Red-hot Chile nearer to Copa America dream
Copa hosts are ready to end 99 years of hurt
(Eduardo Vargas 42, 64)
(Gary Medel 60-og)
What began as a dream is now close to becoming a reality.
For 99 years, Chile watched enviously as their South American rivals shared continental glory among themselves like a members-only buffet.
The wait, though, may be about to end.
A 2-1 win over 10-man Peru in yesterday morning's (Singapore time) semi-final propelled them into the Copa America final, where either Argentina or Paraguay await.
A nation of some 17 million people can already sense a date with destiny on Sunday.
A fine generation of players has blossomed to raise expectations to a level perhaps never seen before.
At last year's World Cup, the La Roja thrilled with an exciting brand of fast, attacking football that saw them overcome defending champions Spain 2-0 in the group stage, but were cruelly thwarted by hosts Brazil in the Round of 16 following a penalty shoot-out.
Since the start of this Copa America, Jorge Sampaoli's men have proved that those two weeks of brilliance in Brazil were no flash in the pan.
Arsenal's Alexis Sanchez shines brightest among them, his sleight of mind and nimble footwork a highlight of the Chilean attack.
Arturo Vidal and Jorge Valdivia complement each other like yin and yang in an all-action midfield.
Eduardo Vargas, the tournament's top scorer with four goals, is the ace up Sampaoli's sleeve, as his double yesterday showed.
The first, albeit from a suspiciously offside position in the 42nd minute, gave the hosts the lead.
The second, coming just four minutes after Peru had equalised through a Gary Medel own-goal on the hour mark, was a dipping, swerving stunner from 25 metres out.
Some may argue that the controversial 20th-minute dismissal of Peru's Carlos Zambrano, for a raised boot, tipped the scales in the Chileans' favour at the Estadio Nacional de Chile.
And in truth, they got the rub of the green in a match where they didn't impress too much.
But there was still a swagger to their attack and a purpose in their play that no team in the tournament can yet match.
A return of 13 goals in five matches makes them the most prolific team in this edition.
It is about time anyway, that this Chilean team emerge from the huge shadows of Ivan Zamorano and Marcelo Salas, the country's outstanding strike partnership of the 1990s.
As Vidal pointed out earlier, the current crop is at the right place and at the right time to end a record of four Copa America finals without victory.
He had this to tell their rivals: "The group has grown a lot, it's the right time to win something.
"There is pressure, but we are very calm and anxious to show we are a strong team. This is the best generation and we must win the cup."
Yet, there is a stronger message Chile are sending out to the world.
South America is no longer an exclusive playground for powerhouses Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay.
Neither can Chile be considered the sprat of the region's football family any longer.
Perhaps, as Vidal so confidently proclaimed, their time has come.
When Alexis is not in the fullness (of form) that he has us used to, Chile feel it. If he is feeling good, he’s the most decisive player in this team. We must recover him well because he’s vital to us.
— Chile coach Jorge Sampaoli on Alexis Sanchez, who has scored only one of Chile’s 13 goals in five matches