As Julio César Falcioni turned to embrace his coaching staff and Juan Román Riquelme stretched his arms heavenwards in joy the players of Universidad de Chile and their passionate support shared a moment. But it wasn’t the feeling joy that they had come accustomed to in the 98 games since January 2011. Instead the feeling was disappointment. The chance to add a Copa Libertadores to the 2011 Apertura, Clausura and Copa Sudamericana titles had disappeared; once again at the semi-final stage – the second time in three years.
La U needed to overturn a 2-0 first-leg defeat against an imperious Boca Juniors side. Fatigue had began to perturb ‘El Chuncho’ in recent weeks and despite one last valiant effort La U were – deservedly – prevented from making history.
Chances did materialise but Boca were in control throughout and should have wrapped the game up as a contest before Darío Ubríaco blew for half-time.
Both teams made two changes apiece to the sides that lined up for the first-leg. For Boca Clemente Rodríguez returned from injury to replace one of the goal scorers from last week, Juan Sánchez Miño, while Juan Insaurralde’s injury meant a start for Matías Caruzzo alongside Rolando Schiavi at the heart of the defence. Falconi kept his side in their 4-3-1-2 that has worked so well for them throughout the duration of the tournament.
Jorge Sampaoli not only changed personnel but he changed the formation of the side. Out went Albert Acevedo and Gustavo Lorenzetti with Guillermo Marino and Francisco Castro coming into the team as the Argentine coach switched to a 4-3-3 to counter the threat of Juan Román Riquelme. Sampaoli felt that the playmaker was afforded too much space and time when he moved out to the left flank as pinpointed in the analysis of the game last week.
La U’s game plan – Defence
It was simple. There would be no tentative opening from the Chileans, keeping it tight and ‘feeling’ their way into the game. No, that isn’t the Sampaoli way. There was only one thing on the teams’ mind; attack.
There was the switch to a back four but in possession both full-backs were given the freedom to attack, essentially making La U 2-5-3. The centre-backs followed suit and pushed up the park. Within the first two minutes Boca were caught offside twice high up the vast Estadio Nacional pitch.
However it was not long before Santiago Silva and, more pertinently, Pablo Mouche cottoned on to La U’s ploy and, with Juan Román Riquelme supplying passes from deeper, began to get in behind time and time again. In the first half alone Boca’s attackers had six promising opportunities to kill the contest. Despite bringing Rodríguez back to a full-back position and moving Osvaldo González inside the right flank was pinpointed as La U’s ‘soft-side’.
The closest they came was when Riquelme followed an exquisite chip pass over the defence for Mouche, and met the resultant cross-cum-cut-back with a guided, controlled volley that bounced back off Jhonny Herrera’s bar. It was a sublime piece of football with Riquelme seemingly having the ball under a trance.
Mouche and Silva could have helped themselves to goals if they had half the technical ability and composure as ‘El Diez’ possesses.
Mouche, full of endless and selfless running dragging La U’s defence all over the place, continued to waste chances from good positions in the second half while his replacement Dario Cvitanich should have done better with an effort late on.
La U’s game plan – Attack
The final whistle at the Estadio Nacional signalled the La U’s third game with out scoring. The first time they have gone three games without finding the back of the net since a five match spell between February and March 2007 (figure taken from a long scroll through Soccerway).
A feature of La U’s offence is the movement and different angles of attack. Whether it is the centre forward running in behind, the wide forwards taking up central positions, the centre forward playing a false-9 role (Gustavo Lorenzetti) or runs from deeper; whether it is the wing-backs or central midfielders. An attacking medley if you will.
However recently this variance has gone amiss. Attacks are slower, the passing sluggish, the movement ponderous. In essence La U have been easier to defend against.
On Saturday Colo Colo kept them at bay with 11, 10 and then 9 men. And against Boca it was no different.
Apologies for the cliché but it’s gotto the point where they are trying too hard to score; forcing and rushing the play rather than letting the goal come to them. Ángelo Henríquez was dropping far too deep as he followed the ball and tried to win possession back which meant there was little in the way of a focal point up front when possession was regained.
Even when he was positioned as the central striker it felt that the other players did not have the confidence in him as the focal point of the attack in the same way they do for Lorenzetti or did for Gustavo Canales. Still only 18, he is a raw talent. He should have done a lot better with a free header in the second half but other than that his threat was easily eradicated by Boca.
La U, from deep, were then unsure where to go. Passing was slow and when forced wide crosses were often aimless or pointless. Marino offered drive from midfield and was presented with a number of shooting opportunities from the edge of the box. While the inclusion of Francisco Castro was bizarre. After being a key component in the Copa Sudamericana win he gradually lost the confidence of Jorge Sampaoli. And to throw him back into action in such a crucial game proved to be an incorrect decision as he was replaced for Sebastián Ubilla at half-time, who, along with Raúl Ruidíaz, appeared to influence or try to influence the game. Ubilla made life difficult for Rodríguez at left-back with his movement from right-to-centre similar to Eduardo Vargas in his time with Los Azules.
Only once did they show the La U of old. The instinctive, swift passing as Rodríguez fed Ubilla who in turn fed Díaz making a run from midfield and his cross was met by Henríquez who saw his shot blocked (Díaz also saw a free-kick strike the bar).
Credit can go to the Argentines for stifling the flow of an already flagging side . . .
It’s easy to see the genius of Riquelme, the dynamism of Walter Erviti, the ruggedness of Schiavi and the selfless running of Pablo Mouche but one player who could easily fly under the radar despite his lumbering frame is Leandro Somoza. Although it has to be said Twitter’s finest English speaking South American/Argentinean football experts picked up on the player’s discreet dominance.
In the first-leg Boca controlled the ball and the game. In Santiago they saw less possession but controlled the game. Somoza was fundamental, ably supported by Erviti and Pablo Ledesma.
La U play through Díaz, stretch the game with their wing-backs (full-backs in this instance) and penetrate central areas with players darting inside. Boca prevented this, pushing attacks wide and keeping them there, knowing La U would find little joy through crosses into the box. When La U tried to play their way thorough the middle they hit a blockade before being put on the back foot as the ball was moved quick into Riquelme and played behind the Chileans’ defence.
Somoza was quietly excellent. Sticking to central areas where his lack of pace would not prove an issue he was consistently in the right position picking up on loose balls, intercepting or tackling. When it came to being in possession with the ball he knew his job was simple; keep possession and keep the ball moving.
With him anchoring the midfield Boca have a good balance to their side as both Ledesma and more so Erviti support the attacking trio with energy and intelligent runs. Boca are a team who can stifle and penetrate, defend and attack.
What now for La U . . .
The answer is elementary. Turn over the 2-0 deficit they trail to Colo Colo on Sunday evening as they go in search of a third straight Championship.
Beyond that, it feels like the beginning of the end of this fine era in La U’s history. With the summer transfer market opening in Europe it’s likely there’ll be a greater exodus of players than there was in January. Marcelo Díaz is leaving for Basel and it would be no surprise – even likely – that Osvaldo González, Charles Aránguiz, Matías Rodríguez and possibly José Rojas will be playing elsewhere. And that is without mentioning the talented duo of Igor Lichnovsky and Ángelo Henríquez.
Then there is Jorge Sampaoli. The Libertadores was seen as the apex but since La U have failed to scale those height and players destined to leave a promising job offer could see the departure of Sampaoli.
An intriguing summer awaits . . .