Apertura Update: el Superclásico, play-off race, managers of the (half) year and more

CINCO (image: La Tercera)

The last few weeks has seen me take a hiatus from the Primera División due to busy weekend schedules. But I was back watching on Sunday night as Universidad de Chile trounced hapless arch-rivals Colo Colo in el Superclásico.

So here is a run-down of what has gone on recently and how the league is shaping up with only three rounds remaining before the play-offs commence.

*Expect mentions about perfect Universidad de Chile, Matías Rodríguez, Ángelo Henríquez, el Superclásico, Eduardo Berizzo, Adrian Ramos, José Luis Sierra, Mario Lepe, rejuvenated Audax Italiano, rubbish Colo Colo, Cobreloa’s new coach, slipping Wanderers, Huachipato and those going nowehere.

Los Perfeccionistas

For a few weeks as the Apertura warmed up and Copa Libertadores began it seemed as if Universidad de Chile were still finding their way after their Copa Sudamericana win and the departures of Gustavo Canales and Eduardo Vargas.

However they navigated their way through a tough patch that included defeats to Colombians Atlético Nacional and O’Higgins and now look back to their monstrous best; overpowering all comers with pace, poise, aggression, stamina and most importantly of all sheer footballing ability under Jorge Sampaoli. This culmination of physical, technical and mental qualities was on show on Sunday as they recorded a 5-0 win over Colo Colo; La U’s biggest victory over Los Albos in their history (another record broken by this team).

For a sound analysis of the game and the highlights of the goals read Richard Farley’s piece for NBCsports. You will want to make sure and see Ángelo Henríquez’s strike to make it 4-0. Not only for the deft volley but for the speed and precision of the build up as each pass is celebrated with an ‘olé’ from the vociferous Estadio Nacional crowd basking in the delight of running over/through/round Colo Colo. (There was also another two goals for Matías Rodríguez complete with his Gerardo Pelusso – Los Azules former coach – tribute celebration (thanks to Charlie Reeb for that)).

The win made it 14 unbeaten for El Chuncho since their defeat to O’Higgins in February. 13 of the 14 games have been wins with seven conceded and a momentous 38 scored. In their last six league games La U have won all six and not conceded a single goal.

They travel to Quito on Thursday (early Friday GMT) to face Deportivo Quito in the last-16 of the Copa Libertadores and top spot all but secured in the Apertura the La U juggernaut shows no sign of stopping.

The Pretenders

Take Universidad de Chile and Jorge Sampaoli out the equation there is has been some splendid performances elsewhere in Chile; none more so than the trio of O’Higgins, Deportes Iquique and Unión Española.

Eduardo Berizzo has done a fabulous job having taken over O’Higgins during the close season. The club still sit in second place six points behind La U and after the weekend’s 1-0 defeat of Santiago Wanderers, their 6th win in seven, courtesy of another goal from Enzo Gutiérrez (his 7th of the season) have now qualified for the Copa Sudamericana later in the league. A remarkable achievement on a budget the fraction of more illustrious clubs, such as Universidad Católica and Colo Colo, who can only enviously look on.

Iquique, who I pinpointed as potential surprise packages in a season preview (the only thing I got correct), have all but secured their play-off place thanks to a run of seven games without loss which has opened up an eight point buffer on those outside the play-off places with only nine points to play for. 20-year-old Adrian Ramos has been on fine form with four goals in his last six games but unfortunately for the team they will likely have to say goodbye to Edson Puch in the summer. And they’ll be back playing at their Tierra Campeones Stadium after playing two home games in Santiago due to the poor condition of their own ground.

If Eduardo Berizzo and Jorge Sampaoli are in the running for coach of the first half of the year Unión Española’s José Luis Sierra should complete the shortlist. Juggling both the Apertura and Copa Libertadores campaign La Furia Roja have played some of the most expansive and exciting football by a team not called Universidad de Chile. An inconsistent March threatened to hurt their prospects in both competitions but a 4-1 win over Universidad de Concepción strengthened their position in the play-off places setting them up for their first-leg tie against Argentine giants Boca Juniors.

Despite their inability to record two successive wins Mario Lepe’s Universidad Católica are also in a strong position to qualify for the play-offs. They would have been almost over the finish line if it wasn’t for dropping two points away to Huachipato having opened up an early two goal lead. But with Cobresal travelling to the Estadio San Carlos at the weekend a win would be fillip before welcoming Universidad de Chile. However it would be surprising if Mario Lepe is still in charge come the Clausura after dropping from the Libertadores at the group stage.

Play-offs

Taking out the five teams mentioned there are three spots remaining and 12 teams with a chance of reaching the last-8. Realistically however I would narrow that down to six teams.

Huachipato are currently top of this mini-league already in the play-offs with a cushion of four points from 9th. In would be a major surprise if a team with the attacking talents of are to drop out of the season finale however a drop of four points from their last two games has opened the possibility, however unlikely.

It is Santiago Wanderers in a position and two points behind Huachipato who should be most concerned. For most of the season Arturo Salah’s team have been riding high but three defeats and a draw has saw them plummet to seventh. They were not helped when top scorer Sebastián Ubilla picked up a knock against Universidad de Chile in the first of those defeats and he striker hasn’t scored since. Next up is a tricky trip to Deportes Iquique.

Then there is Audax Italiano, Deportes La Serena, Cobreloa and Colo Colo on 19,18,17,17 points respectively. Audax started the season with one win in seven which prompted manager Omar Labruna to offer his resignation. But since then he has led them on a mini-revival and has them in the final play-off spot thanks to five games without defeat with their attacking talent waking up. However a tricky run-in sees them welcome Huachipato and Colo Colo to La Florida while there is a very tough trip to Rancagua to play O’Higgins.

La Serena ended a run of three straight defeats at the weekend by beating Antofagasta and if they can put a string of results together in the remaining three games, all against teams in the lower echelons of the league, they could be best placed to sneak in to the play-offs. Fernando de la Fuente and Mauricio Salazar have both impressed.

Colo Colo. The less said the better. Ivo Basay was sacked in April – something which I wrote about at South American Football – and despite a host of popular and prestigious names linked to the vacancy Luis Peréz has been put in temporary charge until June. He has not won any of the three games he has presided over, including that game against La U which forced President Carlos Tapia to apologise to supporters. The aftermath also saw Esteban Paredes announce that it is best if some players leave once the Apertura is over. The objective was to qualify for continental competition but they are struggling to reach the play-offs. However their next two games should be straightforward home wins over Unión San Felipe and Antofagasta. The emphasis on ‘should be’.

You would guess that a team who lost seven out of eight games – drawing the other – would have no chance of making the top eight in a 17 game league. Yet two wins in their last two games without conceding a goal has propelled Cobreloa into the play-off race. It seems that the recent upturn in fortune can be attributed to new manager Javier Torrente. Argentine Torrente worked under Marcelo Bielsa at Argentina and Espanyol and admits to sharing a similar philosophy on how football should be played. So in time Cobreloa could become under exciting team to watch under the ex-Cerro Porteño, Libertad and Newell’s Old Boys manager after the more disciplined and pragmatic approach under Nelson Acosta.

On the road to nowhere

Antofagasta, Palestino, Unión La Calera, Rangers, Universidad de Concepción and Unión San Felipe are all within nine points of the final play-off spot. But not one of those six teams has picked up a win in their last two outings.

Three of the teams – Concepción, Rangers and San Felipe – have changed managers with San Felipe the most recent to appoint a new coach as Daniel Chazarreta replaces Nelson Cossio who resigned after the 3-0 defeat to Cobreloa at the weekend.

Then there is poor old Cobresal. Bottom of the table on nine measly points. However a recent 1-0 win over Rangers gave Oscar Del Solar some joy.

All seven teams will already have one eye on their planning and building for the Clausura when the pressure of relegation intensifies.

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