PREVIEW – Argentina v Chile

Despite problems in defence and the absence of Alexis Sánchez’s star quality Chile will be hoping to catch Argentina cold in Buenos Aires on Friday as La Albiceleste enter a period of transition under yet another manager. 

The race to Brazil 2014 starts now – Friday to be precise – for the South American qualifiers. Since Brazil automatically qualify as hosts it leaves the remaining nine countries playing for four and a half slots – the half being the country that finishes 5th, who will enter a two-legged play-off contest against a country from the Asian Football Confederation.

With over half of the competing countries potentially joining Brazil at the World Cup in under three years time it is shaping up to be the most competitive qualifying process in South American history, especially when you consider that countries such as Ecuador and Venezuela are no longer considered whipping boys, while Peru are much improved after a fabulous performance at the Copa América.

Yet with their form, and style of play, over the last four years Chile can be categorised as one of the favourites for the top spots as well as a potential scalp. And the Andean nation kicks off with a clash against neighbouring rivals Argentina at the Estadio Monumental in Buenos Aires. But do so with a defending crisis as Pablo Contreras and his replacement Osvaldo González are injured while star-man Alexis Sánchez is ruled out with a torn hamstring picked up playing for Barcelona.

However manager Claudio Borghi, even without the vivacious talent of Sánchez, has declared he has only one mindset with an eclectic mix of talented forwards: “I will go to attack. I can’t imagine Chile playing on the counter-attack, we will be enforcing our own game. We have many (attacking) options; (Maurico) Pinilla, (Humberto) Suazo, also (Esteban) Paredes and if we want someone wider there is (Eduardo) Vargas. And Carlos Muñoz is not doing too badly.”

It is expected though that Pinilla will end his near six year hiatus from La Roja partnering Suazo, aka ‘El Chupete’ (The Pacifier), to form a formidable strike duo in a 3-4-1-2 set-up; Matías Fernández providing creativity and imagination from a slightly deeper role.

‘Pinigol’ last wore the shirt of the national team back in November 2006 against Paraguay and after pulling out of recent international get-togethers due to injury he is finally fit and set to be a vital component of Borghi’s game plan against their more illustrious rivals who of course include Lionel Messi.

One criticism, if you can call it that, of Chile is their lack of physical presence and aerial ability, especially with Pablo Contreras ruled out. This is where Pinilla can be of great use or as Chilean newspaper La Tercera put it, ‘a great commodity’; not just in attack but defence as well. Borghi saying, “With Pinilla he can win headers in both areas.”

It would be naive to think that Pinilla is earmarked for a starting berth just because of his aerial prowess. If anyone has witnessed his performances since moving back to Italy with Grosseto and then Palermo they will have noted the quality of his all round game. Whether it is with his back to goal, linking the play with midfield and fellow forwards, dragging defenders here, there and everywhere, or his technical quality in and around the box; Pinilla is a modern day all-round striker who will free Suazo to play a more natural role within the team. As opposed to Vargas who is more accustomed to a wide right role of a front three – one in which he plays so well for Universidad de Chile – and would be more useful in a 3-3-1-3 used by Borghi’s predecessor Marcelo Bielsa.

The midfield four will be Mauricio Isla and Jean Beausejour, who will provide width, and Carlos Carmona and Arturo Vidal combining dynamism and technical expertise in the middle of the park. They will have to give extra support to a defence which contains familiar faces Gonzalo Jara and Waldo Ponce but the third centre-back is unknown after Osvaldo González – who replaced Contreras – dropped out to be replaced by namesake and fellow Universidad de Chile team-mate Marco González.

The midfield quartet will also supply a base for the team’s ‘No 10’, likely to be Sporting Lisbon’s Matías Fernández. However he will share the creative responsibility with “el Mago” (The Magician), Palmeiras’ esoteric fantasista Jorge Valdivia; neither at peak fitness.

Goalkeeper Claudio Bravo will continue to captain the side. The Real Sociedad number one calling on the strength of the group dynamic to see Chile get off to a good start, collecting points before Tuesday’s visit of Peru.

Can Chile stop Messi again?

Argentina are under new management, ex-Sheffield United and Leeds United player, Alejandro Sabella taking over from Sergio Batista who left after a disastrous Copa América on home turf in the summer. The former Estudiantes boss is trying to implement a 3-5-2/3-4-3 system on La Albiceleste. A formation which was used in his time managing Estudiantes and the possible line-up reflects this as three players acclimatised to the system are included; Marcos Rojo, José Ernesto Sosa and Rodrigo Braña.

Then there is Messi. Claudio Borghi suggested that he has nothing special planned to stop the little maestro saying he won’t “kill him” while Ponce announced that “nobody knows the recipe to stop Messi. We must be very attentive, nothing more.” Messi will play alongside Angel Di Maria in a deeper role, supporting Gonzalo Higuaín. While it is hoped Martín Demichelis recovers from a head knock that resulted in a trip to the hospital.

With both teams playing adaptations of 3-5-2 the midfield could be especially crowded meaning the role of Fernandez (and Valdivia) will take on greater importance as they look for pockets of space to trouble the Argentines as the two wide men, Isla and Beausejour, stretch the play, making the pitch as big as possible. The energy of the midfield four will be important in helping out the defence with Di Maria and Messi withdrawn as Higuaín plays high up on the defence, stretching the play vertically. It will be important to cut off the space in front of the back three that Messi enjoys operating. La Albiceleste’s defence and midfield are by no means stellar. Nullify the attacking trident and with Pinilla and Suazo (and countless others on the bench) Chile may feel confident of coming back to Santiago with a positive result.

What ever the outcome it is a fascinating way to begin what should be an exciting and tense qualification tournament which should see drama unfold every step of the way.

VIVA LA ROJA!

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