The clash of perennial winners Brail with new kids on the block Chile was one of the most eagerly anticipated matches of the round of 16 and the two teams showed why with a thrilling end-to-end match that could easily have gone either way.
Brazil looked the stronger in the first half, Neymar once again carrying almost all attacking threat for his team, and it was from his corner that they went ahead after 18 minutes, David Luiz being awarded the goal although it appeared to come off a Chile defender.
Neymar repeatedly had the beating, both in terms of pace and skill, of defender Francisco Silva, though he was occasionally guilty of overplaying however; playing attractive rather than practical football.
This Brazilian wasting of chances allowed Chile to get back in the game, and the best of Chile’s chances came from Brazilian carelessness in protecting the ball. Alexis Sanchez’s 34th minute goal came from the ball being given away from a Brazilian throw-in in their own defensive third, and a later opportunity that Brazil scrambled away came from yet another defensive error.
In fact there were a number of errors in possession from both sides, though this was partially due to the impressive pressure from both sides.
Both teams are obviously built around their ‘star’ player; Alexis Sanchez and Neymar respectively, and both these men stood up to be counted in the first knockout stage, each providing the majority of what was good about their teams’ attacks.
Controversy came in the second half; with Hulk’s arguably legitimate goal early on being ruled out for handball - a decision given by the assistant rather than referee Howard Webb. This seemed to rattle Brazil somewhat as there was a flurry of fouls all over the pitch as they struggled to deal with an increasingly confident Chile, Julio Cesar being forced into a phenomenal reflex save in the 64th minute.
It has been a criticism of Brazil in these championships that they struggle when Neymar struggles, and this was certainly true here. For the first 25 minutes of the second half Neymar barely touched the ball, and Brazil looked out of ideas, Chile being the much more likely of the two teams to score.
Oscar was anonymous for the majority of the game and one has to wonder if Luiz Felipe Scolari now regrets his decision not to bring Philippe Coutinho or Lucas Moura, both of who had excellent seasons for their clubs, in order to add some creativity to his misfiring attack.
Chile’s control of midfield in the second half largely came from the superhuman effort of Arturo Vidal, who appeared all over the pitch, throwing himself into challenges and chasing seemingly lost causes, before he was deservedly withdrawn in the 87th minute having given his all for his country.
He exemplified the defensive effort of his team and encouraged them never to stop chasing, very much the hallmark of this Chilean side, even the elusive Neymar often finding himself with three Chileans snapping at his heels.
It was eventually Neymar himself, finally shaking off his markers after 35 minutes, that injected life back into what looked a tired Brazilian attack, heading an inch perfect Dani Alves cross straight at the goalkeeper in the 80th minute when he perhaps should have done better.
This seemed to galvanise Brazil, who went on to have a number of chances in the next few minutes; Hulk forcing an incredible diving save from Bravo to keep the scores level in the 83rd minute.
However, by the time injury time came around, it was once again Brazil who were defending for their lives, Chile pressing hard for a winner before extra time arrived. Ultimately however, they could not find it and so the first game of the knockout rounds headed for an extra 30 minutes.
Extra time passed largely without incident in the first period - both teams, and Chile in particular, showing signs of tiredness in the Brazilian heat, understandably looking more as if they did not want to lose than searching for a winner.
The second period was scrappy, with as many stoppages for fouls as there was actual play, as both teams struggled to maintain their early rhythm in the midday sun, though Brazil controlled what little action there was, until Mauricio Pinilla hit the bar from nowhere for Chile in the final minute.
And so it was, penalties; that word that is enough to set English hearts on edge and shred the nerves of those of even the strongest of dispositions. Ultimately it was Brazil who just about dealt with the pressure better as Julio Cesar made two saves from five to send his team through by the skin of their teeth.
It is a shame that these two teams, through luck of the draw, had to come together so early in the knockout rounds. Chile are certainly one of the rising stars of world football, and they showed that their victory over Spain in the group stages was no fluke against a fallen giant; they are a top side in their own right.
Their high pressing and fast counter attack is reminiscent of Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid side, as is their willingness to give their all for each other as a team, and they were unlucky to go out to what is a very good Brazil side. They can be proud of their contribution to the tournament and will only improve as they become more and more experienced at the highest level.
Brazil meanwhile, looked a distinctly beatable team, lacking the air of invincibility that they had seemed to have in earlier rounds. Their defence saved them ultimately, but even there they looked fallible at times, and their attack is too focused around their much-vaunted number 10.
Other teams will take note of the effect that a high pressing strategy will have on Brazil’s ability to cause damage, particularly if they can mark Neymar out of the game.
For now, however, the Samba side marches on, having one what will probably be the first of many South American battles that they will have to traverse if they are to win a World Cup on home soil.
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