It is said that third time’s a charm. Except for Universidad de Chile, where it’s 5th time lucky. The famous Chilean team had never before competed in a Continental final, sitting in the shadow cast by their rivals Colo Colo’s 1991 Copa Liberatadores and 1992 Recopa Sudamericana successes.
However that may be about to change after defeating Brazilian’s Vasco da Gama 2-0 (agg 3-1) in the second leg of the Copa Sudamericana semi-final to their book their place in their first ever Continental final at the 5th time of asking.
Goals from Gustavo Canales and Eduardo Vargas either side of half-time eased La U into the final where they will now meet Ecuador’s LDU Quito.
There was one change from the first leg for La U, Matías Rodríguez coming in for Gustavo Lorenzetti, giving the team a balance that he provided when he came on in the first half in Brazil.
Vasco da Gama started positively, pressing Los Azules deep into their own half, at the same time leaving themselves open to the counter-attack. Unsurprisingly it was La U who threatened first on the break with the pace of Vargas but he made a hash of a 1v1 with Vasco’s goalkeeper Fernando Prass.
La U continued to defend aggressively with Vasco needing to score in the game taking place at Unión Española’s Estadio Santa Laura due to an event taking place at Universidad de Chile’s Nacional Stadium.
Struggling to break down La U at one end, Vasco looked nervous at the other, their defence needlessly rushing clearances and it was after a bout of pinball which opened the scoring. After the ball bounced around Charles Aránguiz fired in a shot which Prass only managed to push to the feet of Canales who shot into the roof of the net to bring the roof off the Santa Laura – well he would have if there was one.
The start of the second half followed suit. Vasco saw a lot of possession but lacked fluidity and creativity in the final third to pierce La U’s defence, the team defending as a whole. Their most likely way through looked like being a Juninho set-piece, but even then he proved wasteful in dangerous areas.
That was until Vasco favoured a more direct approach which almost paid dividends immediately. A quick piece of distribution from Prass put La U’s defence on the back foot, Rômulo popping up in the box to bring a save out of Herrera. Dedé went close from the resultant corner.
Rômulo again went close, this time from distance, but Herrera was equal to it again.
Universidad de Chile were still posing problems on the break, Eduardo Vargas terrifying Vasco with his pace. And the speedster got onto the end of a lofted Canales pass after tidy hold up play, but couldn’t direct his lob over Prass, the ball bouncing the wrong side of the post. Canales was proving a handful for Vasco as La U were not afraid to go quicker and more direct with passes looking to exploit the space negated by Vasco.
The game was over as a contest in the 70th minute when frustration got the better of Fágner who swung an elbow at Canales. And two minutes later it was party time in the packed, atmospheric Santa Laura as Vargas doubled the lead. Good work freed Eugenio Mena down the left and with no Fágner to encounter he picked out the typical Vargas right-to-centre run of Vargas who volleyed home.
1) Los Azules are forever praised for their rapid, expansive, attacking football under Jorge Sampaoli, and rightly so, but there defence is equally as strong. The trio of Osvaldo González, Marcos González and captain José Rojas were formidable against the attacking threat posed by Vasco da Gama. The Brazilians started strongly but were kept at bay by the resolute defensive line that seem to play as ‘one’, frustrating Vasco who could not find the combination to open the door; when they were beaten goalkeeper Jhonny Herrera stood in the way of danger. Two goals against in eight Copa Sudamericana matches speak volumes. The word impenetrable comes to mind.
2) It does not matter what happens between now and the climax of the Copa Sudamericana and Chilean Clausura play-offs, this Universidad de Chile team will go down in history; 31 games unbeaten and a squad bursting at the seams with young, raw talent. Jorge Sampaoli has crafted together an eclectic mix of quality who seem unbeatable. Very few sides go through a Copa Sudamericana campaign unbeaten, let alone a run which includes a 4-0 win in Brazil against Flamengo, a 2-1 win in Argentina against Arsenal and a 2-0 win Uruguay versus Nacional. This side full of pace, imagination, steel and spirit deserved to be the ones that make history by taking La U to a Continental final.
3) What are observations on Universidad de Chile without a mention of Eduardo Vargas. Linked to most Champions League teams in Europe, Vargas does not look like a player affected by transfer talk. The ex-Cobreloa youngster is unreal to watch when in full flight. Electrifying with and without the ball, one second he could be surrounded by three or four markers then the next second with a swivel, drop of the shoulder and move of the ball he is galloping into space, the players left behind doing their best impressions of the Coyote looking for the roadrunner. Not only is he fast, but deceptively strong as well. He takes hits, bumps and knocks all game but uses them to his advantage, gaining momentum off the challenge to speed away. Napoli have been the most recent team linked to the Chilean international and there is no reason to think why he would have any problems fitting into that team, Especially as a replacement for Ezequiel Lavezzi. Only Vargas is a greater goal threat. He has made the run from right to centre to meet crosses his trademark and that is exactly how he scored last night.
4) After struggling in the first leg, and for form in general, Gustavo Canales had one of his best, if not the best, games in a La U shirt. He may not be as technically proficient as his team mates but he works the defence all game to make room for the more creative players. Vasco defenders seemed to panic when the ball came into the box and some of that was down to Canales’ presence. He showed his predatory instinct for his goal and his ability at holding up the ball and playing with team mates around him, setting up Vargas for a run on goal.
5) Finally a word for the Estadio Santa Laura. It is no Nacional Stadium but the ‘wee’ (compared to the Nacional) ground is fervent box of noise and colour when full. All four stands are right on top of the pitch and it’s amazing that any of the crowd or players were able to catch their breath. A wonderful site seeing it full to the brim with a partisan backing from Los Azules fans.