It was hoped that for Universidad Católica salvation would come in the shape of progression to the quarter-finals of the Copa Sudamericana having lost their previous four games in the league, slipping out of the Primera Division’s play-offs in the process. But a testing and frustrating 90 minutes against Vélez Sársfield at their San Carlos de Apoquindo stadium sees Católica’s season unravelling at pace – and a mountain to climb in the second-leg of the last 16 match to be held in Buenos Aires on the 20th of October. Coach Mario Lepe has now called on his players to “strengthen and move forward” to the semi-final of the Copa Chile this coming weekend.
Católica controlled the game from start to finish yet finished on the wrong end of a 2-0 scoreline as their Argentine opponents stifled them for 90 minutes while demonstrating what it is to be clinical at the other end, something which the Chilean’s have to learn from; not only failing to score with one of the handful of chances that came their way but failing to fully test the capabilities of the Vélez goalkeeper.
With a raucous, albeit far from full, home support behind them Católica exerted pressure from the beginning, their attacking 4-4-2 – almost 2-4-4; full-backs Roberto Cereceda and Rodrigo Valenzeula pressing high up the pitch – forcing Vélez, missing three first team players, to defend deep with numbers behind the ball.
Despite controlling possession they allowed the Argentines a chance after 14 minutes. Switching off from a free-kick Héctor Canteros was allowed to receive a pass as he ran unchecked into the area before squaring the ball to ex-West Ham United striker Guillermo Franco. With his back to the goal the Mexican still had a lot to do but his job was made easier by Enzo Andía’s loose marking; swivelling then hitting his shot into the ground, the ball bobbled past stand-in goalkeeper Fabían Cerda.
Trying not to let the goal affect them La UC were back on the front foot. First Matías Mier curled a free-kick over then on 22 minutes Daúd Gazale had to equalise when he rose to meet Mier’s outswinging free-kick but his header lacked any meaningful power; Vélez goalkeeper Marcelo Barovero comfortably saving down to his left.
La UC were dominating proceedings, the centre-halves playing on the half-way line. Although this was not helping Católica as the final third became congested, the majority of players playing within 40 yards of Barovero’s goal, meaning Milovan Mirosevic could not thread his passes in behind the Vélez backline.
Franco, Sársfield’s only non-Argentine player, was proving useful with his clever hold-up play relieving pressure from his defence.
Los Cruzados looked at their most threatening from set-pieces and just after the half hour mark Andía looked to have made up for his poor marking at the goal by heading La UC level. Instead he headed wide at the back-post, under pressure from Fernando Ortiz.
Then came the sucker-punch. Moments before half-time a ball played into the space vacated by Cerececeda was picked upon by Augusto Fernández. Turning back on Mier who had tracked back he crossed for the incoming Iván Bella, making a run from the left wing, across the dozing Valenzuela to turn the ball past Cerda.
Cerda, covering for Christopher Toselli who was on international duty, had looked nervous from the start and should have been more decisive in getting out to Bella quicker to narrow the angle.
La UC had to find a plan C to overcome Vélez Sársfield’s resolute defence in the second half if they wanted to give themselves a chance in the return leg. In trying to do so Mier was replaced by Francisco Pizarro.
Only minutes after coming into the action he already had the Vélez defence scrambling; a direct and determined run created an opening but the finish was feeble as his ‘poke’ at goal rolled into Barovero’s hands. But Pizarro had already injected directness that missing from La UC’s play.
The second half resembled a game of attack against defence, the Argentines happy to keep compact, men behind the ball. I’m not sure what the Spanish is for ‘parking the bus’ but the phrase would suffice here.
Católica had countered by moving Mirosevic deeper; the Chilean quickening the tempo of the game and initially panicking the Vélez defence; José Martinez having a goal ruled out correctly for offside on the hour, a minute before the move of the match.
Mirosevic coming from deep to play a neat 1-2 with Gazale, opening the game up to find Pizarro who had instinctively pulled left. Pizarro beat his opponent down the outside and laid the ball back to ex-Basel front-man, Cesar Carignano. The Argentine’s performance was summed up as he prodded his effort the wrong side of the near post.
The home side became lethargic in their play and having soaked up the play for over 85 minutes Vélez began to counter-attack swiftly looking for the third goal that would finish the tie once and for all. After two reasonable penalty claims Fernández got in behind Felipe Gutiérrez and centred for the on-rushing Franco; sliding in, he came within inches of turning the ball home.
There was still one last chance for Católica when the two substitutes, Juan Pablo Gómez and Pablo Calandria, combined to carve out a good opening. Lofting the ball from the right hand-side, Gómez found Calandria rising at the back-post, something Carignano had failed to do all game. But like the most presentable efforts falling the way of the home side it was put past the post ending a dismal evening for Los Cruzados.
It was the perfect away continental performance from Vélez Sársfield. A compact line-up suffocating Católica as they attacked while exploiting the space in the behind the Católica defence and showing efficiency in front of goal. Two teams who have poor recent records look like going in opposite directions. Vélez have now won three on the spin while Católica have lost five of their last six, drawing the other.
The Santiago powerhouse is still very much in the mix for the Primera Divison play-offs but only if they address this alarming slump which is quickly turning into a crisis. Next up is a Copa Chile double header with Universidad de Concepción; 180 minutes to begin the process of regaining form which took them to the Apertura play-off final, the Copa Chile semi-final and the last 16 of the Copa Sudamericana.
Because next up in the league, Colo Colo.