CUIABA, Brazil — Chile capitalized on a sluggish start by Australia to earn a 3-1 win in their World Cup opener on Friday, with Alexis Sanchez carrying over his prolific form for Barcelona with a goal and assist for the dangerous tournament outsiders.
Sanchez — a potential star of the World Cup — poked home from close range in the 12th minute, before setting up Jorge Valdivia barely a minute later for the playmaker to finish from the edge of the area.
A young Australia team, written off by most before a ball had been kicked, looked in danger of falling apart but the experienced Tim Cahill brought them back into the game with a trademark header in the 35th.
Cahill, dominant in the air throughout, had several chances to equalize before and after halftime as Chile slipped off the pace in muggy conditions in Cuiaba. But a drilled, low shot by substitute Jean Beausejour settled the match in the second minute of injury time, sending the Chilean bench running onto the pitch and making fans set off fireworks.
Chile moved level with Netherlands, which thrashed Spain 5-1 earlier Friday, and has a chance to eliminate the reigning champions when they meet in their next Group B game on Wednesday.
“They have a superlative history in (major tournaments) so we definitely will have to play better than we did today,” Chile coach Jorge Sampaoli said. “It will certainly be an electrifying game.”
Boasting its best ever squad for a World Cup, Chile has been strongly tipped by many — including Pele — to go far in Brazil despite being thrown in the same group as two of Europe’s top teams.
And the Spanish, ripped apart by the Dutch in Salvador, will not be relishing playing Sampaoli’s side with their title defense on the line.
Especially with Sanchez in this form.
The 25-year-old forward is coming off his best season at Camp Nou — having scored 21 goals, 19 in the league — and he was too much for a flimsy Australia defense in the first half.
Sanchez was on hand to guide in a close-range finish inside the near post after Australia captain Mile Jedinak failed to head clear Charles Aranguiz’s cross. The celebrations had hardly died down when Sanchez span his marker and laid the ball across for Valdivia to finish high into the net from 20 yards (meters).
“Early on, we were probably just overawed by the whole thing,” Australia coach Ange Postecoglou said. “In the end, we gave away a two-goal start and that’s what killed us.”
It was already looking like a damage-limitation exercise for the beleaguered Socceroos, the lowest-ranked nation in Brazil. The raucous Chilean fans were regaling their team’s crisp passing with chants “Ole” and a no-look backheel from Sanchez highlighted his confidence.
But Chile’s momentum was punctured when Cahill, renowned for his tremendous jumping ability, leapt above diminutive marker Gary Medel to thump home a header from a right-wing cross.
He had a header ruled out for a marginal offside and squandered other chances before Beausejour ended Australia’s hopes of a comeback.
“They got in twice,” Cahill said. “(But) after that you could see their legs were going. We knew we could get something out of this game. We stood up strong. It’s just unfortunate, not a lot went our way tonight, and it showed.”
Capping a satisfying night overall for Chile was the sight of star midfielder Arturo Vidal starting and playing 59 minutes on his return from knee surgery.
“He was very good,” Sampaoli. “His knee is good.”