Now it gets real. The knockout round of the 2014 World Cup commence today at noon (ABC, Univision) with hosts Brazil taking on Chile in Belo Horizonte. The CONMEBOL rivals met at this stage four years ago in South Africa with Brazil lodging a neat-and-tidy 3-0 win. The only holdovers from Brazil that start today are: Julio Cesar and Dani Alves. Chile has only one win in its last 10 encounters with Brazil, including a loss earlier this year in a friendly. The teams played to a 2-2 draw last April in Belo Horizonte.
Just win, baby: Style points, other than creating fuzzy memories in our mind, don’t count for much at the World Cup. Recall Spain won each of its four knockout round games 1-0 to win four years ago in South Africa. Brazil manager Luiz Felipe Scolari knows this all too well, leading Brazil to its fifth World Cup triumph in 2002. That Brazilian squad, despite the likes of Ronaldo, Rivaldo and a young-ish Ronaldinho aren’t exactly remembered as greatest entertainers in the nation’s storied history, but it go the job done. Of course if you’re Brazil you’re supposed to win and entertain — meaning the 1982 team led by Socrates is more fondly remembered in the country than some of its World Cup-winning sides.
Realistically, Scolari is taking the right approach: win at any cost, entertaining, thrilling joga bonito soccer be damned — leaving the pure entertainment for last summer’s decidedly less pressure-packed Confederations Cup. Yes, Brazil did score seven goals in Group A play, but didn’t exactly impress — needing a dubious penalty call on Fred to turn around the Croatia match. Beating a self-destructing Cameroon team 4-1 in the final group game? Consider me not that blown away.
On homesoil the “pressure” on Scolari and Brazil must be immense. All that matters, in the end, is winning by whatever means necessary. In turn Brazil is a team that is — on paper — defense-first, leaving Neymar to carry the load in the final attacking third. Wolfsburg midfielder Luiz Gustavo has quietly been Brazil’s most consistent performer. If Brazil i going to pile on the goals, it’s going to be in the final 15+ minutes when the opponent presses forward and Neymar capitalizes on tired legs. However if we get to the 70 minute or so and Brazil is tied or trails, the home crowd might turn into a decided disadvantage.
Crazy gang 2014: Do kids still say “YOLO”? Whatever the most-current variant of that term is, that’s how Chile seems to have approached the 2014 World Cup. There is something slightly unhinged about the way Jorge Sampaoli’s team plays — in a good way. Impressively, striker Eduardo Vargas plays with a Michael Jordan Jumpman tattoo below his ear. You’re never 100 percent in your comfort zone pitted against La Roja. In turn, Chile (and its traveling supporters) will not be intimidated by the hosts.
Whether or not Chile’s adventurous attitude and swagger along with Sampaoli’s unorthodox 3-4-1-2 system alone will be enough to unseat Brazil is much less clear. Officiating in this match will be key since you’d assume Chile will come out trying to muscle Neymar off the ball. If the ref allows some leeway, advantage Chile otherwise one (or both) teams will probably finish playing with 10 men. (Gary Medel, I’m looking in your direction despite a fine tournament so far.)
Alexis Sanchez’s experience lining up against Marcelo in the Spanish league shouldn’t be discounted either, as the Real Madrid left back has been wildly inconsistent for Brazil through three matches. Chile does have the players with speed and skill to punish Brazil if David Luiz and Dani Alves — as is their wont — drift forward trying to get into the attack. Arturo Vidal — nominally Chile’s best player — rested in the final group stage match vs. the Netherlands and should be closer to 100 percent today.
And if this video of from Banco de Chile featuring the trapped Chilean miners doesn’t fire you up, what does?
Outlook: Chile will put a scare into Brazil and might even jump out to an early lead. Sampaoli’s system isn’t exactly built to protect narrow leads, instead defending by attacking. Expect this to end up a very open match. At 22 years old is Neymar going to be able to do what Messi is currently doing for Argentina and carrying a team? … Chile 3, Brazil 2.