With an unfathomable yet realistic possibility of an unceremonious exit from FIFA World Cup 2010, the Spanish national football team tussled with a Chilean side that has been one of the most impressive teams in this tournament thus far.  Marcelo Bielsa, Chile’s manager, insisted on a positive approach with an indirect emphasis on flair that is usually reserved for their South American rivals Argentina and Brazil.

While Bielsa transformed an underachieving and underwhelming Chilean national team into a legitimate force in international football, he still has the lingering stain of Argentina’s 2002 World Cup disaster when, as Argentina manager, he failed to send La Albiceleste through the group stage for the first time since the 1970 World Cup when Argentina failed to qualify for that tournament.  He stated his intention in the preceding press conference that his team would go out to win the match despite only needing a draw to ensure a place in the Round of 16, and through the first two matches, there was no reason not to take his word.

For Vicente del Bosque, his team improved dramatically as they notched a 2-0 victory against an overmatched Honduras team that looked grateful just to participate in this World Cup, but the building theme that the Spanish wanted to quash was the lack of finishing at those vital moments in the penalty area.  Of the 63% of the possession Spain had against Switzerland, 34% of that 63% was in the Swiss final third, but they could not break through an obstinate Swiss defense.  In the first two matches, Spain accumulated a staggering forty-six shots but only mustered eight shots on goal in each match.

Understandably, Fernando Torres has shown some rust because he is still recovering from knee surgery in April that cost him the rest of the Premier League season for Liverpool, but the chances he has wasted are uncharacteristic of his normally lethal nature up front.  Torres, however, only shares the responsibility for these squandered opportunities, as his fitter and healthier teammates have also missed their chances.

Vicente del Bosque did not feel compelled to make significant changes to his starting eleven despite ruing their uncomfortable position in the group, the only alteration being Andrés Iniesta returning to the lineup after sustaining a hip injury against Switzerland in favor of Jesús Navas, who continually worked the right flank and wore down Honduran left back Emilio Izaguirre.

For Marcelo Bielsa, his three modifications were not due to choice as Carlos Carmona and former Villarreal midfielder Matías Fernández were suspended due to an accumulation of yellow cards, and Real Zaragoza striker Humberto “Chupete” Suazo simply could not continue as he has played a total of ninety minute in the past three months after fighting through chronic shoulder, thigh, and hamstring injuries.  In their stead came Marco Estrada, Jorge Valdivia, and former Real Sociedad and Real Betis playmaker Mark González.

True to Bielsa’s word, Chile came out with a forward-thinking approach, and the South American rang the first warning bells when Jean Beausejour cut back a pass toward Mark González in the penalty area, but the ball was slightly behind González, and he could not fire a decent shot on Iker Casillas’ goal.

If Chile seemed to roll on as they have in this tournament, Spain could not adjust out of first gear.  Their normal passing brilliance had yet to shine, a sign of the palpable nervousness they displayed in the opening twenty minutes.  A moment of brilliance (or a moment of madness for the Chilean point of view), however, settled the growing jitters for the Spanish, and from that moment, Spain controlled the pace of the game as is their normal mode of play.

In the 24th minute, Xabi Alonso sent a long, hopeful ball down the left flank to a streaking Fernando Torres, and Chile goalkeeper Claudio Bravo sprinted to the left touch line to diffuse the potential threat, but Bravo kept it in play only for David Villa to latch on to it first-time from the left sideline forty yards into the open net.  Many questioned Bravo’s kamikaze effort, but in the direction that Bravo ran, he could have easily kicked it straight out of play for a throw-in.  Bravo’s mistake was in hooking his clearance back into play as he kicked it into the path of David Villa.  With the Chilean defense closing in, Villa could not afford to take a touch to settle the ball if he wanted a shot at the open net, and his technical magnificence shined as he whipped a curling shot with his “weaker” left foot and bounced once and into the net.

Chile’s discipline frittered away throughout the match, including Marco Estrada’s sending off and crucial yellow cards for the two starting central defenders Gary Medel and Waldo Ponce, which will force all three players to miss their Round of 16 match against Brazil due to suspension.  Ponce, in particular, could have easily seen red after he impetuously kicked Fernando Torres’ leg as Torres was about to throw the ball into play.

When Andrés Iniesta passed the ball into the lower right corner of the goal in the 37th minute to give Spain the 2-0 lead, Chile’s existence in this tournament fell into peril for the first time, as a Switzerland win against Honduras in the other simultaneous match would now mean a Swiss advancement.

Second half substitute Rodrigo Millar made sure that this scenario would not occur, as another patient Chilean buildup led to Millar’s shot at the D toward the right near post.  The ball deflected off Gerard Piqué in the opposite direction, and Iker Casillas could not recover in time to readjust to the ricochet.

A 2-1 result favored both Spain and Chile, and for the rest of the match, both teams went into cruise mode, especially in the last fifteen minutes, when Spain knocked the ball around in the midfield and in their own third, and Chile more than obliged by not pressuring the ball whatsoever.  As the mechanics of the tournament work, one cannot blame either team for their performance in the final half-hour, but for the fans at the Loftus Versfeld Stadium in Pretoria, they had no sympathy as whistles of derision could be heard over the ubiquitous vuvuzela.

Spain won their group in a fashion that surprised many, but as Álvaro Arbeloa explained in the press conference before the Chile match, their Euro 2008 triumph did not wholly consist of the sparkling possession football that is synonymous with La Furia Roja. According to Arbeloa, Spain played a brilliant semifinal and final, but the quarterfinal penalty shootout against Italy and the last minute win against Sweden in the group stage showed that people tend to idealize the past

Spain is following that path in this tournament, as they are slowly raising their level as their journey in South Africa continues, and against a compact and defensive Portugal in the Round of 16, Spain must continue to be patient and develop a more ruthless attitude at goal because quality chances will be at a premium.  The Iberian derby will reach fever pitch on Tuesday evening, and if Portugal decides to open up their play, this match could be one of the most riveting occasions of FIFA World Cup 2010.