This time last year everyone knew who Universidad de Chile were, even those who did not follow South American football. 12 months on and Universidad Católica are 90 minutes, and one fine performance, away from reaching the Copa Sudamericana final. But, unlike their Santiago rivals, they have done so under the radar.
São Paulo are all that stand in the way of Católica making the final, with all to play for after a 1-1 draw in the semi-final first-leg.
The Brazilians came into the match on the back of dispatching Universidad de Chile 7-0 over two legs, while UC had failed to make the play-offs, finishing in ninth. And for the first hour it showed; Católica unable to produce anything in the form of a meaningful chance as São Paulo constantly threatened with the pace of Lucas Moura and the movement of Jadson and Osvaldo behind Luis Fabiano.
Jadson almost had them ahead early on with a shot from distance that thundered off the inside of the post, Cristopher Toselli beaten all ends up. The goal came not long after when Rafael Toloi leisurely met a cross unmarked eight yards to head the away side in front.
It then became the Cristopher Toselli show as he continued to thwart and repel São Paulo, Osvaldo more than most getting frustrated with his inability to beat ‘Hulk’ – named so due to his familiarity to Lou Ferrigno before he turned into the green machine.
As the Brazilians started to go down the gears UC revved their engine and started to pose a threat, rewarded when Nicolás Castillo squeezed a shot past Rogerio Ceni after great work from Alfonso Parot down the left.
The midfield – a second defensive four
Never has ‘two banks of four’ been more apt than on Thursday night. UC have been playing a very reactive system for the last couple of months, ceding position and looking to attack on the break with pace and directness.
Martín Lasarte took it to the next level against the Brazilians; the midfield four, consisting of three central midfielders and a hardworking wide midfielder, sat on top of the back four, leaving little room between the two sets of four and behind the defence; Lasarte had clearly learned from Universidad de Chile’s two legs.
The problem came when Los Cruzados won the ball and the transition from defence to attack. There was a much bigger gap between midfield and attack than normal; Castillo and Francisco Pizarro were marooned.
Normally UC play with two wide men who can either carry the ball forward (Michael Ríos, Fernando Meneses) or a wide player that is adept at supporting the front two, acting as a link between midfield and attack (Fernando Cordero). Only Ríos was playing and he was ineffective.
Francisco Silva – a central midfielder playing wide – and Pizarro tried to act as a link; the former coming infield, the latter dropping off attack. But as much as they tried the link often broke down; players too far away from each other or passing that went askew.
Francisco Silva – a central midfielder
In UC’s previous Copa Sudamericana encounter at home to Independiente a second-half substitution by Martín Lasarte saw Francisco Silva pushed out to the right of midfield. The experiment lasted 10 minutes before he was shifted again, uncomfortable in the wide position.
So it was surprising to see Silva start from the left of midfield against São Paulo. Understandably Lasarte was looking for a compact midfield to sit deep and protect the defence as mentioned above.
However Silva’s position is a deep-lying midfielder who will, in tandem with Tomás Costa, look to break play up before looking to move the ball forward – a diagonal pass over the full-back is a favourite of his – or occasionally break free and shoot from range.
Nominated for the Copa Sudamericana team of the year, Silva is a good player and he can play football. But he is not a wide midfielder. Naturally he wants to drift infield to influence play and is not mobile enough to get back out quick enough to protect the full-back, let alone carry the ball up and down the flank.
You can see that he knows that as well, often getting frustrated when he fails to produce that yard of pace to take him away from an opposition player when he breaks forward.
Second half changes – UC open up
The 1-0 half-time lead that São Paulo held prompted Lasarte to change not only two players but also his game plan, knowing that winning in Brazil would be very difficult. Off came Pizarro and Claudio Sepúlveda to be replaced by Roberto Ovelar and Fernando Meneses. Silva moved into the middle and Meneses went right. These changes made the team more direct and injected pace on the right-wing.
However their impact failed to materialise straight away. A Lucas shot that curled just wide proved the catalyst for UC to increase their attacking endeavour. Despite not having his best game Ovelar acted as a focal point in attack, able to hold the ball up even if a bit clumsy at times.
Fernando Meneses was positive on the right-wing, and the full-backs reacted to the positivity in the team to push themselves further up the pitch, eventually resulting in the equaliser; Alfonso Parot providing the cross which Castillo dispatched.
The change in the game surprised São Paulo and they struggled to reverse the flow of the game. Sixto Peralta was introduced, putting in one of his better performances since joining Los Cruzados; his greater dynamism off-putting for the Brazilian midfielders.
UC defence – Individual errors
Lasarte is slowly improving the defensive situation at UC. He has not been helped by numerous injuries to key defenders since taking over but as a unit they are performing well. Alfonso Parot is making the left-back slot his own; Cristián Álvarez has shown his importance when fit; Hans Martínez has grown in stature as the Sudamericana has progressed and should be a Chile squad regular and even Enzo Andía has looked solid.
But there are still individual errors costing the team. The defence will need to be at their very best to have any chance of reaching the final. With the pace, power and movement of the Brazilian’s attacking players Álvarez will need to keep his defence marshalled, while Cristopher Toselli will need to be on the top of his game . . . again.
Sao Paulo – Champions in waiting
It is a momentous ask for Católica to win or record a score draw tonight. It was not just Lasarte’s changes that let UC get back into the game but São Paulo drifted out the game, thinking they had done enough to record a positive result to take back to Brazil.
But before hand they were excellent. Lucas is going to be a star in Europe. He moves with the ball like Sebastian Vettel going through the gears of his Red Bull Formula 1 car. He is legally unstoppable as he drives through midfields and defences. He is key to the speed of transitions as the Brazilians go from defence to attack.
But every where you look there is quality, a mix of sheer power and pace and technical excellence, craft and flair. The defenders appear to be midfielders playing in defence the way they move the ball out of defence and into midfield; their full-backs play like auxiliary wingers.
There is no shame to be put out by this side. But if Católica are in the final come Wednesday evening then the result could arguably be put up alongside Universidad de Chile’s thumping of Flamengo last year. And maybe then UC will get some recognition from the wider South American and world footballing public.