Ninety minutes. That is all that stands between Universidad de Chile and eternal history; their first ever Continental trophy. Before last night LDU Quito’s home record in this year’s Copa Sudamericana read: played 5, won 5, scored 10, and conceded 1. No team had an answer to Quito’s altitude and LDU’s boundless energy. Now it reads: played 6, won 5, lost 1, scored 10, and conceded 2. This Chilean side continue to astound and amaze; 32 games unbeaten while doing it in style.
In the build-up to the game I wrote a piece on the ‘five stars’ of La U’s remarkable run to the final – the first appearance in a Continental final in their history. Jhonny Herrera, José Rojas, Charles Aránguiz, Marcelo Díaz and of course Eduardo Vargas were the chosen ones. But I made a glaring error. I missed out the true ‘star’; Los Azules’ Argentine boss Jorge Sampaoli.
A Marcelo Bielsa disciple if there ever was one. La U gave him a chance when no one else would and he has delivered. And then some. With Francisco Castro struggling for full fitness in the build-up to the game Sampaoli went into experimentation mode. 4-4-2, 3-5-2 or 3-4-3 and risk Castro? Tapes would have been watched, notes would have been scribbled and the floor would have taken a pasting from his pacing. Constant pacing. It was settled, 3-5-2.
Or was it?
Albert Acevedo was in for Castro. But he didn’t slot in beside Díaz and Aránguiz. He was stationed behind them; 3-1-4-2, matching LDU’s 3-4-1-2(ish) almost man for man in midfield. What may look like a slight difference was a big difference. A crucial difference. Acevedo would have a big part to play in the game; his positioning releasing the two central midfielders in front of him and the wing-backs on either side to be more progressive and play higher up the pitch. Eduardo Vargas, best on the right with the allowance to come inside, played centrally alongside Gustavo Canales.
Los Albos (also the name of Los Azules great rivals Colo Colo) would not have been unaccustomed to the start La U made. Immediately on the front foot, pressing high up the pitch taking the game to the home side and it should have been awarded when Canales was blatantly felled in the area by centre-back Norberto Araujo as he read the ball from Díaz.
The use of Vargas as a central striker may not benefit him personally but in terms of pressing he was an asset, closing LDU’s back three and goalkeeper from the front, forcing them to go longer quicker than they would have liked. Vargas seems to have a limitless supply of energy, as does Aránguiz who, along with Díaz, were able to advance from their midfield positions to close down, safe in the knowledge that Acevedo would not stray from position.
While creating little themselves La U done a fine job controlling LDU, keeping attacks to a minimum. Left-wing back Paúl Ambrosi offered little danger down the flank stopped by Vargas naturally drifting right and Aránguiz and Rodríguez’s aggressive execution of their respective roles. Also in possession the three, like almost every player in the team, enjoy good chemistry, linking and playing in triangles.
In the middle of the pitch the positioning of Acevedo was stifling LDU through the middle. He was often tracking Ezequiel González’s movements leaving the back three to combat the limited threat of Claudio Bieler and Hernán Barcos.
The Chileans did struggle with the bursts from Quito’s right-hand side however, namely 34-year-old captain Néicer Reasco. La U had to be wary of pushing too high and leaving space down their left-hand side which Reasco could, and did, exploit. Unlike the right-wing La U did not manage to stop Reasco’s higher up the pitch. Eugenio Mena was often caught flat-footed allowing Reasco to run at and beyond Rojas; either from a ball over the top or a quick interchange in and around the box. Herrera had to be alert to block at the feet of Reasco.
The best chance of the game for Quito came from the right. Reasco’s presence gave Ezequiel González ample time to pick out Barcos inside the six-yard box at the back post. With the goal gaping the striker, who has netted 23 goals this season, inexplicably shinned over. And from that moment the tie changed on its axis.
Acevedo, expertly positioned, cut out a pass aimed to the right, his intercepting header finding Aránguiz who fed Díaz in LDU’s half. The diminutive midfielder carried the ball before cutting the home defence wide open with one, perfectly weighted pass to meet the all too typical run of Vargas, on the shoulder of the defence running from right to inside, rounding Alexander Domínguez and giving La U the lead. His 9th goal of the Copa Sudamericana and now only one behind the record in the competition, held by none other than Chilean Humberto Suazo.
Swift, quick and concise counter-attack. With the players at their disposal Los Azules are made to take advantage of counter-attacking opportunities. They make exploiting space at pace look so simple.
That one move highlighted the benefit of Acevedo’s positioning. He can cut out the threats from midfield and players dropping off the front but also give freedom for Aránguiz and Díaz to advance into the final third. Díaz, throughout the match, looked as if he could slice through the defence with one pass at will.
LDU manager Edgardo Bauza switched the ineffectual Bieler with Luis Bolaños at half-time. However the change had no time to make an impact before La U should have added a second; Domínguez quickly blocking at the feet of Aránguiz.
But Bolaños did get involved looking to get onto the ball as the game began to get niggly then feisty, players being booked on both sides. Two of the culprits Canales and Vargas reiterated Universidad de Chile’s aggressive pressing game, defending from the front, one of the qualities that have brought about the ‘Barcelona de las Americas’ comparisons – La U have committed more fouls than anyone else in the tournament.
As the game began to get bogged down it suited the Chileans who were carrying out a very disciplined and controlled performance. The LDU threat had switched to the left with the introduction of Bolaños who offered more in ten minutes than Bieler had in 45. He tested Herrera from distance with a penetrating run and shot and was happy drifting to the left which helped Ambrosi get forward since he was no longer occupied by so many La U players. His movement was better than that of Bieler, dropping off further and making the formation resemble 3-4-2-1.
Even with the one goal lead Díaz and Aránguiz, both of whom done a wonderful job out of possession, were still happy to support the attack. Aránguiz forced Domínguez into another smart stop having been fed by an incisive Díaz pass.
Chances began to appear more frequently. Barcos again missed a gilt-edged chance at the back post. Jhonny Herrera got lost in no mans land coming to collect a corner and Barcos side-stepped a defender but in the six-yard box contrived to blast over. Rojas then made a great block from a goal bound Fernando Hidalgo header. LDU were pushing men forward, Sampaoli recognising this brought Castro on for Canales, adding further pace on the counter-attack.
As much as it should have been 1-1 up the other end, Matías Rodríguez should have given La U a two goal cushion going into the second-leg in Santiago on Wednesday (0015 GMT Thursday). A sublime pass from Vargas played Rodríguez through on goal but he lacked the necessary composure and put the ball the wrong side of the post.
No further chances materialised as LDU mounted one final push. La U had recorded an away win that may just rival that of the 4-0 win in Brazil against Flamengo. It wasn’t the same exhilarating football, but as a team performance and carrying out the manager’s tasks it was perfect.
LDU don’t have a player to take the ball from defence and start attacks from deep. They are constantly looking to use the width making it difficult to work the ball to the attacking midfielders and supporting forwards. Bolaños gave the Ecuadorians a different dimension with his movement and La U should be wary of him in the second-leg but if they can control the flanks they will fulfil their ambitions.
It was La U’s star men that won the game; Vargas’ goal and Sampaoli’s tactical shape. While not as technical as those around him Acevedo positioning was important. Protecting a defence that went 544 minutes with conceding in the competition – a record – while giving the midfield a platform to close and press LDU and support the attack.
Ninety minutes away.