how true his team stays to its own ultra-attacking idea of play, rather than merely in terms of how far they go.

How far will Chile go?

Given the difficulty of the draw, a prediction is difficult. With luck, Chile could reach the semifinals. But even if they fall early, their games will be must-see football.

ESPN FC Analysts' take: Mario Kempes

These are not all players on big international clubs and they are not household names. But rather than let their anonymity become a weakness, the squad has a remarkably well-balanced offense.

There are no glaring holes, but you need luck to win the World Cup, and Chile didn't get any this time around. They're drawn in a very difficult group. Even if they do manage to advance, if they finish second behind Spain, they would play Brazil in the round of 16.

That said, Chile are capable of beating any big team, including Brazil. And really, if there's a squad that can beat the home team in this World Cup, it's going to be one from South America.

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