Sampaoli's "formidable" Chile earn plaudits
On Wednesday afternoon, Santiago erupted. The streets were drenched in beer and peppered with confetti as tens of thousands swarmed the city's central plaza, decked out in red, white and blue.
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Unfortunately the manic crowd in this South American capital soon turned ugly, as hooligans hijacked buses and clashed with riot police. Though for a good three hours, unbridled joy swept through the singing throngs on a sunny winter's afternoon.
There was also, for some, a sense of disbelief. La Roja had won, though in a manner few expected it to. Spain played well and failed to score. Chile's little merchant vessels completely outmaneuvered the Spanish galleons. Alexis Sanchez sparkled, as he always does for Chile, and Eduardo Vargas scored his 15th goal for his country, though none of that was surprising in comparison to what happened at the other end of the pitch: Spain didn't score.
The final whistle marked a seminal moment in sport. Spain's long era of dominance came to an end, and Chilean football left its adolescence. La Roja is no longer a cute addition to this World Cup -- an eager and eccentric side, whose reckless attack gained patronizing praise. Chile has now earned its seat at the grown-ups' table and demands to be taken seriously.
At long last, a defense
This was not a desperate defensive display -- Chile's men at the back played with confidence and organization, and Gonzalo Jara in particular spread the ball beautifully about the field when in possession. Incredibly, this particular defense had never played together before. He left it irresponsibly late, but at just the right time, head coach Jorge Sampaoli found his back line. After years of experimentation, tinkering with components and composition, the alchemist had finally hit upon the golden formula.
Two tiny geniuses of Argentine football exchanged words on domestic television following the match.
"Congratulations, maestro," said Diego Maradona, praising Sampaoli on his "formidable" tactical masterclass.
"Thank you, Diego, un beso," the manager replied.
Sampaoli may now be in the mood to blow kisses at football royalty, though after the Australia game, he was introverted, full of nerves and concern. He reviewed tape for hours at the team's training camp in Belo Horizonte, working harder than ever.
In the end, he stayed true to himself, ditching the four-man defense that hadn't convinced against Australia and returning to his favored three-man back-line with wingbacks Eugenio Mena and Mauricio Isla.
Francisco Silva -- traditionally a defensive midfielder -- was flanked by Gary Medel and Jara. Silva's speed and distribution were on show and El Gato flung himself into heading contests with Diego Costa.
Pedro was supposed to be Spain's X-factor, brought in to stretch Chile's defense to breaking point. Jara and Mena shut him down time and time again until the Barcelona player's dispiriting second half substitution. Arturo Vidal and Marcelo Diaz mopped up pressure in front of the box and left poor David Silva battered and bruised.
And in the final 10 minutes, when Chile had run itself ragged and could no longer repel the Spanish, el capitan Claudio Bravo played out of his skin for the most gratifying clean sheet of his career.
The golden generation
For Chileans, it was magic not only to see Vidal charging about the pitch once again and Sanchez in all his aggressive splendor, but also to witness fine performances from the lesser-known wunderkinds of this beautiful generation of Chilean footballers.
Before moving to Brazilian club Internacional, Charles Aranguiz, 25, spent the first seven years of his professional career in the Chilean domestic league. His countrymen saw his prodigious talent on display every weekend, and to see him dazzle in football's most public forum was like blurting out a secret you'd been bursting to share.
Xavi looked on from the bench to watch Basel's Diaz reveling in the role the Barcelona man invented, though Diaz also displayed a defensive toughness lacking from the Spaniard's game.
Vargas has been denounced by some fans after poor showings in European club football, yet on Wednesday he showcased the ruthlessness that earned the youngster legendary status in Chile as the all-time top scorer in the Copa Sudamericana.
Australia gives hope
Sampaoli spared little time to ponder on the enormity of the match's outcome when speaking with the press.
"I'm not sure if this will be the best victory -- I always say the best win is the one yet to come -- but it's a victory I'll never forget," he said.
The coach will hope to celebrate that next win Monday against the Netherlands. The Socceroos' courageous display Wednesday showed the Dutch machine is not unbreakable, and the final group stage match threatens to be a fantastic showdown. After Brazil's draw against Mexico, a Round of 16 encounter with the hosts is not a forgone conclusion for second place in Group B, though Chile will play for top spot regardless.
And even if a game with Brazil materializes, Chile have proven itself a world beater. The pentacampeones have had a hold over the Chilean psyche for more than a decade, and La Roja typically approaches the fixture as defeated men. The wholesale deconstruction of the Spanish, however, has Chile well-placed to exercise whatever voodoo magic has been at work since 2000. And if this group of Chileans is capable of such an upset, why can't La Roja go all the way?