2014 World Cup Team Preview: Chile

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Getting to know… Chile
Chile won hearts in South Africa with a frantic style built around then-head coach Marcelo Bielsa’s desire to play the game in his opponent’s half. Four years later, the influential boss has moved on, but his legacy remains. Jorge Sampaoli, a Bielsa disciple that took Chilean club Universidad de Chile to continental success, has made the country’s national team a squad nobody wants to face – a nation that many are picking to get out of its group despite the presence of Spain and the Netherlands.

That draw, as well as a possible meeting with Brazil in the Round of 16, means Chile are unlikely to rewrite its speckled history at World Cups. Though the nation has a third place finish on its résumé (when they hosted in 1962), that was the only time La Roja made it beyond the first knockout round. While 2010’s 10th place finish was its best since 1962, it was the first time in three tournaments the Chileans qualified for the World Cup. This year’s appearance marks only the second time the team has appeared in back-to-back finals.

Record in qualifying

Going undefeated in their last six qualifiers, Chile surged to third place in South America’s nine-team, double round-robin tournament, losing only once after Sampaoli replaced Bielsa’s successor, Claudio Borghi. Though the team’s 25 goals conceded was tied for most amongst the region’s qualified teams, only Columbia managed to score multiple goals in qualifying against Chile after the former “La U” boss took over in Dec. 2012.

Group B

Defending world champion Spain is the favorite in one of the World Cup’s toughest groups, but on South American soil, it’s possible the Chileans can play Atlético Madrid to the Spaniards’ Barcelona. The Netherlands are the group’s other big name, but transitioning in new talent after a disappointing Euro 2012, the Oranje could be on track for a third place finish. Full points against Australia, the group’s weak link, may prove crucial.

Game schedule

Friday, June 13 at 5 p.m. ET: Chile vs. Australia (Estádio Beira-Rio, Porto Alegre)

Wednesday, June 18 at 3 p.m. ET: Chile vs. Spain (Estádio do Maracaña, Ro de Janeiro)

Monday, June 25 at 12 noon ET: Netherlands vs. Chile (Arena de São Paulo, São Paulo)

Star player
Since moving to Juventus from Bayer Leverkusen, Arturo Vidal has proven to be one of the best midfielders in the world – a box-to-box presence that can compete in the air or on the ground while playing an advanced, central, or defending role. For Sampaoli, Vidal looks most likely to play behind the strikers in a 3-4-1-2 formation, a role that will prove crucial to converting turnovers won high up the field into chances on the opponents’ goal.

Manager
After a decade as a head coach at club level, mostly in Peru and Chile, Sampaoli was appointed Chile’s national team head coach with the hope he would revive the spirit of Bielsa. Under Borghi, Chile had lost its way and was in danger of staying in the bottom half of South America’s competitive qualifying tournament. Once Sampaoli brought the team back to its core principles, Chile resumed the menacing success it had under last cycle’s boss.

Best known for his Copa Sudamericana-winning success with Universidad de Chile, Sampaoli won three straight domestic tournaments with the Chilean powerhouse before moving into the international area. Leading his team to a 2013 surge, the 54-year-old Argentine has Chile up to 13th in FIFA’s World Ranking – the second-best ranking in Group B.

Secret weapon
Eduardo Vargas isn’t a secret, but for those who saw him fail to make an impact with Napoli, the fact that he’s a weapon may be news. Reunited with the head coach who fostered his success in Chile, the 24-year-old attacker his regained his stride, as evidenced by his two goals against Egypt on May 30. Expected to start with Alexis Sánchez up top, the recent Valencia man has a chance to reclaim some of his faded reputation as well continue a strike rate that’s produced 13 goals in 29 international appearances.

Prediction
None of Chile’s group games are unwinnable, and with a knockout round matchup against Brazil looming for the group’s second place finisher, an upset over Spain would prove particularly valuable. Even if La Roja can’t derail the champions, the team has every reason to expect a fourth game. Missing out to either of the group’s transitioning squads should be seen as a significant disappointment.

Arsenal sends Gabriel Paulista to Valencia

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Arsenal has a thin defense, but that hasn’t stopped Arsene Wenger from thinning the squad even further.

Gabriel Paulista is headed back to the Spanish top flight after the completion of his transfer to Valencia. The Brazilian was sold for a reported $12.8 million, just below the $14 million price tag Arsenal coughed up to Villareal back in January, 2015. He will partner with Manchester City loanee Eliaquim Mangala at Valencia.

The 26-year-old made 64 appearances for the Gunners across all competitions, including 46 in the Premier League. His only goal for the club was Arsenal’s first of a 2-0 win over Bournemouth in December, 2015. His high-water mark with the club was a 120-minute performance against Manchester City in the FA Cup semifinals where Arsenal came back to win 2-1 on an Alexis Sanchez goal in extra time.

“We would like to thank Gabriel for his contribution to the club and to wish him well for his return to La Liga with Valencia,” Arsenal said in its confirmation of the deal.

Paulista was utilized more than expected last season thanks to an injury crisis at the back, and still the Arsenal squad doesn’t seem fat enough to offload defenders, but Gabriel’s over-aggressive nature and tackling inaccuracy led him to an early exit.

With Arsene Wenger now deploying a back-three, the only natural central defenders currently on the roster are Laurent Koscielny, Per Mertesacker, Shkodran Mustafi, and Rob Holding. Koscielny is suspended from a red card at the end of last season, and Mertesacker is battling a head injury. Sead Kolasinac, Nacho Monreal, and Calum Chambers have played CB for the Gunners in the recent past, but it is not their natural position.

Fabian Johnson misses Gladbach training with injury

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With John Brooks already out long-term due to a thigh injury, the United States may have another key injury to work around.

According to Borussia Monchengladbach manager Dieter Hecking, full-back/winger Fabian Johnson missed training on Friday due to an unspecified injury, and is now a question mark for Gladbach’s home match on Sunday against FC Koln. It could be nothing, but even the scare is cause for concern among U.S. fans.

Johnson has battled a few injuries the past couple of seasons, including a hamstring problem last spring that kept him out for nearly two months, including a pair of World Cup qualifiers in March.

Johnson’s absence would leave a hole at right-back for the United States. The 29-year-old has been deployed some at right wing for the USMNT, but he has been relatively poor at that position in the national setup, looking better when pushed further back where he is given more defensive duties, roaming forward with less frequency but more intent.

In place of Johnson, another converted winger in Graham Zusi has been seeing more time at right-back, but he offers less in the attack and lacks Johnson’s recovery speed, meaning mistakes by the Sporting KC veteran are punished more often.

Falcao scores again to extend red hot start

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Monaco is hoping to ride out the final two weeks of the transfer window with 18-year-old wonderkid Kylian Mbappe still in tow.

While they wait, they aren’t missing a beat.

With Mbappe out of the squad, Radamel Falcao has begun the 2017/18 Ligue 1 season as Europe’s hottest goalscorer. He bagged a hat-trick last weekend with Mbappe on the bench to give him four goals in the first two league matches. Then, with Mbappe out of the squad entirely, Falcao netted the winner in a 1-0 road win over FC Metz.

Falcao has scored five goals so far this year, and his club has a +5 goal differential. In a way, Falcao has already been worth six points thus far.

Thanks in part to Ligue 1’s early start, Falcao’s five league goals are by far more than anyone else in the major European leagues. Four players have scored a pair of Premier League goals, nobody in La Liga or the Bundesliga have scored more than one, and the Serie A season has yet to start.

The Colombian did the same thing last season. After eventually coming off the shelf from to hamstring and concussion problems to start the season, Falcao scored 10 goals in 10 Ligue 1 matches leading up to the new calendar year.

At 31 years old, Falcao isn’t a long-term solution and the club will clearly look to retain Mbappe despite Falcao’s hot start, but should they lose the young Frenchman, the club will be in good hands while they search for a replacement over the next year.

Arena should give Ream a look in Brooks’ absence

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With John Brooks out three months thanks to a horribly timed thigh injury, the United States yet again has to scramble to fill a void at the back. It’s not the first time an injury to Brooks has left the USMNT scrambling for cover at a thin position.

In the successful Gold Cup this past summer, with a largely domestic squad in place, Omar Gonzalez saw the bulk of the time at central defender, with Matt Besler his partner through the final two matches. However, with European-based players now in contention for spots with the early September international break, those two are unlikely to continue, at least not together.

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The most obvious choice to start September 1st against Costa Rica and likely shoo-in should he remain healthy for the next two weeks is Geoff Cameron. The 32-year-old has been back and forth between defense and midfield with club and country, and although he has publicly acknowledged his preference for a spot higher up the pitch, he was used in a back-three in Stoke City’s Premier League opener last weekend and is steadiest at the back.

But with a spot next to Cameron up for grabs in Brooks’ absence, a player who should get serious consideration is United States fill-in extraordinaire Tim Ream.

Ream has had to work hard to earn his place with the U.S., and while he’s seen time of late, he’s not been a first-choice pick. The 29-year-old has four caps so far in 2017, with two of those starts, including one in the impressive 1-1 draw against Mexico at the Azteca with the US still clawing its way back up the Hex standings. Even then, Ream would likely not have earned that spot had Arena not chosen to rotate nearly the entire squad between the pair of qualifiers in that window. His other start this year, the 1-1 draw at Panama, only came after Cameron pulled out of the squad the day of the game with a late injury. The last time Ream started back-to-back matches for the U.S. came back in 2015 when he was somewhat of a regular through the second half of the calendar year.

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But now, with Brooks out, Ream looks like the perfect man to fill in again. The 29-year-old defender finished last season in top form as Fulham narrowly missed out on promotion, earning the official website’s Man of the Match award in a May 2nd draw with Brentford, and won it again in the club’s final match of the season.

Without missing a beat, Ream has picked up where he left off last campaign in the first few matches this month. Last weekend against Reading at the Madjeski Stadium, Ream’s center-back partner Tomas Kalas was sent off 36 seconds into the match, forcing Fulham to play a man down for 89 minutes. Ream and company solidified the back, conceding just once in the 61st minute en route to a 1-1 draw.

The club still likely requires reinforcements at the CB position – Ream was forced to partner with right-back Denis Odoi against Reading with Kalas suspended and Michael Madl injured – meaning Ream could see an influx of competition in the coming weeks. However, as it stands, the American is far and away the best (and most improved) central defender on a club favored for promotion.

Gonzalez performed well in the Gold Cup, and Matt Besler was serviceable, but with few other options in the heart of defense to take Brooks’ place, Bruce Arena could yet again look to Ream for an in-form replacement.