Without question, Chile quickly became supporters' second team at the World Cup. Having knocked Spain out of the competition and gone toe-to-toe with Brazil, La Roja's brand of high-intensity, attacking football won them the plaudits they rightly deserved. However, it wasn't to be their year as they crashed out of the competition via penalties to the hosts on Saturday.
Gonzalo Jara crashed his effort off the post to confirm Chile's exit, not before Mauricio Pinilla struck the crossbar in the dying embers of extra time. Jorge Sampaoli's side would never have made it to penalties though had it not been for Alexis Sánchez. The Barcelona attacker bagged the equaliser on the half-hour mark at the Mineirão Stadium to cancel out David Luiz's opener, only for the former to be denied by Julio César from 12-yards after 120 minutes of action.
It was a disappointing end to a tournament in which Sánchez undoubtedly shone. The forward was Chile's highest rated player (8.17), while that figure ranks among the top-10 at the World Cup. The 25-year-old scored the most goals for his country (2) prior to their last-16 exit, while only Eduardo Vargas (2) registered more assists - both for Sánchez's goals - than the Barcelona star (1) this summer.
Having played predominantly on the right for the Blaugrana in La Liga last season, the attacker was paired with Vargas up front in Sampaoli's favoured 3-4-1-2 formation in Brazil, though the consistency of his performances didn't drop one iota. Often drifting to the right, this frequently opened up room between the lines that saw Jorge Valdívia (vs Australia) or Arturo Vidal (vs Spain) push forward and exploit the space in front of them, the former doing so superbly in the 3-1 victory over the Socceroos.
Much like Arjen Robben has for Netherlands this summer, Sánchez may start as one of two players spearheading the attack, but his insistence on pulling to the flank makes it harder for him to be picked up. This granted Sánchez the space and time on the ball needed to utilise one of the greatest weapons in his arsenal - the ability to drive at the opposition when in possession.
With Barcelona, the focus is to get the ball to Lionel Messi at any given opportunity and for good reason. If you have the best player in the world at your disposal, you look to have him in possession as much as possible in order to maximise his ability. However, for Chile, Sánchez becomes the primary offensive threat as his teammates strive to give him the ball in the final third.
While some would have buckled under the pressure, Sánchez thrived, as his WhoScored rating at the World Cup stipulates. The attacker has completed the most successful dribbles (22) at the tournament so far, as he aimed to penetrate defences, doing so with aplomb this summer.
Teams clearly noted that he was Chile's main attacking outlet and looked to stifle his influence by disrupting their offensive rhythm. Sánchez is currently the most fouled player (24) at the World Cup, highlighting how he could draw fouls to either give Chile the opportunity to attack the opposition or win free kicks and help ease the pressure that may have been mounting on their goal.
On the back of a highly successful season, from a personal viewpoint for Barcelona, Sánchez carried on this form and then some for the national team, slotting into Sampaoli's starting XI with ease and matching the requirements set out by his manager. Of course, while he impressed from an attacking perspective, Sánchez had to also display his defensive quality to make Chile's pressing game work.
In 34 Barcelona appearances, Sánchez won possession in the attacking third 18 times in La Liga last season, but in 4 World Cup appearances, he did so on 3 occasions. Only Neymar (9), Yaya Touré (5), Oscar, Pedro and Mesut Özil (all 4) have done so more times than the talismanic Barca star managed. Of course, this is as a result of Barcelona enjoying more possession (67.7%) in La Liga last term than Chile (55.3%) at the World Cup, but still highlights how hard Sánchez worked for the good of the national team.
Many felt that, in Messi's absence, Sánchez was Barcelona's best player last season and there is little doubt that he was Chile's greatest asset at the World Cup. While he was one of two players to be denied by César in Saturday's penalty shootout, the standards of his performances in 390 minutes of action will have left a lasting effect on supporters and, perhaps more importantly, teams keen on securing the signature of Chile's MVP from the 2014 World Cup.
Do you think Sánchez was Chile's most valuable player at the World Cup? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.
All statistics courtesy of WhoScored.com where you can find yet more stats and player ratings.Suggest a correction