Universidad de Chile have one and a half feet in the quarter-final stage of the Copa Sudamericana after one of the great away performances in continental football, travelling to Brazil to face Ronaldinho’s Flamengo and coming away 4-0 victors. A result they fully merited, running amok in the Estadio Olímpico Joao Havelange with a sumptuous and exhilarating performance.
Ex-Real Madrid boss Vanderlei Luxemburgo lined up his side in a 4-2-2-2 system, synonymous with Brazilian football. Full-backs Júnior César and Rafael Galhardo expected to provide width to a front four including ex-Fenerbache striker Deivid and Ronaldinho.
Jorge Sampaoli continued with the set-up and personnel which has served his side so well so far domestically and in the Copa Sudamericana where they have now gone over 400 minutes without conceding a goal, breaking Unión Española’s previous record. Eduardo Vargas returned to the side in the loose 4-3-3/4-1-2-1-2, supported by an intelligent and energetic midfield three and clever trequartista in Gustavo Lorenzetti.
A casual observer could have easily mistaken La U for the home side from their bright start. The Chilean side made the pitch as big as possible immediately settling onto the front foot. Vargas and Francisco Castro stretching the game vertically – Flamengo wary of the former’s blistering pace – and horizontally giving Lorenzetti, ably supported by Charles Aránguiz and Eugenio Mena, acres of space in the middle to work with, outnumbering Flamengo’s midfield pair, Aírton and Willians. Castro fired an early warning shot, Fla’s midfield anchoring duo too high, leaving an abundance of space in front of the defence.
The Brazilians simply failed to make any head way into the game early on; Júnior César tried to add an attacking outlet from left-back but, without sufficient coverage from the defensive midfielders and too slow to retreat when caught high up the pitch, he left a large gap behind, a downfall for the home side the whole game.
La U had clearly pinpointed César, with the little protection he is afforded and the space left vacant when he goes forward, as a weak link in the Flamengo back four. The first goal coming through an overload down Los Azules right-hand side; Matías Rodríguez, Aránguiz, Vargas and Lorenzetti converging on the right hand side to work a crossing opportunity. The cross dragged right-back Galhardo into the centre of the box and when the ball broke free on the edge of the box, La U’s untracked left-back, José Rojas was given time to score in off the post past Felipe (the ball may actually have rebounded back off the post and onto Felipe before going over the line).
The home support had grown mightily frustrated; their feelings erupted when Deivid failed to control a simple pass. Ronaldinho had similarly grown frustrated at his lack of possession, dropping deeper trying to get involved and needlessly taking free-kicks on the half-way line only to pass the ball two yards.
Everywhere he looked he had few options to move the ball so he could work the necessary space to attack Universidad de Chile’s backline. A testament to the away side’s pressing which was highly effective. They forced Fla to move the ball quicker but their players seemed uncomfortable doing so; making simple errors or opting for the ineffective long ball.
The two players Ronaldinho should have been linking with were Darío Bottinnelli and Thiago Neves who preferred to come in from the wing, allowing full-backs to push into the vacated space. But this failed to happen fluently. Neves and Bottinelli saw little of the ball, left the flanks exposed and Aírton and Willians overworked in midfield, trying to plug gaps out wide, Lorenzetti gleefully accepting the space given to him. The match panned out perfectly for the pocket dynamo to exploit gaps behind the full-backs with his excellent range of passing and vision.
The second goal came about when no pressure was put on La U’s attacking spark, picking out Castro deep inside Flamengo’s box to head into the path of Vargas, scoring a goal similar to the one against Peru making a run from right to left.
By this time the home side were down to 10 men after Aírton was sent off for a knee high challenge on Osvaldo González, luckily not snapping the defender’s leg in half. Rentao Abreu replaced Bottinielli making a 4-2-2-1.
Despite the numerical disadvantage Júnior César continued to push forward causing more problems for his own side than that of the Chileans. Losing the ball high up the park towards the end of the first, La U instantly found their shape, worked the ball in triangles and went direct from deeper attempting to get Vargas to run in behind the defence. The ball was poor but a mistake by Welinton trying to ‘nick’ the ball and no one sweeping behind him as David went across to cover for Junior Cesar allowed Vargas a free run at goal, finished with a cool chip over Felipe.
To highlight the extent of La U’s pressing, from the second half kick-off it took them four seconds to win the ball back. La U’s intense pressing is an important component that Sampaoli has instilled in his players – even those who are less accustomed to close, harry and harass the opposition.
Luxemburgo brought on Chilean Claudio Maldonado for the disappointing Deivid, tightening up the midfield in a 4-3-2 formation with no out-and-out striker. Maldonado more inclined to hold his position in front of defence meaning Willians could make move forwards which suited him.
The game had little chance to find a rhythm when La U were reduced to ten men; Francisco Castro adjudged to have elbowed Willians. A very harsh decision but La U wasted little time in also shaping into a 4-3-2, Vargas moving to the left and Lorenzetti playing higher but with freedom to roam.
The game as you could imagine was even more stretched with both teams down to ten men, neither looking to solely defend. This meant Los Azules were vulnerable to the counter-attack. Mena drifted even wider to the left rather than playing as part of a tighter three in the middle. But even then they were rarely troubled apart from the ingenuity and drive of Flamengo’s best player on the night Willians, creating a chance which was headed against the bar.
The Chileans could even afford to miss a penalty – although it Felipe appeared to palm it across the line – before a fourth goal was scored on the counter-attack. Vargas appearing on the right and exploding up the pitch where the ball was worked to Lorenzetti who himself had appeared on the left to fire across goal and into the bottom corner.
Simply put it was the perfect away performance; tight at the back, confident and smart in possession, dynamic and clinical in attack. One Universidad de Chile player not mentioned was Marcelo Díaz epitomising the way he plays, but in a good way. Stealthily patrolling the area in front of the back four, allowing both full-backs to join in play further forward and always available for a pass. He is the base, along with the centre-back partnership of the González’s –both of whom are adept at playing from the back – that gives La U freedom to play their game. Whether they are attacking with pace on and off the ball on the counter-attack or forcing the game higher up the pitch.
The attribute that is most impressive of all is their mentality to work for each other, pressing and closing down in tandem, never looking to ‘shut up shop’ and a lot of credit should go to manager Jorge Sampaoli. Compared to the mentality of Flamengo who, despite being at home, injected little urgency in their game.
La U targeted the space around the unprotected Flamengo full-backs, dragging the Brazilians midfield partnership here there and everywhere, Gustavo Lorenzetti therefore thriving in the space he was allowed. Flamengo could not handle the pace at which the Chileans played at, the intensity in their pressing and the pace in which they moved the ball.
Even with the presence of attacking talent Flamengo were marshalled superbly when they did have the ball, Ronaldinho having a very poor night, Fla lacking any fluidity.
La U fully deserved their 4-0 victory and are all but in the last-8 of the Copa Sudamericana where, with the ability they possess from defence to attack, they may be the team to beat.