It was billed as one of the games of the year. Argentine champions versus all-conquering Chilean champions. Pragmatism versus exciting fluidity. Defensive organisation versus exhilarating attacks. But what transpired was Boca Juniors showing world football that there is more to their game than organisation and counter-attacks.
And once more Universidad de Chile is left with it all to do in the second-leg of their Copa Libertadores semi-final tie. In the previous round they scraped past Paraguay’s Libertad on penalties while the tie before that saw El Chuncho overturn a 4-1 first-leg deficit with a 6-0 victory in Santiago.
But this time it is different. This time they trail 2-0 to Boca. A Boca side who have conceded just 20 goals in their previous 36 league matches. A Boca team who give off the aura of perennial winners.
It was expected that Boca would defend deep and attack the spaces La U left behind with swift counter-attacks. Yet Julio César Falconi and his side took a risk – with Juan Román Riquelme in tow – pressing La U high which led to both goals; scored by Santiago ‘El Tanque’ Silva and Juan Sánchez Miño. Counter-attacking weapon Clemente Rodríguez missed out at left-back and was replaced by Sánchez Miño while Pablo Mouche started up front . . . and had the game of his live.
La U, lining up in their usual 3-4-3 variant, was visibly shaken to the point they failed to emerge from their slumber, constantly losing possession and lacking in any defensive organisation. The latter a problem that is becoming all too frequent for Jorge Sampaoli.
As mentioned above it was expected Boca would be happy to maintain defensive organisation, stay compact and hit La U on the counter-attack. But it was instantly noticeable that there was a different plan. A plan to ‘La U’ La U.
There was no dropping off when possession was lost. Instead they went looking to regain possession high up the pitch. Boca’s centre-back pairing of Rolando Schiavi and Juan Insaurralde are not the quickest – and that’s me being nice – however they brought the defence up the pitch as they pressed as a unit, keeping Los Azules penned in.
They denied Gustavo Lorenzetti any space on the pitch and the little Argentine was non-existent. And the other two parts of the Chilean midfield triangle suffered. Charles Aránguiz’s – fresh from scoring two goals for Chile – only meaningful contributions were negative ones as he struggled to create combinations all night.
And worst of all for La U was Marcelo Díaz who was starved of the ball and when he did he was rushed to the point he was caught in possession.
The two goals for Los Xeneizes were prime examples of their pressing. For the first goal which arrived after 15 minutes, Díaz was tackled in the middle of the park only for Aránguiz to help out his sidekick by regaining possession yet a poor touch was pounced upon by Mouche who pinched the ball and sped down the right flank to cross for Santiago Silva who turned too easily in the box and fired past Jhonny Herrera.
For the second goal the ball was nicked deep inside the visitors half allowing Silva and Riquelme to quickly exchange a pair of passes before the latter released Walter Erviti supporting from midfield – again – in complete freedom; Osvaldo González and Rodriguez had both been dragged in. Herrera repelled Erviti but left-back Sánchez Miño was on hand to finish the rebound. It exemplified Boca’s bravery in pushing high up the pitch with the left-back in the box to score.
In terms of Boca’s pressing a lot of credit has to go to the front three of Riquelme, Mouche and Silva who occupied and forced the Chileans back three to by-pass Díaz in midfield. While Mouche and Riquelme’s runs into the right and left flank respectively stretched the defence.
Despite the thought that a three-man defence is most suited in dealing with a two-pronged attack La U prefer it when there is only one striker as it puts less pressure on the defence allowing José Rojas to spring from defence and get involved in play further up the pitch.
As the game elapsed Boca began to sit back, compact and allow La U to pass from side to side knowing that Schiavi and Insarralde would deal with any crosses that were thrown in.
El Diez 1-0 Díaz
If I had done a preview I would have highlighted the clash between Riquelme and Díaz as the ‘key battle’ of the match. With Martin Palermo having hung up his boots Riquelme is the undisputed fulcrum, focal point, leader, conductor all rolled into one elegant and laid-back genius. And this years Copa Libertadores has arguably seen the best of him since he led Villarreal to Champions League semi-final against Arsenal (do not ask him how it ended) in 2006.
Meanwhile Marcelo Díaz has played himself into the Chilean national team starting XI and a move to Europe with Swiss champions Switzerland. For La U he is the metronome, playing deeper than Riquelme he conducts play from a deeper position.
With both players occupying similar areas of the pitch it was Juan Román that came out on top with the most emphatic 1-0 win you’re are likely to see.
Simply put a quiet Marcelo Díaz means a quiet Universidad de Chile. There was no space for him to calm La U down and begin to ease their way into the game. A lot of teams are happy to sit off him which in turn allows him to drop off the midfield and pick up the ball from defence. This was not do-able due to the presence and pressure of Mouche, Silva and Riquelme.
Defensively he could not get to grips with Riquelme’s movement. Even though JRR moves around the pitch slowly he is always on the move, his senses detecting kinks in the oppositions armour; finding one in Boca’s left flank between Matías Rodríguez and Osvaldo González.
Díaz is not a naturally defensive midfielder. He is a regista, better in possession than he is defensively. His most popular defensive movement is dropping into the backline to make it a back four, not following a playmaker around the pitch and out to the flank with the fear of leaving the centre of the pitch unguarded and also away from the position he wants to receive the ball from his defenders.
The second-leg should see a different battle. Boca, in the vast Estadio Nacional, will defend deeper and play on the counter-attack. Out of possession Boca are likely to shape-up in a 4-1-4-1/4-5-1 with Riquelme at the point of attack. It will create space for Díaz to start attacks. However if JRR sits on Díaz the likes of José Rojas will be able to carry the ball from defence.
The tie is poised for an intriguing tactical battle.
The Matías Rodríguez problem
Even if Boca set their stall out to defend in the second-leg La U will still need to improve their defensive shape and organisation. It should be a worry for Jorge Sampaoli that La U is looking increasingly ragged defensively.
The biggest problem is the right flank. Yes, the same right flank that features Matías Rodríguez. The Argentine was excellent for La U as they won the Copa Sudamericana at the end of 2011. And he continued his fine form into 2012 scoring 11 goals so far leading to calls for his inclusion in Alejandro Sabella’s Argentina squad to intensify to the where he was called up for the recent matches with Ecuador and Brazil. Despite not making his debut he had finally been rewarded for such fine performances in the blue of La U.
However the irony is that when he finally was called up it was at the same time that his from was deteriorating and he is beginning to look a shadow of the player that ‘owned’ the right flank week-in-week-out for the last 10 months.
It has been noted time and again in the analysis articles featuring La U that their vulnerable down the flanks of their defence, especially the right-hand side.
Matí used to enjoy a fine relationship with Osvaldo González – La U’s right-sided centre back (as well as Eduardo Vargas when he was still with Los Azules). He would play deeper to support the defender and use his power to provide width further up the pitch and support in attack. The same power would be used defensively to fly back and help defensively. Few wingers or wide midfielders were allowed a ‘free’ run into the space and at González.
But is seems Matí has believed his own hype of late; an issue that is proving a detriment to La U’s ambitions and affecting the performances and confidence of González (who is also missing namesake Marcos in the centre).
The Argentine is playing higher up the pitch or, a times, more centrally as if he needs to be more involved to further highlight his ability instead of doing what had brought him significant praise in the first hand.
As a result González is playing a lot closer to his centre back to the point there is little space between the two and opposition teams are getting the freedom of the left flank. If it wasn’t for a stupendous diving save from Herrera Silva would have doubled his tally after being picked out by Riquelme who had exploited La U’s weakness by drifting into the left side of the pitch.
Work needs to be done to re-ignite the Rodríguez-González combination before it is too late and La U find themselves failing at the semi-final stage of the Copa Libertadores for the second time in three years.
Junior ‘Balo’ Fernándes
Every time I watch Junior I am reminded of a certain Mario Balotelli. Not in his on-field mood swings or histrionics which fortunately aren’t a part of Fernándes’ game – well not to the extent of Balotelli – or his off-field peculiarities. But in his frustrating talent.
Watching Mario at the Euro’s he excites and exasperates in equal measures. Playing quick and simple, linking up with his team mates, he makes the game look easy. But when he tries to do things all on his own he comes up short and gets frustrated; whether it is trying to beat three or four defenders or having pop-shots from acute angles.
It is similar with Junior. He is still young and has taken a big step from Palestino to playing in the Libertadores but his decision making is often left wanting to the point where he can still only be described as a raw talent. And like Balotelli he is a physical presence and pass that goes underused.
Compare him to Ángelo Henríquez who looks advanced beyond his years in terms of footballing intelligence. Even in a trying game with little service he was always lively and competent in possession, unlike most. Whereas Junior chucked crosses into the box with little thought and shot from improbable angles. Henríquez is a smart striker who knows what runs to make, when to go alone or when to release the ball; he’ll be the player to make the biggest impact in Europe.