Chile has three participants in this years Copa Libertadores. Everyone’s eyes will be on Jorge Sampaoli’s Universidad de Chile who are looking to make it a Copa Libertadores/Copa Sudamericana double but must do so without the brilliance of Eduardo Vargas. However they have retained Jorge Sampaoli and the bulk of the squad which won the Sudamericana before the new year, as well as the 2011 Apertura and Clausura, while adding even more promise to the squad.
Chile’s other contenders are Universidad Católica and Unión Española who occupy the same group and it is hoped, and expected, that at least one of the two qualify. They may not have the quality throughout the squad La U possess but both have talented youngsters that could light up the Libertadores.
Hopefully the gifted youngsters from each team are allowed to illuminate the knock-out stages:
Universidad de Chile
Group 8 – Atlético Nacional (COL), Godoy Cruz (ARG), Peñarol (URU)
Previous Copa Campaign – 2010 Semi-finals (defeated 3-1 by Guadalajara)
Star Man: Marcelo Díaz – Sits at the base of the midfield allowing for the wing-backs and Charles Aránguiz to press the opposition higher up the pitch and also give the team an attacking ‘six’ when in possession. Distributes the ball efficiently and effectively, setting the tempo by slowing down or speeding up the pace of the game. Does not charge around flying into tackles, instead uses his intelligence and positioning to thwart attacks.
One to watch: Raúl Ruidíaz – The young Peruvian – nicknamed La Pulga (the flea) – has drawn similarities to Lionel Messi in his native Peru, and not just in terms of nickname, where he is on loan from giants Universitario until the summer when he is expected to move to Europe. Similar to Vargas with his squat stature, blistering pace and is accustomed to playing in a front three. Naturally gifted but still raw. Scored on his debut for Los Azules at the weekend and a good Libertadores could be the difference in terms of what club he joins in the summer.
Manager: Jorge Sampaoli – Experienced the Copa Libertadores with Ecuadorian team Emelec but came to attention of the World football public after leading La U to Copa Sudamericana success with expansive, Bielsa-eque tactics. Arguably more essential that he remained than star man Vargas. He has had job offers with large financial rewards yet stayed to lead La U into the Libertadores although has played down their chances of winning the competition.
Coming into the tournament on the back of the most successful Copa Sudamericana campaign the competition has seen as resulted in high expectations even with the departures of Vargas, Marcos González and Gustavo Canales. Unbeaten in their Sudamericana triumph which included wins in Ecuador against LDU Quito and Brazil against Flamengo stand them in good stead for a tournament where home advantage is paramount due to the distances, altitudes and time differences involved.
The bulk of the Sudamericana winning team are still with the club; eight players started against Deportes La Serena who started the second-leg of the final against LDU. Sampaoli has also managed to add even more guile and dynamism in attack and a promising centre-back in Eduardo Morante. A striker to replace Canales is imperative but with the tactical masterclass of Sampaoli, if they make the knock-out stages there may be no stopping them especially as they have the depth to deal with the domestic matches.
Group 3 – Bolívar (BOL), Junior de Barranquilla (COL), Unión Española
Previous Copa Campaign – 2011 Quarter-final (defeated 3-2 by Peñarol)
Star Man: Kevin Harbottle – An attacking chameleon, he might just be Católica’s answer to Eduardo Vargas. A low centre of gravity but strong, quick but nimble, he can play in any forward position but is at his best coming in off either flank whether it is running at the defence with the ball at his feet or making runs in behind. Not as ‘complete’ as Vargas yet but gifted and a fine Libertadores campaign should catch the eye of those outside South America.
One to watch: Nicolas Trecco – Signed after a successful stint at Cobreloa as the team fell to the all-conquering Universidad de Chile in the final of the Clausura play-offs. Like Harbottle he can play in a number of forward positions although he is most comfortable in support of a ‘No 9’. Combines blistering pace with an array of means to take on and beat defences.
Manager: Mario Lepe – A one club man having been brought through the Católica youth system, progressed to the first team and now manager, which he has been for the last three years. Won the league championship in 2010 when there was only one tournament played but was foiled last year by Universidad de Chile in both the Clausura and Apertura. Recently criticised for negative play.
Since this is a belated review Católica have already kicked-off their Libertadores campaign with a 1-1 home draw against Bolívar. A result that was not looked at kindly by Cató fans who booed the team from the pitch. Criticism from the fans is becoming the norm as they believe the manager can be too negative in his approach to games with the talent he has available. However with an attacking line-up fielded with new signing Matías Campos Toro at left-back and Felipe Gutiérrez, Michael Rios, Trecco and Harbottle all behind Roberto Ovelar it looks like Lepe is struggling to find a balance. There have even been rumours about players losing faith in the management.
The winter break saw key players Roberto Cerceda, Milovan Mirosevic and Fernando Meneses all leave but sufficient quality has been brought it even if the squad lacks similar depth to La U which could prove the downfall if the problems are sorted and UC go for Apertura and Libertadores success. UC’s form outside Santiago could prove problematic; only one win in the league since April 2011. Before last night Católica will have been aiming for progression from the group stage as the bare minimum.
Group 3 – Bolívar (BOL), Junior de Barranquilla (COL), Universidad Católica
Previous Copa Campaign - 2011 Group Stage
Star Man: Mauro Díaz (ARG), 20 – On loan from River Plate the diminutive midfielder has been an essential part of Unión Española wonderful start to the season which has seen the side qualify for the Copa Liubertadores group stage, win their first game comfortably (Díaz was suspended) while sitting atop of the Apertura with two wins from two. He adds drive, stamina, aggression but also composure with the ball to La Furia Roja. A wonderfully rounded footballer.
One to watch: Jean Paul Pineda (CHI), 22 – With his trademark black sweatbands Pineda is found on the left of a front free taking on defenders and cutting in onto his right foot to link with the striker, at the moment Emmanuel Herrera, or driving for goal. The type of player who will get the fans off their seat and not just on the edge of it.
Manager: José Luis Sierra (CHI), 43 – Like Lepe he began his career at the team he is managing. However he was not a one-club man but Española was where he spent most of him time where he won an Apertura and three Copa Chiles to go with the trophies he won at Colo Colo. After retiring in 2009 he became coach of La Furia Roja in 2010 and has got them playing attractive, high-tempo football which is exciting to watch.
An imperious start to 2011 was continued on Wednesday night with a 2-0 win over Colombian side Junior. Sierra lost top goal-getter Leonardo Monje to Rosario Central but bought wisely in Herrera, Díaz, Eduardo Lobos and Dagoberto Currimilla. He has got the team playing an attacking, expansive from of football in a wide and fluid 4-3-3 where the full-backs are encouraged to stay wide and over help in attack while the midfield three dovetail defensively and offensively.
If a place in the knock-out stages was offered to the team they would bite your arm off and preserve it. And by their star there is no reason why they shouldn’t be there. They only have two ‘away’ matches. However against better teams who put more pressure on them defensively they could prove vulnerable especially without an out-and-out defensive midfielder.
Unión Española 2-0 Junior
Even without the talented Mauro Díaz who was suspended after picking up a red card in the first round qualifier with Tigres, Española saw off the danger of Colombia’s Junior to pick up a precious three points to get their group stage off and running.
The first hour was goalless before Española hit Junior with a one-two, right-left, in a minute just after the hour mark to leave the Colombian’s sucker punched. First Emmanuel Herrera reached a Sebastián Jaime flicked header from a Fernando Cordero corner at the back-post and bundled the ball over the line. As the Estadio Santa Laura were still celebrating the first Cordero made it 2-0. Gonzalo Barriga chased the ball into the corner until shape arrived in the shape of Cordero. The number 11 burst into the box and looked to stand a cross up to the back-post only it went straight in.
Next up for Española in the Libertadores is a trip to Bolivia to face Bolívar.
Universidad Católica 1-1 Bolívar
Católica were booed from the field as they failed to overcome ten-man Bolívar. The home side struggled to impose themselves in attack, players still coming to terms with new team-mates and a changing shape.
The Chileans did not heed an earlier warning when the Bolivians saw a header come back off the upright, as they fell behind to William Ferreira’s strike. Bolívar broke with pace and a cross from the right tempted Cristopher Toselli to leave his six-yard box but Jhasmany Campos reached the ball first to cut back to captain Ferreira with Toselli out the game.
Cató responded before half-time however as a rapid break from back to front saw Roberto Ovelar feed Nicolas Trecco who sped away from the opposition to defence and slid in Ovelar to net his first Católica goal having followed his past.
Despite Walter Flores’ sending-off 20 minutes from time UC couldn’t find a winner leaving them with a less than ideal start.
Next up for Católica is another home tie as they welcome Colombia’s Junior to the Estadio San Carlos.