RIO DE JANEIRO, June 18: After their 5-1 annihilation by Holland, the spectre of a humiliating World Cup group-stage exit hangs over champions Spain ahead of Wednesday’s game with Chile in Rio de Janeiro.
While the nation is still reeling from Spain’s heaviest defeat in 51 years — a result branded “a catastrophe” by the Spanish media — there could be worse to follow at the iconic Maracana.
If Spain lose again and Holland avoid defeat against Australia in Wednesday’s other Group B game, Vicente del Bosque’s side will join Brazil (1966), France (2002) and Italy (2010) in the list of defending champions to have fallen at the first hurdle.
The same set of results would take Chile through, and Jorge Sampaoli’s aggressive, hard-working team, who go into the game on the back of a 3-1 win over Australia, have lost only twice in their last 16 outings.
Spain midfielder Cesc Fabregas has described the fixture as “life or death”, but Del Bosque — architect of the triumphs at the 2010 World Cup and Euro 2012 — says there is no need to panic.
“The hours go by and the mood gets better,” the Spain coach told Spanish television channel Cuatro.
“We have the challenge of winning our next two matches. It won’t be easy, but it is possible. We are trying to prepare as well as possible and not be too sad.
“The first half against Holland was good. The problem was the second half. Now people are more optimistic. We need to remember that it is a game and we need to enjoy ourselves.”
Del Bosque has suggested that he will make “two or three changes”, with goalkeeper Iker Casillas’s position under particular scrutiny after an error-strewn display in the capitulation to the Dutch.
Pepe Reina, the Liverpool goalkeeper who spent last season on loan at Napoli, is in line to step in, but third-choice goalkeeper David de Gea is struggling with a muscle problem.
Pedro Rodriguez and Juan Mata could also come into the starting XI and the Barcelona forward is eager to erase the memory of Spain’s last trip to the Maracana, when they crashed 3-0 to Brazil in last year’s Confederations Cup final.
“It is a mythical ground,” said Pedro. “Every player would love to play there because of its history. It is a big pitch and that could help us with our style of play.
“In the Confederations Cup I started, like Mata, and we couldn’t beat Brazil. Let’s hope we can beat Chile at the Maracana.”
Sampaoli, a disciple of his fellow Argentine Marcelo Bielsa, the former Chile coach, could elect to bring Osasuna midfielder Francisco Silva into his team and switch to a three-man defence.
Another option would involve Silva replacing playmaker Jorge Valdivia, which would see Arturo Vidal move forward from midfield to play in support of strikers Eduardo Vargas and Alexis Sanchez.
There are concerns over the fitness of Vidal, who produced an uncharacteristically quiet display against Australia after undergoing knee surgery a month ago, but the all-action Juventus midfielder has declared himself ready to play against wounded Spain.
“We watched the first half (of Spain’s game against Holland) before coming to the stadium (to play Australia) and we know they’ll come with a lot of anger, because they have to win to avoid being eliminated,” Vidal told La Tercera newspaper.
“So we hope to be up to the task. They have always been dangerous.”
Experienced striker Esteban Paredes, meanwhile, has vowed that Chile are determined to take the game to their rivals.
“We will not go out looking for a draw against Spain,” said the 33-year-old Colo Colo forward. “We are going out as always to win.”