The game’s fiercest rivalries usually involve neighbouring countries and teams. And when played out on the biggest stages, such rivalries only gather in intensity. A case in point is Argentina and Chile, who have been involved in some high-stakes encounters in recent years.

The two nations faced off in the final of the 2015 Copa America and again in the final of the 2016 Copa America Centenario, with Chile emerging victorious on both occasions. And there will be plenty at stake again when they square off at the Estadio Monumental in Buenos Aires on Thursday 23 March, in a vital South American qualifier for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™.

“It’s going to be a very challenging match because we both need the points,” said Chilean midfielder Marcelo Diaz in an exclusive interview with FIFA.com. “Argentina are in the play-off place at the moment and they need to win.” Edgardo Bauza’s side lie fifth in the table, one place and one point behind the Chileans, who are clinging on to the last automatic qualification slot. With only six matchdays remaining, neither side has any margin for error.

“Playing at River Plate’s Estadio Monumental is going to be very exciting for everyone, especially with the rivalry we’ve had with Argentina in the last few years,” continued the Celta Vigo player. “It’s going to be a really tough match for both sides, but obviously I hope Chile can come out on top.”

Pointing to an added difficulty he will face, Diaz added: “The best player I’ve ever come up against is [Lionel] Messi. There’s no one else like him. He’s the best in the world and he’ll continue to be so for a long time to come.” Diaz knows what he is talking about, having been on the wrong end of the Argentinian’s inspiration when Celta went down 5-0 in a recent league match at the Camp Nou.

Despite what the current standings say, the man they call Carepato ('Duck Face') has no doubts about who will be going through to Russia 2018: “For me it’s obvious that Argentina and Brazil will be going straight to the World Cup. Forget about how they’re doing at this moment in time; they’re both great sides with fantastic players and I just can’t see Messi and Neymar missing out on the World Cup.”

Rounding off his predictions, he added: “Colombia are a very good side and I think they’ll qualify. The other side who should go through to my mind is Chile, obviously. Uruguay are very strong and Ecuador have been doing well too. The battle for the rest of the qualification places will be between these four teams.”

Finding his feet
At the age of 30, Diaz is currently enjoying one of the best spells of his career. After tasting success with the “glorious” Universidad de Chile – as he describes the club closest to his heart – he made the move to Europe, gaining valuable experience in Switzerland and Germany.

“I learned a lot from the physical demands of both leagues,” said Diaz, who at only 5’5 (1.66m) tall had to use his skill to negotiate the challenges he faced on the pitch. “The players there are so big you feel a bit weak when you come up against them, but I managed to find my way. I survived by keeping the ball at my feet, which is what I like and what I do best. I’m not a battler. I never have been and never will be, so I had to find another way, which was to stay on the ball and stand out that way.”

Following stints with Basel in the Swiss league and Hamburg in the Bundesliga, El Chelo moved to Spain in January 2016, signing for a Celta side coached by Eduardo Berizzo, who was an assistant to the then Chile boss Marcelo Bielsa at South Africa 2010.

The switch has proved to be a smooth one, with Berizzo’s side playing a similar style of football to La Roja: “Yes, there are some very obvious connections. Berizzo’s from the same school and works in a very similar way to Bielsa and [Jorge] Sampaoli, who both left their mark on Chile. The formations are the same and the methods too,” explained Diaz, who has become one of the mainstays of the Chile midfield since Sampaoli handed him his debut in 2011, in the qualifiers for Brazil 2014. His status in the side remains unchanged under current Roja coach Juan Antonio Pizzi.

“Physically I feel very good,” continued Diaz, who suffered a string of injuries not so long ago. “Things are going well for me, which makes me relaxed and confident about what I can do. When you have a bad run with injuries you start to get a bit worried because you don’t want to miss a game and you want to keep playing. That’s all done with now, though. I’ve had a good run without any further problems.”

The midfielder attributes his new-found ability to stay injury-free to changes in training and diet and to plenty of rest, this despite the fact that he has just become a father for the second time. His children, Colomba and Maximiliano, help him switch off from the game, as does tennis, his other passion. That said, football still plays a very large part in his daily routine. “I watch it all day long,” he explained. “I like it and I need it. I want to know what’s happening and keep tabs on the players. Football is my life and I need to be involved in it.”

While Diaz intends to move into coaching one day, he is focused on nothing but playing the game at this moment in time and on working hard to become even better at what he does. “I’d really like to improve the defensive side of my game and the only way I can do that is to keep on working,” explained the midfielder, whose advice to youngsters looking to succeed in the game is to be dedicated to their craft.

An admirer of Xavi, El Chelo also has nothing but praise for the great Chilean striker Marcelo Salas: “He was also my idol. I used to watch him play for Universidad de Chile and I was amazed by what he could do. I loved him as a player and then I had the good fortune to play with him just after starting my career. It was a pleasure to meet him and share a dressing room with him. I saw for myself just how humble he was. He’d show you things without even talking. When he returned to Chile at end of his career he kept training and training, more so than the youngsters, which really caught my eye.”

Diaz is keen to set the same example, by working hard to achieve his goals, the next of which is Russia 2018: “We’re confident we can qualify for the World Cup, and we’ll go there determined to make up for what happened in Brazil. Going out like that really hurt and it made us want revenge. Russia will be a great opportunity for this latest Chilean generation.”