1. Despite not playing Universidad de Chile still Chile’s top dogs
When Eduardo Vargas left for Napoli it was expected he would be the first of many from Universidad de Chile’s Copa Sudamericana squad to depart for Argentina, Brazil and Europe. In the end he was followed through the departure door by central defender Marcos González plus a handful of squad players as a number of new and exciting players arrived. With Universidad de Chile and fellow play-off finalists Cobreloa not playing this weekend it meant that the pretenders, namely Universidad Católica and Colo Colo, had the chance to show that 2012 is not going to be another dominated by Los Azules juggernaut.
Universidad Católica were first up but produced a limp first half ‘at’ Palestino (the game was played at the Estadio Nacional) despite the presence of sufficient attacking quality. The midfield lacking Francisco Silva’s passing range and authority struggled to locate a good tempo. The second half was much improved as Kevin Harbottle saw more of the ball as Nicolás Trecco was introduced and Felipe Gutiérrez pushed further forward. The question will be if the squad can handle both the Apertura and Copa Liberatadores.
Colo Colo began at home to Deportes Iquique with new signings Pablo Contreras, Bruno Romo, Gonzalo Fierro and ‘Magic’ Miguel Ángel González in tow. Only González wasn’t all that magic; subbed off before half-time for fellow new signing Matias Vidangossy due to criticism from the crowd, or as manager Ivo Basay put it ‘because the crowd were picking on him’. Los Albos were disappointing; minimal chances created and a defence susceptible to balls played in behind. Improvement will be needed to reach the targets set at the start of the season.
2. Puch is back and still packing a punch
Talking of Deportes Iquique, they could be the surprise package this season after failing to qualify for either end of season play-off in 2011. Coach Fernando Vergara acquired dynamic wing-back Boris Rieloff from Los Albos and was lucky enough that the diminutive Edson Puch wanted to join his boyhood team from UAE side Al-Wasl.
Puch showed some of the brilliance which persuaded Al-Wasl to part with a significant fee to take him from Universidad de Chile. A low centre of gravity, adhesive control with both feet, radar-like vision and incisive and intelligent running. Coming in off the right he combined superbly with fellow supporting forward Rodrigo Díaz to pose a sustained double-threat. They were ably backed up by wing-backs Michael Contreras and Rieloff who were essential for quick transition play. The Dragones Celestes will be a team to watch this year.
Encounters where both teams played 3-5-2 or a variation of the system tended to be stuffy, slow and subdued; the vast majority of the ‘action’ taking place in the middle of the pitch, in front of both defences. It could be that with the system(s) requiring immaculate fitness levels the searing January Chilean heat and rustiness of the pre-season break affected players still trying to find their peak condition.
However it seemed that the systems were at times cancelling each other out and with games missing players of the capability of the aforementioned Puch there was little imagination and guile on show. Wing-backs were cancelling each other out which in turn meant teams were lacking width in dangerous areas. Areas which would stretch the back three. Therefore the back three’s were able to stay tight and compact and deal with the one or two (depending on the managers positioning of the forwards) strikers and have men to spare. It was noticeable that the distribution from central areas was lax; limited options in wide positions saw most passes go through the middle of the pitch resulting in a number of interceptions and forwards dropping deeper and deeper looking for the ball and congesting the pitch.
O’Higgins and Antofagasta produced a pedestrian second half once the home side’s wing-backs reneged on their adventurous approach whereas at the Monumental there was an over-reliance on the individual to produce any game turning moments rather than a collective effort (in fairness Iquique done so in short bursts).
Evidently the best game of the weekend was played in the evening shade of Audax Italiano’s Estadio Municipal de La Florida between Italiano’s 3-4-1-2 and Union Espanola’s 4-3-3.
4. Number ‘1’ signings
Española may have been active in replacing striker Leandro Monje but their most important signing may be goalkeeper Eduardo Lobos. Similarly newly-promoted Rangers could find that in goalkeeper Nicolás Peric they have picked up one of the bargains of the season. With most teams possessing an inventive ‘enganche’ (hook between midfield and attack) to thread passes behind defences or forwards with intelligent movement and running (or both) goalkeepers in the Primera need to be quick and decisive off their line, ready to pounce on subtle passes that pass their defence.
Neither goalkeeper had to produce a collection of stunning saves (Lobos made a fabulous stop from a free-kick) but what they had to do they implemented to perfection; giving their defence a solid and experienced base, a presence and alertness that makes them valuable.
5. Harbottle is class. And I make no apology for talking about him.
Kevin Harbottle scored his first goal of the season. Not only does he have a fabulously un-Chilean name but he is a gifted footballer. I therefore make no apology and give readers a warning that he will be mentioned a lot this year. Played as part of a front two at Católica he has the licence of a ‘free’ player. He is a chameleon which makes him so difficult for opposition defenders to mark. He can run in behind defences with his pace, run at defences with his trickery, drift wide and drop deep, link play, a bit of everything. Along with Nicolás Trecco they could prove a formidable and exciting double act at the Estadio San Carlos de Apoquindo.