SÃO PAOLO – The current Copa América holder, Chile, started the 2019 edition with a clean 4-0 victory over tournament invitee Japan. With little effort, the Chileans showed why they are the continental champions. A perfect start for La Roja, marked by the rebirth of the lost son, Alexis Sánchez.
Despite having won the last two Copa América editions, expectations were low for the squad of Reinaldo Rueda. Some key players of the last editions were left home and Chile’s best player Alexis Sánchez had been out of form and struggling with injuries the entire season. And then there was the controversy over the absence of goalkeeper Claudio Bravo. No, the preparations for the tournament were anything but relaxed. In Brazil, the Copa América holder wouldn’t go as favorite.
How different the world looks after a perfect night against Japan. The first match of any tournament is often the most important, as a good result can mentally boost a team and create the atmosphere needed to go for gold. And if the Chileans showed anything yesterday, it is that they are mentally superior to any other team in South America.
Little Ambiance, Little Effort
In a 2nd-division ambiance, where the cheers of the hundreds of Chilean fans echoed through the half-empty stadium, the tempo and intensity in the first half resembled a friendly match. Japanese trainer Hajime Moriyasu had selected a young and unexperienced squad for this edition and left various key players from the last World Championships campaign home. For the Asians, the Copa América edition seems to serve as a preparation for the Olympic Games in 2020 and the World Cup in 2022.
Although playing against younglings, Chile had problems getting through the Japanese wall. Japan parked the bus and counted on its fast wingers, hoping to hurt the Chilean defense with counters. It caused for a boring first half, with little chances. And there, just minutes before halftime, out of a sharp corner, Erick Pulgar jumped higher than anyone and had Chile leading with 1-0 at halftime.
They say that goals just before halftime weigh twice because of the mental advantage they give. This soccer law was certainly applied at yesterday’s match, because a fresh, hungry, and aggressive La Roja entered the pitch for the second half.
With veterans Medel and Vidal keeping the balance, players such as Eduardo Vargas, José Pedro Fuenzalida and Charles Aránguiz looked for combinations, pressured the Japanese defense, and the 2-0 by Vargas in the 54th minute was as a product of technical and tactical dominance by the Chileans over the Japanese.
The Rebirth of Alexis Sánchez
But what made the night even more perfect, was the rebirth of Alexis Sánchez, El Niño Maravilla, who seemed more occupied promoting his movie ahead of the Copa América, and had lost his smile after a disappointing season at Manchester United. He struggled on the pitch against Japan, but there, out of nothing, like an Andean condor diving for its prey, Sánchez jumped and with a strong header put his team up 3-0.
But more importantly, Sánchez started to smile again, started to work harder, and in the dark night of São Paolo, the sun started to shine on Chile’s wonder boy.
The second goal of Vargas just minutes later completed the perfect night, with Vargas also joining the club of all time Chilean top scorers, now found back in 2nd place before the legendary Salas.
Of course, Japan is probably the weakest opponent in Group C. But what is better than starting the 2019 Copa América with a 4-0 victory, without injuries, just one yellow card, and with a shining Sánchez? After Ecuador’s 4-0 loss to Uruguay yesterday, it offers little to fear.
By the time La Roja faces Uruguay in the third match, they might already be qualified for the next round.
The easy program for Chile can be a disadvantage later on when they meet the stronger teams, but for now, let’s enjoy the positivism around the Chilean squad and hope that the “golden generation” can make magic happen just one more time.