World Cup favourites Brazil have rediscovered their swagger and boast a superb past record against Chile but go into Saturday’s do-or-die game knowing their rivals have enough attacking prowess to wreck the hosts’ party.
Seeking a sixth World Cup on home soil, Luiz Felipe Scolari’s men hit their stride in a 4-1 demolition of Cameroon that won them Group A and showed striker Neymar at his very best with two great goals and crowd-pleasing trickery on the ball.
Now facing Chile in the first game of the tournament’s knockout round, Brazil will be encouraged by recent history. They easily knocked out Chile at the same stage in the last two World Cups “La Roja” (The Red) featured in, 1998 and 2010.
Brazil have in fact won nine of their last 10 meetings.
Yet this fast and attack-minded Chile side could be the best version yet, claiming one illustrious scalp already when they beat reigning champions Spain 2-0 en route to their own qualification behind the Netherlands in Group B.
The Brazil of their opening two group games, a win but an unconvincing one against Croatia and a draw against Mexico, have not struck fear into the Chileans.
“Brazil has often been Chile’s nemesis but football changes, new generations come and new players appear,” said midfielder Arturo Vidal, known to fans as “King Arthur”, who returns from a knee injury that kept him out of the match against the Dutch.
“We’ve beaten the world champions, so we can beat Brazil.”
For that to happen, strikers Eduardo Vargas and Alexis Sanchez will have to be at their cut-throat best as they were against both Spain and Australia whom they also beat, 3-1, before the Dutch got the better of them in the final group game.
Like other Latin American nations’ fans, Chileans have flooded Brazil in their tens of thousands and are dreaming of at least emulating their best ever showing of third in 1962.
They were knocked out then by, guess who, Brazil.
With both teams more comfortable in attack than defence, the match in Belo Horizonte’s Mineirao stadium could be a rip-roarer as they go straight for each other’s defensive weak points.
Political protests and worries over infrastructure have faded into the background now, so Brazilians are embracing the World Cup in the way foreigners assumed they would – with parties, fireworks and yellow national colours everywhere.
Even the normally staid state capital and business centre, Belo Horizonte, is turning ever more yellow in the run-up.
The teams, who are confidently predicting World Cup glory, are likely to reshuffle a bit from the Cameroon game, with Fernandinho set to replace Paulinho from the start to give the midfield more thrust and fluidity in feeding Neymar and Hulk.
In advance of the game, Neymar has warned his defence to keep tricky Barcelona teammate Sanchez in their pockets.
“Alexis is a star,” he said. “I admire him a lot. He’s a great player and we need to be careful with him. We can’t leave him any space.”