The match had entered stoppage time. There were barely five minutes of stoppage time remaining. Universidad de Chile were trailing O’Higgins 3-2 on aggregate in the Apertura play-off final. The end of a glorious era was approaching a heartbreaking finale. This once in a generation team that had won the club its first ever continental title had run out of energy, verve and most importantly ingenuity.
The 101st game was going the same way as the 100th, 98th, 97th and 96th; disappointment and there seemed little Jorge Sampaoli or his players could do about it.
But then a sudden burst from substitute Roberto Cereceda down the right dissected O’Higgins and created space for a cross. On his weaker right foot he clipped the ball into the box. There he was, positioned just as he was in the first-leg, Guillermo Marino. The veteran Argentine may not possess the pace of Junior Fernándes or the explosiveness of Matías Rodríguez or boundless energy of Charles Aránguiz but what he does harness is a technical ability and composure that would not look out of place in some of the best teams in the world. As the ball was clipped to him time seemed to slow, the Estadio Nacional wanted just one more reason to rock but before that came the silence, the intake of breath. Many would panic and thrash at the ball; others would take a touch before being blocked, but not Marino. Where players would lose their heads Marino stalked the ball with his eyes. Marino and the ball, the only two objects that mattered. With his right foot he guided the cross back across goal and into the bottom corner, Luis Marín scraping his fingers against the ball.
Guillermo Marino had rescued La U and broken O’Higgins in one controlled and composed stroke of his right boot.
With the scores level there was penalties to come but everyone knew who had won. Marino’s goal had sucked the life out of O’Higgins as Jhonny Herrera became the hero of the shoot-out saving three of O’Higgins’ four penalties – the other having been blazed over the bar.
Universidad de Chile. Tricampeónes – only the third club to achieve the feat of winning three straight Chilean Championships.
But before Marino and the penalties there was a gripping, captivating, frantic, manic and crazy game of football. Yet it did not start out as such.
O’Higgins, with the same team as the first-leg, shut off the central areas with a compact unit and looked to hit La U on the counter-attack. A familiar story for teams playing Los Azules this year. It was an effective ploy from Eduardo Berizzo, reducing La U to crosses and shots from distance.
Guillermo Marino – who else? – came up with the best play of the first half, gliding past three challenges with deft footwork and body movement but his shot from outside the box bounced agonizingly past the post.
Then something happened, O’Higgins braved the azul elements, pushing forward and applying pressure to the home side’s defence. With players committed forward an untidy period of play culminated in a loose ball dropping to Rodrigo Rojas on the edge of the box. The Paraguayan attempted an ambitious header which would not have troubled Herrera. However Marcelo Díaz, turning his back on the ball, unintentionally blocked the header with an arm in an unnatural position. Penalty O’Higgins.
Up stepped Ramon Fernández with the opportunity to give La Celeste an unexpected lead just after the 30 minute mark. There was little sign of nerves or pressure as he stuck the penalty into the top-left hand corner. You could not have asked for better.
If those watching were expecting O’Higgins to sit back and see out their lead until half-time they were badly mistaken. The goal seemed to invigorate and energise La Celeste. They pressed higher up the pitch, the front four working to close down the ball and space forcing La U into rushed decision with the ball inevitably being hacked clear.
Not only did they close down but they created chances. Enzo Gutiérrez failed to connect fully with a header at the back-post despite being unmarked before Boris Sagredo was played through on goal but denied 1v1 by Herrera – a colossal in those situations.
Before the game had even reached its half way point a degree of feistiness had entered proceedings with referee Enrique Osses dishing out five cards in a ten minute spell as La U become increasingly frustrated. And it continued in the second-half with both teams being reduced to ten-men after José Rojas clashed with three O’Higgins players. First of all he bumped into Marín as they both jumped for the ball. Rojas took exception to Marín’s injury claims and took it out on Yerson Opazo by slapping him on the side of the head. Noticing the slap Julio Barroso pushed Rojas who obviously wanted to out-do Marín and roll around as if he had just been hit on the side of the head. That’s irony folks.
With both teams down to ten men, La U attacking and O’Higgins defending, structure and organisation were resigned to a watching a brief as the game descended into an ‘all-in-five-a-side-do-what-the-hell-you-want-rammy’.
Gustavo Lorenzetti had a snap shot tipped over the bar before a controversial decision that prompted the creation of hordes of pictures depicting Osses as a La U fan refereeing his team. Marino attempted to knock the ball past Alejandro López just in side O’Higgins’ box but the left-back got his body in between man and ball and cleared. Osses however interoperated it slightly differently, storming into the box his hand pointing at the penalty spot.
It left Aránguiz with the chance to level from the spot and he confidently succeeded.
While La U continued to attack – Marcelo Díaz clipped a free-kick off the bar – O’Higgins thumped the ball clear every chance they got and countered. Eugenio Mena held the backline together on his own at times but better decision making from the away side would have seen the game put out of La U’s reach.
And as the clock ticked beyond 90 minutes Marino was on hand to send the tie into penalties. South American’s don’t do any extra-time. South American’s don’t do any messing about.
Rodrigo Rojas, Yerson Opazo and Enzo Gutiérrez all had their penalties saved by Herrera while Guillermo Suárez blazed over the bar. Even the disappointment of Díaz’s last kick in the blue of Universidad de Chile missing the target from 12 yards was quickly forgotten as Raúl Ruídiaz (and Charles Aránguiz) set up Herrera to clinch the Apertura title.
Their era may not have ended in the stunning fashion that many have come to expect from Universidad de Chile but it did end with further success and the evidence that beneath all the high-pressing, high-tempo, high-energy, high-pretty-much-everything style there is a winning mentality and never-get-negative attitude.
There has only ever been one thought amongst this team, a thought ingrained by Jorge Sampaoli, ‘attack to win, win by attacking’. They have captured the imagination of not only South American football but world football. Now the players, and perhaps the coach, will spread-out through Europe, South American and further afield but few will go on to enjoy or better those 101 games.
In a year and a half history was created.
UNIVERSIDAD DE CHILE: Johnny Herrera; Matías Rodríguez (89′ Roberto Cereceda), Osvaldo González, José Rojas, Eugenio Mena; Charles Aránguiz, Marcelo Díaz, Guillermo Marino; Junior Fernándes, Gustavo Lorenzetti (79′ Felipe Gallegos) y Angelo Henríquez (72′ Raúl Ruidíaz)
Goals: Charles Aránguiz (66′ pen), Guillermo Marino (90′+)
Red Card: Rojas (53’)
O’HIGGINS: Luis Marín; Yerson Opazo, Julio Barroso, Nelson Saavedra, Alejandro López; Claudio Meneses, Juan Rodrigo Rojas, Ramón Fernández; Luis Pedro Figueroa (78′ Guillermo Suárez) , Enzo Gutiérrez y Boris Sagredo (53′ Nelson Rebolledo)
Goal: Ramón Fernández (30′ pen)
Red Card: Barroso (53′)
Referee: Enrique Osses