Even after reaching the FIFA U-20 World Cup quarter-finals for the first time since hosting the competition in 1987, the mood in the Chilean camp was less than euphoric. La Rojita must now face a formidable Nigerian side without goalscoring defender Arturo Vidal through suspension, while star forward Alexis Sanchez is an injury doubt. But whatever happens in Sunday's game, the youngsters' efforts so far have not gone unnoticed.
"I would like to congratulate the team on their victory against Portugal. The U-20 side has shown that, in football, when you want something enough, you can achieve it," said no less an observer than Michelle Bachelet, President of the Republic of Chile. Yet more evidence of just how high La Rojita's profile is back home, mirroring the level of expectation being heaped on their young shoulders.
"And now, who's next for La Rojita?" read the headline of La Cuarta, the day after the Round of 16 success over Portugal. La Nación, meanwhile, felt that a combination of "determination, guts and good football helped the national team to a deserved victory over Portugal, with a hefty dose of drama." El Mercurio, for their part, highlighted the fact that it was "the best performance from a Chilean national team at an international tournament since 1993."
In the midst of all these glowing tributes, the players are doing their best to keep their feet on the ground. Distractions abound however, particularly for Alexis Sanchez, who is rumoured to be on the wish list of Italian giants Juventus. The Niño Maravilla (Wonder Boy) faces a race against time to be ready for the Nigeria match, after an old shoulder injury resurfaced against Portugal. "It's not such a bad injury; there's no fracture. But it still hurts, and we'll wait until the very last minute before deciding whether Alexis plays or not," said Luis Salazar, the team doctor.
There appear to be no such doubts in the mind of the Colo Colo attacker himself: "I'm feeling good and I want to play. I want to be alongside my team-mates, all the way to the final." What is more, Sanchez underlined his desire to "be chosen as the best player at the tournament, although this injury complicates things." Nor is Chile's flying No.7 deterred by the suspension incurred by Vidal or an injury to Carlos Carmona. "We set off from Chile with just one thing in mind: to bring the title back home. We're all convinced that we can do it, and we're going to prove that on the pitch," he vowed, much to the astonishment of the assembled Chilean press, who had not heard the wonder boy speak for the last 20 days.
Solid back line, short of firepower
Jose Sulantay may have to do without his goalscorer Sanchez, front man Vidal and even Vidal's replacement Carmona. That constitutes a complete forward line, but it does not seem to bother the Chile coach too much."I don't worry about who's missing.I prefer to concentrate on who's playing. I don't base my team around one ore two individuals in any case.All my squad players are important."Sulantay's confidence may also be borne of his side's impeccable defensive record. Cristopher Toselli has yet to concede a goal so far, and providing he manages to keep a clean sheet for another 83 minutes he will beat a record that dates back 28 years in the FIFA U-20 World Cup.
"My team are cool because they know they can rely on an excellent goalkeeper," admits the coach. "I would be delighted to make history for sure, but I owe my success to our defence. Against Portugal they didn't let me down once, That gives me a lot of confidence", says the goalkeeper.Self-belief may just be the difference between the two sides, because Nigeria boast an impressive defensive record of their own, having only let in one goal so far.
"The Nigerians are strong. I've seen two of their matches.They are not as good as the Congolese though, who we have already beaten. They are very physical and very fast but I believe we can beat them," says Sulantay. "We are getting a little closer to our dream every day," concludes Sanchez.Just three wins to go then...