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.
Once again there wasn’t a full card of games in the Chile Primera División with Universidad de Chile travelling back from their Suruga Bank Championship disappointment.
So for the third time in five rounds it was left to the others to stake a claim as ‘likely challengers’ to La U’s dominance. And once again Colo Colo and Universidad Católica were nowhere to be seen, both struggling to draws.
Rangers on the other hand opened up a two point gap at the top with a win at Cobreloa. Audax Italiano and Cobresal failed to win but will be happy with draws away to Palestino and Unión La Calera.
Deportes Iquique’s strange behaviour continued as they fell to another heavy defeat while miracles do exist after all. Unión San Felipe won. Although in Valparaíso they are more sceptical after Santiago Wanderers didn’t.
Chile has three participants in this years Copa Libertadores. Everyone’s eyes will be on Jorge Sampaoli’s Universidad de Chile who are looking to make it a Copa Libertadores/Copa Sudamericana double but must do so without the brilliance of Eduardo Vargas. However they have retained Jorge Sampaoli and the bulk of the squad which won the Sudamericana before the new year, as well as the 2011 Apertura and Clausura, while adding even more promise to the squad.
Chile’s other contenders are Universidad Católica and Unión Española who occupy the same group and it is hoped, and expected, that at least one of the two qualify. They may not have the quality throughout the squad La U possess but both have talented youngsters that could light up the Libertadores.
Hopefully the gifted youngsters from each team are allowed to illuminate the knock-out stages:
Díaz playing for River Plate (image: granadeportivo.blogspot.com)
1. Signing of the season?
I know there have only been two games played, heck Universidad de Chile and Cobreloa have only played one, but Unión Española are looking mightily impressive. Add in their first round Copa Libertadores matches and they couldn’t have started the season much better. At the heart of their good play has been River Plate loanee Mauro Díaz. Stationed on the left of the midfield three he has personified La Furia Roja’s expansive and high-paced play.
The Santa Laura side attempt to use every inch of the pitch to stretch the opposition. The full-backs are pushed high and wide while the wide forwards in the 4-3-3 play as inverted wingers but look to hug the touchline opening gaps in defences before coming in to combine with the midfield and striker Emmanuel Herrera (or Sebastián Jaime).
Díaz, part of the fluid midfield three, is industrious, energetic, tenacious but uses the ball intelligently, belying his 20 years of age. He is giving allowances to join in attacks but also provide coverage to a defence that has its pressure points especially with no natural holding midfielder (Braulio Leal is the closest to playing that role).
Jean Paul Pineda and Sebastián Saavedra also deserve a mention. Pineda has consistently troubled full backs with his pace and trickery so far while Saavedra looks to be another promising and gifted attacker.
It was Universidad de Chile last year, Deportes Iquique last week but now it’s the turn of Unión Española and Mauro Díaz to entertain.
Kevin Harbottle. Remember the name (I'll make sure you will). (IMG: deportes.terra.cl)
1. Despite not playing Universidad de Chile still Chile’s top dogs
When Eduardo Vargas left for Napoli it was expected he would be the first of many from Universidad de Chile’s Copa Sudamericana squad to depart for Argentina, Brazil and Europe. In the end he was followed through the departure door by central defender Marcos González plus a handful of squad players as a number of new and exciting players arrived. With Universidad de Chile and fellow play-off finalists Cobreloa not playing this weekend it meant that the pretenders, namely Universidad Católica and Colo Colo, had the chance to show that 2012 is not going to be another dominated by Los Azules juggernaut.
Universidad Católica were first up but produced a limp first half ‘at’ Palestino (the game was played at the Estadio Nacional) despite the presence of sufficient attacking quality. The midfield lacking Francisco Silva’s passing range and authority struggled to locate a good tempo. The second half was much improved as Kevin Harbottle saw more of the ball as Nicolás Trecco was introduced and Felipe Gutiérrez pushed further forward. The question will be if the squad can handle both the Apertura and Copa Liberatadores.
Just when it looked like Primera B side Magallanes would shock one of Chilean football’s biggest side’s in the second leg of the Copa Chile final, Daúd Gazale fired home to rescue Universidad Católica, taking the match to a penalty shoot-out which was one by Católica 4-2.
Magallanes had won the first leg at UC’s Estadio San Carlos through a late Paulo Cárdenas goal and held their own against their more illustrious opponents over 180 minutes.
However in the return leg – played at Unión Española’s Estadio Santa Laura because Magallanes home ground is too small – Cató returned the favour, Fernando Meneses floating ball to meet the run of Gazale who expertly brought the ball down with his chest and fired into the far corner two minutes from time.
Magallanes really should have taken the lead early in the first half when Patricio Salas failed to convert a low cross from Felipe Reynero, sliding in at the back post with the goal at his mercy; a chance his namesake would have finished in his sleep.
Despite a valiant effort in Argentina Universidad Católica could not replicate the performance of Universidad de Chile the previous night and overturn the 2-0 deficit they suffered to Vélez Sásfield in Santiago two weeks previously to progress to the quarter-finals of the Copa Sudamericana.
A positive first half in Buenos Aires saw UC go into the break with a one goal advantage and the promise of more goals. However the second half turned into a struggle as Vélez took over proceedings and duly finished the tie with little more than 15 minutes left on the clock.
It was a tentative opening to the game at the Estadio JoséAmalfitani but for the matter of inches Católica could have taken a lead through Sunday’s hero Milovan Mirosevic. Unlike the first leg UC’s large spells of patient play, Francisco Silva knocked a long ball over the top for the perfectly timed run of Francisco Pizarro who got away from Sársfield’s high line, but his low cross was just out of the reach of the sliding Mirosevic.