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Going through motions not in Loco’s mindset

When Nigel Worthington's Northern Ireland side runs out onto the pitch tomorrow to face Chile in Chillan they'll take on a side whose coach, the Argentine Marcelo Bielsa, is known locally as “El Loco” Bielsa.

The eccentric former Argentine national team coach (pictured) was drafted in back in 2007 to turn around the fortunes of a Chilean side that started the World Cup qualifying campaign badly.

However, by imposing an attacking style and team discipline, Bielsa ensured they qualified with flying colours ending second in the group behind Brazil.

They took many famous scalps — including a first ever win over Argentina in a competitive match —and the first away victory over Paraguay in 30 years.

Bielsa is more eccentric than crazy and got his nickname for his unusual ideas, obsessive nature and focus on discipline. He's a tireless worker, rigorous in detail, and studies his rivals meticulously.

When his team scores he doesn’t even smile. What a contrast with his fellow countryman Maradona, who epitomizes the South American passion punching the air and sliding on his belly whenever Argentina hits the back of the net.

But Bielsa has got the results. He's highly respected by his players and considered untouchable by most Chileans who have high expectations for their World Cup assault that start on June 16 against Honduras and includes Spain and Switzerland in Group H. The one criticism Bielsa has received is the low competitive category of teams selected for their preparation that have included Zambia, Trinidad and Tobago, Northern Ireland and Israel, the latter two games being played on the same day. Only Mexico, who they played on May 16, are going to the World Cup. And Chile lost 1-0.

However, Northern Ireland's inexperienced side will face a tough challenge as Chilean players use the remaining friendly matches to shine.

Players to watch include Alexis Sanchez (22), a winger, forward and attacking midfielder that plays for Italy's Udinese and is known locally as “El niño maravilla” (wonder boy). Pint-sized, baby faced Humbeto Suazo is a very effective striker who plays for Spain's Real Zaragoza.

Then there's Jorge Valdivia, a skillful attacking midfielder who plays for Al-Ain FC in the United Arab Emirates and whose dribbling skills have been compared to those of Lionel Messi.

Where there are some chinks in Chile's armour is in defence and the team does struggle a little against big, physical sides that are strong in the air. That might suit Northern Ireland's game.

Frankly little is known about Northern Ireland in Chile, never mind its football, and many confuse it with the Republic sympathetically saying “you were robbed by France”.

Some of the more passionate fans of the beautiful game though have heard of George Best.

Chileans I've talked to expect Northern Ireland to play an “English-style” game, a little lacking in flair and dribbling and more defensive, fast and physical. They often jokingly refer to that style of player as a “Tronco”, that is a tree trunk. It remains to see if Northern Ireland can chop them down to size.

Belfast Telegraph