Without a defeat in 28 games Universidad de Chile’s visit to Brazilians Vasco da Gama, who sit 2nd in the Brazilian Serie A, was arguably the toughest test this talent-laden La U side has come up against.
From early on it was clear that this was not going to be a stroll in the park, akin to the last time they played Brazil, defeating Flamengo 4-0. Vasco, in front of a partisan home crowd, started positively and deservedly went in front. With one first half substitution however Jorge Sampaoli was able to wing the game back in his teams favour as La U went on to control most of the game; themselves deservedly equalising late on.
Having made nine changes to the side at the weekend Sampaoli fielded the same side, in an unbalanced 3-4-3, which put three past Arsenal dí Sarandi without reply the week previous. Gustavo Canales continued up front with support from Francisco Castro and Eduardo Vargas.
Vasco lined up 4-3-3, Bernardo dropping wide left to torment Osvaldo Gonzalez while Allan and Fágner combined on the right. Ex-Lyon talisman Juninho Pernambucano took up a marauding central position.
The home side set their stall out from the beginning, happy to commit men forward; both full-backs showed no hesitation in supporting play. Although that would not last as right-footed left-back Jumar played a more conservative role, wary of the threat of Eduardo Vargas. A possible ploy from Vasco coach Cristóvão Borges playing a right-footer at the left to combat Vargas’ inside runs from a wide position.
On the other side however Fágner was forthright in his attacking surges, often popping up in and around the final third. It was a fine battle throughout the game between the right-back, linking with the explosive Allan – comfortable going on the outside or coming into central areas – and La U’s left-sided duo Eugenio Mena and Jose Rojas.
It would have been interesting to see the impact it would’ve had to the game if Jumar was as positive as Fágner in supporting his ‘wide-man’ Bernardo. Unlike Mena on the left for La U, Charles Aránguiz was playing very narrow, wanting to combine with Diaz and Lorenzetti in the middle of the pitch. This left acres of space down Vasco’s left-hand side and for much of the first-half Osvaldo González was tormented by Bernardo’s intelligent play.
Aránguiz playing narrow meant La U’s backline of three was stretched creating large gaps in between the defenders. If Jumar had been braver he could have created a number of overloads down the left which would have favoured Bernardo who could go inside and find even greater space. It would have been intriguing to see if Vargas in a right forward position would have tracked the left-back all the way to his own box.
Early on Vargas had made two dangerous bursts deep into Vasco’s half with the ball, putting the defence on the back foot. Those early moments may have made Jumar’s mind up that it was best if he stayed in a defensive position, leaving Bernardo 1v1 against Osvaldo González.
As mentioned Aránguiz’s tendency to drift in field had a negative effect on his backline, making them wider than necessary out of possession. But it should have meant that La U weren’t outnumbered in the midfield against Juninho, Felipe and Rômulo. Marcelo Díaz and Gustavo Lorenzetti failed to assert themselves in the central areas like they have done all season, Vasco’s midfield movement causing problems. Juninho was impressive dropping deep to collect the ball from defenders to start moves then following play and playing in the spaces in and around the stretched La U backline.
Universidad struggled to get to grips with Vasco’s quick passing in the final third which prompted a number of late blocks and tackles as well as saves from Jhonny Herrera.
Only moments before the opening goal Herrera was finally beaten but Elton saw his dipping volley crash off the top of the bar.
By this time Sampaoli was preparing a change to stem the tide with a Vasco goal inevitable. But before he could bring Matías Rodríguez on Vasco had scored. The overriding factor in the goal was luck. La U lost the ball near the half-way line on the left and the impressive Allan looked to play a pass inside, only for the ball to ricochet off Aránguiz into the path of Bernardo who had made a run inside from the left and he dispatched past Herrera.
The goal did not change Sampaoli’s mind as Lorenzetti was sacrificed for Rodríguez. It could quite easily have been Castro but Lorenzetti had struggled in a deeper role; a quality player but more effective closer to the attackers. It meant Aránguiz moved to a more natural central position alongside Díaz. Sampaoli admitted his team lost control of midfield and needed more penetration down the flanks
Rodríguez is similar to Mena on the left, willing to work the whole flank, providing an attacking outlet as well as defensive coverage. His addition brought balance to the 3-4-3 system.
In the last five minutes of the half there were signs of the positivity the change brought to Los Azules. Rodríguez added width to the right hand side of the attack, stretching Vasco’s rearguard and creating two chances. Bernardo was not keen on tracking the right wing-back while Vargas dragged Jumar inside opening the space.
Universidad de Chile continued to control the game in the second half as they had done at the end of the first half. But both teams became disjointed in attack meaning the game was scrappy in periods.
The Vasco midfield three were interchangeable, all capable of joining into with play in the attacking third but there was little fluency – and it was the same at the other end.
The Brazilians were at there most dangerous when Juninho was standing over free-kicks; an asset that made him one of the most feared dead-ball specialists in Europe for a long spell. Herrera had to be at his best to keep out swerving, swirling, dipping efforts from all off 40 yards.
But in open play Allan, Fágner and Bernardo faded from the game. The Vasco defence had to pick up the slack and keep La U at bay. With the imperious Dedé marshalling the back four it looked like Vasco would secure a fantastic 1-0 win.
Aránguiz’s switches of play into the right channel weren’t coming off while Vargas had little to work with up front. Castro was anonymous while Dedé and Renato Silva did not give Canales an inch. Sampaoli could have reverted about to his usual formation with Lorenzetti in the ‘false 9’ position by taking Canales off for Rodríguez earlier in the game. It would have giving complicated the defensive job for Vasco, moving about their defence as they track Lorenzetti. Canales was poor throughout, squandering a good chance in the area after good work down the right – which looked like the only area La U would create from when Rodríguez advanced in support of Vargas.
But then Universidad de Chile showed the importance of set pieces. When struggling to create in open play, good delivery from dangerous areas is imperative. A wonderful in-swinging cross from Díaz was met by Osvaldo González turning a backward header past Fernando Prass who was caught in no mans land attempting a punch.
A vital goal as La U looks to reach their first continental final.
Overall the score draw was probably the right result. Vasco dominated the opening exploiting the weaknesses in La U’s line-up, notably down the Chileans right and the space between the defenders. However Sampaoli showed once again why he is a coach held in high regard, acting before half-time and turning the game in his teams favour with a more solid and balanced line-up.
All to play for.