Chile are rushing to get Arturo Vidal fit for their World Cup opener against Australia in Cuiaba on Friday, and understandably so.
Vidal is, pace Yaya Touré, probably the most complete box-to-box midfielder in world football today. He is the reason, just as much as Antonio Conte or Andrea Pirlo, for Juventus’ three consecutive Italian titles, a little bundle of muscle, tackles and goals who could be the difference between Chile emerging from Group C and not.
So it was very bad news for this ambitious side – Gary Medel and Alexis Sanchez talk about winning the tournament, and are not joking – when Vidal underwent a knee operation on 7 May. Since then the 27-year-old has been suffering with some inflammation and has been working his way back to full fitness.
When Chile beat Northern Ireland 2-0 in a friendly in Valparaiso last Thursday, Vidal came on for Jorge Valdivia and played the last 13 minutes. In the days since, though, he has been training alone, working in the gym, strengthening his knee and having physiotherapy.
Vidal joined in with his team-mates on Wednesday, but not fully, and so coach Jorge Sampaoli will probably have to take a risk with him this evening. The likelihood is that he will, with Vidal even more important to this Chile side than he is for Juventus.
CHILE: Group B team profile
CHILE: Group B team profile
1/5 How they qualified
Chile qualified for their ninth World Cup after beating Ecuador 2-1, despite only requiring a point to go through, and ended up in third position behind Colombia and Argentina. The Latin American side were involved in some thrilling games, most notably the 3-3 draw with Colombia in which they surrendered a three-goal lead. Their main attribute and style of play is centred around attacking; spearheaded by a dangerous front three of Alexis Sanchez, Eduardo Vargas and Matias Fernandez. Their win at Wembley showed that they are not to be taken lightly.
Argentine coach Jorge Sampaoli had a tough act to follow when he replaced the vaunted tactician Marcelo Bielsa who departed for Athletic Bilbao in 2010, but the 53-year-old has performed admirably. The majority of his career has been spent managing clubs in Peru, Ecuador and his native Argentina before moving to Chile. Sampaoli enjoyed a trophy-laden spell at Universidad de Chile, securing three titles and the Copa Sudamericana before joining the national side; he favours a free-flowing, attacking style of football. Of course, leaking 25 goals in qualifying highlights an alarmingly brittle defence which needs improvement, but his tactical style, focusing on attacking, means that the team is always likely to have gaps at the back.
3/5 Star man
The rise of the Juventus star has been a joy to behold. The 26 year-old has swiftly emerged as one of the best box-to-box midfielders in the game. With a seemingly endless supply of stamina and pace, Vidal is the centre of Chile’s attacking game, but with a muscular frame, he’s not afraid to put a few tackles in and he scores fairly frequently too. With 53 caps, he is one of the more experienced heads in the squad, and will be an important part of the side that goes to Brazil next summer.
4/5 Emerging talent
At 23, Felipe Gutiérrez is one of the youngest players in the Chile squad; he plays his club football for Steve McClaren’s former side FC Twente. Named the Eredivisie’s player of the year last season, Gutierrez is making a name for himself in Holland as a goalscoring, left-footed midfielder. He has been troubled by a recurring knee injury at points this term, most recently in April, but Chile manager Jorge Sampaoli is confident the player will be fully fit for the finals. Gutierrez is unlikely to start in Brazil, but showed with a handful of substitute appearances in World Cup qualifying, he can perform have an impact when thrown into the competitive ring.
5/5 How they will line up (4-5-1)
Claudio Bravo, Eugenio Mena, Marcos Gonzalez, Gary Medel, Mauricio Isla, Jean Beausejour, Charles Aranguiz, Jorge Valdivia, Arturo Vidal, Alexis Sanchez, Eduardo Vargas
If Chile line up in a 4-3-1-2 system on Friday, as expected, Vidal should be in the three, linking the midfield to the front three of Valdivia, Sanchez and Eduardo Vargas. Vidal, when fully fit, encapsulates Chile’s unique style: relentless high pressing, fast direct attacking and an almost over-competitive attitude.
It is an approach that won Chile many friends in the last World Cup, under coach Marcelo Bielsa. Vidal played both full-back and wide midfield in 2010, and impressed, but since then he has developed into a world-beater.
In 2011, Juventus bought him from Bayer Leverkusen for €10million (£8m) and he has won the Scudetto in each of his three seasons in Turin. Conte has used Vidal – first alongside Claudio Marchisio, but increasingly with Paul Pogba – as a shield for Pirlo, to do all of the running, defending and scoring while Pirlo directs play behind them.
It has worked very well. Manchester United would love him – he would be perfect for the Premier League – and Real Madrid are keen, too.
Vidal is Chile’s most important player but they have quality throughout the side. “This is a very good generation” said Medel, the Cardiff midfielder likely to play at centre-back tonight. “We expect to reach the semi-final, final, or be world champions. I hope to win the title with Chile.”
Chile’s problem is converting dominance into goals. Sanchez will be their biggest threat, leading from the front. Since leaving Udinese for Barcelona three years ago, he has produced a few moments of brilliance – his chip in el Clasico at the start of last season was wonderful – but a tournament like this should bring the best out of him.
“I believe Chile will win the World Cup,” Sanchez said this week. “If I didn’t believe that I would be sitting at home in front of the television.”