Chile hope England-born Ben Brereton Diaz can salvage World Cup hopes


Chile missed out on the 2018 World Cup when their golden generation ran out of steam in the final stretch of the qualification campaign. Four years later, the old guard — Arturo Vidal, Alexis Sanchez, Claudio Bravo, Mauricio Isla, Gary Medel — are still the key players in the team, which shows that Chilean football is not producing.

The country’s record in continental competitions over the past decade is little short of disastrous. There has even been a recall for 37-year-old playmaker Luis Jimenez, once briefly of West Ham United, as an emergency option at centre forward. Chile have been forced to look further afield.

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Last month they called up Inter Miami CF striker Robbie Robinson, who has a Chilean mother. He made the journey down to Santiago, had a look and ran back to the United States, deciding that he needed more time to come to a definitive decision on his international future.

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But another outsider with a Chilean mother has decided to stay — and the local public are delighted about it. Ben Brereton was born in Stoke-on-Trent in England and plays his club football for Blackburn Rovers.

Rechristened Ben Brereton Diaz, in honour of his mother’s maiden name, he may not speak much Spanish. But his actions are speaking louder than words. Brereton Diaz showed promise when first pitched in during the Copa America in June and July. He was then badly missed in September’s World Cup qualifying triple-header, when quarantine restrictions kept him at home, and La Roja managed just one goal in three games.

Chile fans are hoping Ben Brereton Diaz can salvage their World Cup qualifying hopes. Esteban Felix – Pool/Getty Images

Going into Sunday’s clash at home to Paraguay, Chile had gone seven rounds without a victory. It was a must-win game, and the venue was switched to the tight, compact stadium of Universidad Catolica to ramp up the emotion of the occasion. But halfway through the second half the deadlock had still not been broken — until Brereton rounded off a typical Sanchez-Isla combination with a fierce shot that beat the keeper and put Chile on the road to a 2-0 win.

The Blackburn striker is supplying exactly what the ageing Chile side have been lacking — thrust and energy and youth. Seeing that he can thrive at the level has clearly done wonders for the confidence of a player who had previously been struggling to live up to expectations with his club after being transferred from Nottingham Forest for a substantial fee.

More is expected on Thursday. This time Venezuela are the visitors, and once again it is a just win game. The battle lines have been drawn — on Tuesday, Venezuela protested that, despite complying with all the protocols, the Chilean health authorities would not let them out of the hotel for a training session.

If Chile are desperate then so are Bolivia, a point behind. Their meeting with Paraguay is the second of two must-win matches. On Sunday they were down a player and inside the last 10 minutes when a well-struck Ramiro Vaca shot gave them victory over Peru. Now they need to pick up three more points against Paraguay.

Before Sunday’s matches the table made sorry reading for Chile and Bolivia. By Thursday night they could be right back in contention. A win will put both teams in contact with fifth place, the play-off spot, with six rounds still to go.

The pair will count on Peru losing — or at least not winning — away to in-form Argentina. And they will also be happy that Colombia, lying fifth, are taking on third-placed Ecuador. Points will inevitably be dropped by one of these teams — or both if it ends in a draw.

Late in 2019, Ecuador blew Colombia away in Quito, winning 6-1 and bringing an end to the reign of Carlos Queiroz as Los Cafeteros‘ coach. Replacement Reinaldo Rueda has yet to suffer a defeat in seven rounds, though five of those games have ended in draws. In the steaming afternoon heat of Barranquilla, Colombia will expect more than a draw from this game, which will certainly be a test for Ecuador’s young defenders, who let a lead slip on Sunday when they went down to a worrying 2-1 defeat in Venezuela.

Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani are hoping to pull the upset in Brazil. Miguel Schincariol/Getty Images

But the most attractive game of the night is the clash of Brazil and Uruguay in Amazonian city of Manaus. After doing well last month, picking up seven points from the three games, October’s matches have been frustrating for Uruguay.

At home to Colombia they were superb for the first half hour, but had to settle for a goalless draw. And then they had early chances away to Argentina before being comprehensively outplayed and beaten 3-0. This leaves Uruguay looking vulnerable. They are currently fourth — the last of the automatic qualifying slots.

But things could get worse. The fixture list is unkind — Brazil away followed next month by another meeting with Argentina and a trip to the dreaded altitude of La Paz to take on Bolivia.

Much has been made in Uruguay of the fact that the team committed just five fouls in the defeat to Argentina. Against Brazil, it is said, the team are obliged to show more traditional fighting spirit. They are very unlikely to line up once more with three centre backs — not least because two of their best, Jose Maria Gimenez and Ronald Araujo, are injured. Diego Godin and Sebastian Coates do not make for the quickest defensive combination.

The good news is that Rodrigo Bentancur returns after suspension, and, together with Federico Valverde and Matias Vecino he will be expected to give Uruguay control of the game in midfield, protecting the defence and setting up chances for the reunited strike partnership of Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani.

With 28 points Brazil have almost certainly already done enough to qualify. But there is plenty in the game for them, too. Argentina trail them by six points — but Lionel Messi and company currently look closer to a blend and an idea of a team able to win next year’s World Cup.

Even in a succession of victories, Brazil have looked somewhat laboured. The best thing about their last two games have been the substitute appearances of Leeds United winger Raphinha, who will surely be handed his first start.

And there is always something at stake when Brazil play at home. They have lost two World Cups at home — including the famous 1950 defeat to Uruguay. And, as of July, they have lost a Copa America at home. But they have never lost a World Cup qualifier at home. It is the last citadel.

Uruguay have pushed them close in a number of recent campaigns. And, a wounded beast after losing so comprehensively to Argentina, the visitors would love to make more history in Manaus.



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