Well if I’ve only got one pre-tournament prediction right so far, I’ve got it right even more convincingly than I imagined – that the South American teams would all do well. Their combined record for the first two rounds of games reads Played 10, Won 8, Drawn 2. (Compare and contrast with the combined records of Europe’s big five: England, Spain, France, Germany and Italy can boast Played 9, Won 1, Drawn 5, Lost 3 – with Spain still to play this evening.)
Those wins have generally been pretty convincing too. Chile were good, here as the other day, playing the sort of attacking football that we’ve seen from so few teams over the past ten days. It wasn’t quite total football but the team formation was fairly fluid. It might have been a 3-3-3-1, or a 3-3-1-3. It’s quite hard to tell on TV sometimes. It’s a young side too, only three of the outfielders who started the game were over 25, the oldest being 29; and there are some good players, 21 year old Alexis Sanchez, currently playing at Udinese, perhaps the most talented.
The Swiss, for their part, were much as you’d expect, and clichéd as it might be I can’t resist the temptation here to draw parallels between the character of the football teams and the character of the countries. I was once in Santiago with a Peruvian guy who’d never been out of Peru before. He’d never seen anything like it – “ordinado” was the word he used, by which I took him to mean organised and efficient. He was used to the disorganised mess of Lima and found Santiago a wondrous place with its cleaner streets and street signs in the right places that generally tallied with the maps and people even obeying traffic lights, at least now and then. Comparatively, I could see his point – but god alone knows what he would make of Switzerland, by comparison to which Chile is absolute chaos. And so for Swiss football here too, organisation and efficiency were very much the watchwords, everyone in the right place and don’t give anything away. (To be fair, they had to play an hour with ten men.)
And if anyone can help me extend that tenuous analogy by telling me about Peruvian football tactics I’d be interested to hear it.
So anyway, the game. Despite this dogged defensiveness and just the single goal, it was quite an incident-packed game, I’ve made more notes on this than for any other game for which I’ve been writing a report. Mind you, those other games included both France v Uruguay and Portugal v Ivory Coast. And a reasonable amount of paper was used up in taking a note of each of the ten bookings issues by the Saudi Arabian referee. These started on the first minute, with a card for Suazo, and by the time his teammates Carmona, the delightfully named Waldo Ponce and Switzerland’s Nkufo had all joined him in the book midway through the first half it was already looking very likely that at least someone wasn’t going to last the game.
It seemed a bit officious, but there probably weren’t many you could pick fault with technically, and the players quickly got used to the idea and maybe it did keep the game in check a bit. And when the sending off came it wasn’t a second booking but a straight red which was difficult to argue with – Switzerland’s (and West Ham’s) Behrami sent off for throwing an elbow. He actually did so twice within a few seconds, at two different players who may both have been tugging his shirt a little, but it was the second elbow on Beausejour which prompted the assistant referee to raise his flag. You can read what you like into the fact that Danny Mills, commentating for Radio Five, thought it was a harsh decision.
Sometimes having an extra man seems to make all the difference, sometimes it’s not clear that it changes the dynamic of the game by that much at all. In this case it did – Chile had already looked the brighter team in the early stages, clearly showing more desire to attack and passing it around quite nicely, but the advantage increased and the chances started to come after the sending off. Sanchez was looking tricky on the right hand side and as the half wore on Beausejour sent over a series of searching crosses from the left. Suazo got his head to one but couldn’t direct it on target.
The second half continued in the same vein, with Chile playing with the kind of urgency that suggested they were on a tight schedule. Perhaps they were keen not just to win the game but to deny Switzerland their world record. As the commentary team kept reminding us, if Chile hadn’t scored by midway through the half then the Swiss would break the world record for the number of minutes of world cup football played without conceding a goal, having not conceded at all in their four games in 2006 (before a defeat on penalties to Ukraine). They did get to the record, but not without some scares. A free kick out on the left was rolled to Sanchez at the edge of the area, his shot was deflected in but the flag rightly went up for a red shirt crossing the path of the ball from an offside position; moments later Valdivia sent a dangerous ball across the six yard box but there were no takers on the end of it; then Sanchez again nicked possession and ran at goal only to see Benaglio save well at his feet.
But the breakthrough was a long time coming, the Swiss had their record as time ticked beyond Italy’s previous mark of 549 minutes. They got as far as 558 before Chile finally scored, though it seemed to happen in agonising slow motion. There may have been a hint of offside too, Esteban Paredes was given the benefit of the doubt as he burst through the middle onto a through ball, rounded the ‘keeper and then, from the byeline, chipped back across goal as the Swiss scrambled to recover their positions. The cross was met by Mark Gonzalez at the back post (he’s a former Liverpool player apparently, though I confess that was news to me); most of the force of his downward header went into the ground, it bounced back up past the despairing lunge of a defender on the line, onto the underside of the bar and finally … in.
They continued to press in the last fifteen minutes, and the chances they had to extend the lead were even better as the Swiss pushed forward and left a few gaps. The best two fell to Paredes, first he was played clear on goal from the left, but decided to blast it and sent it well over the bar, and then in the 89th minute he declined to look for one of his unmarked teammates at the backpost, instead cutting inside the last defender but hitting his shot wide of the near post. The following minute they were almost made to pay as Switzerland had their only serious chance of the match. Bunjaki sent a neat backheel into the path of fellow substitute Derdiyok, no more than fifteen yards out, right in the centre of goal, but somehow he hit it wide.
It was a big let-off for Chile, and they knew it, but they may yet regret their missed chances in any case. Twice now they have not just won but bossed the games, and two 1-0 wins is a pretty poor return for it, in a group where Honduras could easily lose all three games and see the other three teams finishing with two wins each. If Honduras do indeed lose both their remaining games then it will only require a three goal swing for the Swiss in the final games to put Chile out. So the chances are that Chile will still need a result against a Spanish side who, despite last week, are still pretty good and will of course be needing the win themselves. Despite the dominance of South America over Europe so far, they’re going to have their work cut out yet.
Thanks once again to Historical Football Kits for the use of their graphics.