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2019 Copa América, Group Stage
  • Erick Pulgar (41')
  • Eduardo Vargas (54', 83')
  • Alexis Sánchez (82')

Sanchez pulls strings as Chile ease past Japan

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Pulgar's header propels Chile to victory over Japan (0:31)

To watch the 2019 Copa America, sign up for ESPN+. (0:31)

Manchester United misfit Alexis Sanchez scored for the first time in five months and provided an assist as Chile began their Copa America defence in emphatic fashion with a thumping 4-0 win over tournament guests Japan on Monday.

The 2015 and 2016 Copa champions took the lead late in the first half against a largely young and inexperienced Japan with a towering header from midfielder Erick Pulgar.

Journeyman striker Eduardo Vargas continued his remarkable consistency for his country by scoring in a fourth consecutive major tournament by doubling Chile's lead in the 54th minute with the help of a deflection.

Sanchez made it 3-0 with a diving header from close range in the 82nd minute, punching the air in celebration after enduring a frustrating season with United, and a minute later he laid on a pass for Vargas to score again, this time with a classy chip.

Japan, playing as a Copa America guest for the second time, brought to Brazil a young squad focused on the Olympic tournament at home next year. The Japanese youngsters struggled at times and were wasteful with their chances. Boosted by the majority of the 23,253 fans at the Morumbi, Chile created most of the significant chances.

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Following the match, United attacker Sanchez weighed in on his recent form after a season beset by injuries and a lack of playing time in the Premier League.

"For six weeks I felt worse than I ever have before," Sanchez said. "I struggled in the first half as I felt stifled but in the second half I was more relaxed and played with more freedom and excitement."

Chile won the last two editions of the Copa America, beating Argentina in penalty shootouts in the final both in 2015 and 2016. Argentina is the only team to have won three consecutive South American titles, from 1945-47.

Coach Reinaldo Rueda, debuting with Chile in an official tournament, has been gradually revamping the squad since he took over in 2018. Among the veterans back from the team's recent triumphs were Vargas, Sanchez and Arturo Vidal.

Chile are considered outsiders to win the tournament after a downturn in form, but Sanchez said they were now on the right track.

"I think we have improved as a team since 2015 in defending and getting on the attack quickly," he added. "We've won a very difficult game and now we have to think about our next one."

Japan last played in the Copa America in 1999, when they were eliminated in the group stage. Among the youngsters in Brazil was Takefusa Kubo, the 18-year-old who has joined Real Madrid's "B" team for next season.

He played from the start and was a threat for Japan in attack. He got an ovation from the crowd at the Morumbi after getting past a defender with a ball through his legs about 10 minutes into the match. He nearly scored after a nifty move past a defender inside the area in the 65th, but his shot hit the outside of the net.

Qatar, host of the 2022 World Cup, is the other guest nation in this year's tournament. They drew 2-2 with Paraguay in their Group B opener on Sunday.

The victory moved Chile to the top of Group C along with Uruguay, who opened with a 4-0 win over Ecuador on Sunday.

Information from Reuters and the Associated Press was used in this story.