Chile open Copa America with victory over Ecuador
SANTIAGO, Chile --
First there was a celebration, then there was a silence. Arturo Vidal jogged up to the ball and sidefooted his penalty beyond the dive of Alexander Dominguez. And then there was a great roar as Chile, at last, with 20 minutes of the second half played, took the lead.
As Eduardo Vargas added a late second to secure this 2-0 victory at Estadio Nacional, the host got its Copa America campaign off to a winning start against a dogged Ecuador, but it was far from convincing. Chile will need significant improvement if it really is to challenge for the title.
Given the nervousness that surrounded the fixture, perhaps the main thing was simply to get it out of the way and think about performances later. The national anthem was belted out lustily. The end brought a great bellow that echoed down the ages, an expression of 99 years of playing in this tournament and failing to win it. The thunderous response voiced the hope that, on home soil, this might at last be Chile's time.
Once the game had started, though, the volume dipped. Despite a bright start from Chile, the mood was one of nervous anticipation.
And that, perhaps, is the greatest danger to Chile. Its coach, Jorge Sampaoli, has spoken of the need to avoid the sort of hysteria that eventually overwhelmed Brazil in the World Cup last year. For all his efforts, Sampaoli likely knows excitement and possibility will create pressure and anxiety.
If anything, those undercurrents had been heightened by the protests over educational reform that had 200,000 teachers and students on the streets of Santiago on Wednesday. Police dispersed demonstrators with tear gas and water cannons and left one demonstrator in a critical condition. Sampaoli, although he seemed to suggest a broad sympathy with the protestors' demands, urged them to distance their demonstrations from the tournament.
There are few countries in which football and politics have been so entwined as in Chile: the Estadio Nacional was used as a torture and detention centre in the days following Augusto Pinochet's coup that toppled Salvador Allende in 1973. Behind a goal at one end of the stadium a block is left permanently empty as a reminder of those murdered in the rooms beneath the stands: "A people without a memory is a people without a future," reads the inscription above the vacant seats.
Alexis Sanchez, playing effectively as a lone front man, darted onto a Jorge Valdivia pass in the first minute only to stab wide having broken into the box. At that point it was possible to imagine Ecuador being swept aside by a red wave, but the visitors held firm.
The early opening was a rare clear chance in a first half in which Chile dominated possession without really hurting its opponent. Mauricio Isla, the right wing-back, was heavily involved -- so much so that Jean Beausejour on the left barely got a touch before half-time and made way for Vargas -- and arced a shot just wide seven minutes before the break after a one-two with Arturo Vidal, but for the most part Ecuador defended enough to restrict Chile to a few crosses.
And for all that Isla threatened from an attacking point of view, Jefferson Montero had the better of him at the other end of the pitch by repeatedly breaking into the space behind him. Ecuador's only real chance of the half, though, came after 18 minutes as Fidel Martinez, operating on the right in the absence of the injured Antonio Valencia, drew a diving save from Claudio Bravo. Seven minutes into the second half a Montero cut-back found Enner Valencia in space but he side-footed wide. By then, the crowd's nervousness was clear, manifested in vociferous whistling whenever Ecuador dallied over a set-play.
Sampaoli's half-time change of shape seemed initially to have handed the initiative to Ecuador, but gradually the tide began to turn Chile's way again,. Vargas latched onto a Sanchez pass and hit a powerful shot that forced a save. Vidal collapsed inside the penalty area shortly thereafter as Miller Bolanos tugged at his shoulder as he crossed the corner of the box. Argentinian referee Nestor Pitana gave the admittedly soft penalty, but Vidal converted ruthlessly to grab the opportunity with both hands.
Ecuador had its chances to equalize and Valencia headed against the bar after 81 minutes, but the game was settled three minutes later as Sanchez broke and slipped a reverse pass to Vargas who finished neatly.
Matias Fernandez was sent off in injury-time, collecting a second booking for a trip on Juan Carlos Paredes, but it was too late to make a major difference. The job was done and three points were registered, but the sense of relief as the second goal went in spoke volumes.