O’Higgins are 90 minutes away from completing an historic moment in the club’s 57-year history. Having never won a top division Championship O’Higgins take a slender 2-1 lead into the second-leg of the Apertura play-off final.
That’s the good news. The bad news is that they will have to draw or defeat Universidad de Chile in the Estadio Nacional. Thee Universidad de Chile. The same Universidad de Chile side that recovered from a 4-1 first-leg defeat to Deportivo Quito in the Copa Libertadores by running amok with a 6-0 second-leg victory. And only last week they saw Colo Colo’s 2-0 win in the Apertura semi-final first-leg and rose them with a 4-0 win in the second.
But as Jorge Osorio signalled the end of the game last night the second-leg did not seem to be at the forefront of the players and fans’ thoughts as they cavorted and celebrated a second win over La U in 2012 – another win that they deserved.
There was no nervy start or conservative beginning from Eduardo Berizzo’s men. In the heavy rain they poured forward in numbers, swarming Los Azules’ half. An attack seemed to have fizzled out when La U won possession in their box but as Matías Rodríguez emerged with the ball he inexplicably – and without a look – attempted to pass the ball back to Osvaldo González. Rodrigo Rojas had already begun to exert pressure and the Paraguayan midfielder read Mati’s intentions and kept running forward, shrugged off the attention of González and from a tight angle near the touchline flicked the ball up and over Jhonny Herrera as he slid out into the far corner.
The game ebbed and flowed, back and forth. You could not take your eyes off proceedings. La U were tame and lacked composure in attack whereas O’Higgins, by getting the ball to their front four, looked to cause problems every time they went forward.
A second goal almost arrived through centre-back Julio Barroso. A corner into La U’s box caused confusion with a horde of bodies stationed in the centre of the box only for the ball to be partially cleared but once it was returned Barroso rose highest, above Herrera, and saw his header rebound back of the bar.
Universidad de Chile would not be so sterile for long. In their 4-4-2 Paulo Magalhaes raced forward from full-back to deliver a sweeping cross to the back post where the experienced Guillermo Marino was waiting at the back post to lash a well-connected volley between the legs of Luis Marín who had little time to react due to the pace on the ball.
Marino has won titles with Newell’s Old Boys and Boca Juniors in his home country, Argentina, as well as having success with La U. What he lacks for pace and mobility he makes up for in intelligence, composure in possession and an almost faultless distribution.
If the first-half was frantic and open, the second was turgid and cagey. The weather, which saw umbrellas become a prominent feature of the crowd in the roofless Estadio El Teniente, clearly played its part as the pitch got heavier.
Rodrigo Rojas would make sure Herrera was still alert with a stinging effort from distance, La U number one turning the ball around the post.
A component of O’Higgins’ set-up is the energetic combination down the right between full-back Yerson Opazo and Chilean internationalist Luis Figueroa, and they combined to help set-up the winning goal in the 72th minute. Opazo plays like a wing-back, showing no fear in pushing high up the pitch. He and Figueroa exchanged a spree of quick passes before the ball was worked to Rojas on the angle of the box. The Paraguayan internationalist curled a cross to the back most where it was met, on the slide, by left-back Alejandro López rendering Herrera’s presence in the goal irrelevant.
A reward for O’Higgins’ bravery late in the game, pushing both their full-backs forward.
Unsurprisingly, as La U went looking for a second equaliser, the game opened up in the remaining minutes. Substitute Felipe Gallegos went closest for La U when he was found in the centre of the box by a delicious flicked through ball from Marino but his volley was straight at Marín who pushed it onto the roof of the net.
Then came what could potentially be a defining moment in the tie. With La U caught up the pitch La Celeste’s top scorer, Enzo Gutiérrez, was sent through one-on-one with Herrera. A goal would have given O’Higgins a crucial two-goal advantage going into the return leg, yet as Herrera advanced and made himself big Gutiérrez prodded a shot against the outstretched leg of Herrera and the ball bounced to safety.
O’Higgins now take the 2-1 lead to Santiago knowing that a single goal victory from La U will be enough to see another Campeonato stay at the Estadio Nacional – the third in a row.
Gutiérrez’s miss could prove pivotal with Jorge Sampaoli’s side renowned for their ability to turn around second-legs in front of a fervent home support.
O’Higgins (4-2-1-3): L. Marín; Y. Opazo, A. López, J. Barroso, N. Saavedra; R. Rojas, C. Meneses; L. Figueroa (N. Rebolledo ’87), B. Sagredo (C.Fuentes ’75), R. Fernández (G. Suárez ’90); E. Gutiérrez
Goals: R. Rojas (‘1), A. López (’72).
Universidad de Chile (4-4-2): J. Herrera. P. Magalhaes, E.Mena, O. González, J. Rojas; M. Rodríguez, G. Marino, C. Aránguiz, M. Díaz; Á. Henríquez, J. Fernándes
Goal: G. Marino (’29)
Referee: Jorge Osorio