CUIABA, BRAZIL – Watch out Spain: Chile and its star striker Alexis Sanchez are looking like a serious threat at the World Cup.
Carrying over his prolific form this season for Barcelona, Sanchez scored one goal and set up another to lead Chile to a 3-1 win over Australia in stifling conditions in Cuiaba on Friday.
It was a patchy but ultimately satisfying opening performance in Group B for the Chileans, who are dangerous outsiders in Brazil after their impressive run of results over the past 18 months.
And they now have the opportunity to make a real dent in the tournament — a win over Spain on Wednesday would virtually guarantee eliminating the reigning champions, who slumped to a stunning 5-1 loss to the Netherlands earlier Friday.
“They have a superlative history in (major tournaments) . . . I don’t think it will be a defeat that defines the path of the Spanish team,” said Chile coach Jorge Sampaoli, whose side drew 2-2 with Spain in a friendly last year. “It will certainly be an electrifying game.”
Boasting its best squad for a World Cup, Chile has been strongly tipped by many — including Pele — to go far despite being thrown in the same group as two of Europe’s top teams.
The Spanish, ripped apart by the Dutch in Salvador, will not be relishing playing Sampaoli’s side with their title defense on the line.
Especially with Sanchez in this form.
Constantly teasing the Australian defense, he poked home a close-range finish in the 12th minute, before setting up Jorge Valdivia about 70 seconds after the restart for the playmaker to finish high into the net from the edge of the area.
A young Australia team — the lowest-ranked nation in Brazil and written off by most before a ball had been kicked — looked in danger of falling apart but the experienced Tim Cahill brought them back into the game with a trademark header in the 35th.
Cahill, dominant in the air throughout, had several chances to equalize before and after halftime as Chile perhaps became complacent and slipped off the pace at a muggy Arena Pantanal.
But a drilled, low shot by substitute Jean Beausejour settled the match in the second minute of injury time, sending the Chilean bench running onto the pitch in elation and making fans set off fireworks in scenes that made for a great atmosphere but will likely displease organizers.
“Early on, we were probably just overawed by the whole thing,” Australia coach Ange Postecoglou said. “In the end, we gave away a two-goal start and that’s what killed us.”
Sanchez, coming off the best season of his career at club level with 21 goals for Barca, is a potential star of the World Cup and has the ability to run ragged a Spain defense that unraveled against the Dutch.
“Alexis is always the plus for us,” Sampaoli said. “His high standing, his personality, what he brings to the team, we are glad to have him in our team.”
Just as important for Sampaoli was the sight of leading midfielder Arturo Vidal starting and playing 59 minutes on his return from knee surgery undertaken a month ago.
Australia, meanwhile, will take heart from the way the team responded to a dreadful start.
Unsurprisingly it was Cahill who led the recovery, using his aerial domination over diminutive marker Gary Medel to head in his record-extending 33rd national-team goal. The New York Red Bulls forward also had a header ruled out for a marginal offside in the second half.
“There is no one in the tournament who would like to be one-on-one with him.” Postecoglou said. “The only way they could stop him in end was to hold on to his shirt.”
Still, Chile came through and Spain is sure to be wary of the south Americans next week.