While in much of the rest of the world there are ongoing complaints about uneven, uninteresting matchups, South America’s qualification campaign for the World Cup is a ferociously competitive affair. The pick of this week’s first-round of matches is a perfect example of just that. On Thursday in Santiago, the freshly crowned South American champions Chile will take on five-time World Cup winners Brazil.
Although for both teams it is just the first of 18 qualifiers over the course of the next two years, already the pressure will be on. For the 2014 World Cup, Brazil’s hosting of the event meant six of South America’s 10 teams advanced, with Uruguay clinching a spot via a playoff. But for Russia 2018 only four countries are ensured of advancing, and a fifth will have a playoff with the first-placed team from Oceania. Given that two of the bottom three teams from qualification in 2014 -- Paraguay and Peru -- made it to this summer’s Copa America semifinals, the competition has never been as intense.
For Chile, the challenge is to maintain the momentum garnered from winning the country’s first ever international title. A momentary letdown would be understandable given how much emphasis was put on and how much emotional energy was spent on lifting the Copa America title on home soil. Following a dramatic penalty shootout victory over Argentina, speculation ensued over the future of head coach Jorge Sampaoli.
But the Argentinian and his thrilling, high-pressing philosophy first implemented by compatriot Marcelo Bielsa has stayed put to try and lead Chile to their third consecutive World Cup. And the central pieces on the pitch also remain in place heading into the start of qualifying. Star men Alexis Sánchez and Arturo Vidal are still in their prime. Sánchez, in particular, after an unsurprising hangover from his summer exertions, has burst into form in the last two weeks with six goals in his last three matches. And the 26-year-old scored in his last outing for Chile, too, securing a 3-2 friendly win over Paraguay last month.
Unlike Chile, Brazil won’t have their star man available to kick off World Cup qualifying. Having been shown a red card against Colombia for a furious reaction at the end of their group stage match at the Copa America, Neymar was handed a four-game ban, which was upheld this week. It means he will miss both the clash with Chile and next Tuesday’s match at home to Venezuela.
It is far from an ideal scenario for Dunga. The Brazil coach is under pressure after a dismal quarterfinal exit to Paraguay at the Copa America. Already far from a universally popular choice to take the reins and lead the recovery following the turmoil of Brazil’s 2014 World Cup exit on home soil, it will not take much for the former World Cup winning captain to come under renewed pressure.
He did himself some favors last month when beating the United States 4-1 in a friendly at Foxborough, Massachusetts. Yet three of Brazil’s goals came in the second half following Neymar’s introduction and two of them were scored by the Barcelona star. It also merely continued Dunga’s fine record in friendlies. Ahead of the Copa America he had won all 10 of his matches, yet in competitive action he has come out on the losing side in two of his four contests. The match with Chile will be a chance to show he can steer things right when the pressure is on, before he’ll have to tackle the criticisms over his playing style.
Prediction: Without Neymar, as well as the injured Philippe Coutinho, Brazil could be lacking for creativity. Much will depend on in-form Bayern Munich winger Douglas Costa, while there could also be a big opportunity for Santos’ Lucas Lima, who impressed in his first international experience last month. Chile should be favorites, although they must overcome the psychological hurdle of not having beaten Brazil in 14 matches stretching back 15 years. It promises to be a tight affair, but Chile’s boost from winning the Copa America may just carry them through to end their drought against South America’s most successful team.
Predicted score: Chile 2-1 Brazil