Pinilla goal a huge boost as Sanchez beats Northern Ireland
Two games, five assists. In his last two matches -- including an appearance as a sub -- Alexis Sanchez has created a goal on average every 26 minutes. Each was better than the last and all were the kind of assist where you want to give the goal to the provider.
The five goals are also the only ones Chile has scored. While it is worrisome to rely so heavily on one player, it is unendingly encouraging for La Roja to have its superstar in such sparkling form ahead of Brazil 2014.
Prior to Sanchez's introduction midway through the second half against Northern Ireland on Wednesday night, Chile had dominated the fixture, though its strikers did scandalously little with the service provided to them.
Chile had the ball for a total of 45 of a goalless 60 minutes before coach Jorge Sampaoli brought off backup strikers Esteban Paredes and Fabian Orellana for Sanchez and Eduardo Vargas. The game ended 2-0.
While the Green and White Army parked a tank in front of goal, the starting forwards had the masterful -- if not occasionally eccentric -- service provided by playmaker Jorge "El Mago" Valdivia. Orellana panicked in tight spaces, and Paredes was plain clumsy.
Their replacements broke the deadlock within 18 minutes of coming on, Sanchez providing Vargas with the killer ball as he had done twice against Egypt.
Then, three minutes later, something occurred that hasn't happened for 17 months. A striker other than Sanchez and Vargas came off Chile's bench and scored. Mauricio Pinilla's goal was arguably the second most heartening moment in the match, as it confirmed that Chile's offensive Plan B is no dud.
Second, of course, to the return of the king. A packed Estadio Elias Figueroa broke into nervous chatter when Arturo Vidal was sighted jogging amid the pack of La Roja's reserves. The initial assumption was that "King Arthur" was merely warming his legs in the cold Valparaíso night, though in the 76th minute he stripped off his track suit and stood by the fourth official.
He ran on to the pitch to 20,000 cheers. For four weeks Chile's World Cup hopes have hung in the balance while the player's surgery scars healed, and joyous relief swept through the stands as rumors of a rapid return to fitness for Chile's most influential midfielder were finally confirmed.
Prior to the substitution, however, a midfield pairing of Carlos Carmona and Marcelo Diaz had done great work in the middle of the park. Diaz, in fact, was superb. The Basel man was the protagonist behind Chile's impressive 76 percent possession statistic, and complemented a mesmerizing ground game with several fine long balls.
The player linked well in particular with Francisco Silva -- who was in the center of defense in the team sheet though spent most of the night in the center of the park. As Sampaoli is intent on maintaining a dangerously high defensive line, Silva looks a better fit as he is both quicker and more comfortable on the ball than traditional centerback Gonzalo Jara.
In contrast, it wasn't the best of nights for Jose "Pepe" Rojas. Northern Ireland rarely threatened, though when they did it was invariably down the right as Ryan McLaughlin made light work of his marker. A system in which Eugenio Mena and Miiko Albornoz interchange on the left flank is surely Chile's strongest option for Brazil.
As Sampaoli stuck to his plan of providing minutes to most of his personnel across both friendlies, fans continue to wait for the mouthwatering prospect of "El Mago" starting behind Sanchez and Vargas for the first time since qualifying. The three players overlapped on the pitch for just 17 minutes against Northern Ireland, and Valdivia's form had dipped at that point.
The attacking midfielder excited at the beginning of the match, and the sense was that the striking duo would have relished the opportunity to work with his mischievous passes. An accomplished creator in the final third would also stop Sanchez dropping deep so much in search of the ball, liberating the Barcelona man's sniping skills.
While question marks remain, Chile's recent friendlies offered valuable lessons and on balance positives won out. La Seleccion is now in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, and the adventure has finally begun. This World Cup promises excitement and nerves in equal measure, as the best ever generation of Chilean footballers charges head first in all its attacking brilliance toward the Group of Death.