(Article first featured on Lovely Left Foot 05/04/12)
2011 belonged to one team in South America; the all-conquering Universidad de Chile side that steamrollered its way to the Copa Sudamericana title in scintillating fashion. They won their domestic Apertura and Clausura tournaments with ease, losing just once all season. However, with this success came a price and, as is often the case in South American football, effectively put their star players on the wish lists of many of the biggest clubs around the world.
Spearheading the team was Eduardo Vargas, who netted a tournament record of 11 times and as a result earned himself a £11.4mil move to Napoli. However, given the wealth of talent that the Italian side possess, he has struggled to command a regular place and appears to still be settling in. With his lightning pace, tireless work rate and fantastic close control he certainly has what it takes to make it in Europe, but for now it isn’t working out that way. La U also lost Marcos Gonzalez to Flamengo and Gustavo Canales to Chinese side Dalian leaving many to question whether these departures would hinder the Chileans chances of glory this year.
To begin with it looked like the big changes had indeed disrupted the team’s flow as their domestic and continental form got off to an unfamiliarly shaky start. Despite wins against La Serena and Palestino, a draw against Deportes Iquique was coupled with an opening 2-0 defeat in the Libertadores as they were caught cold by surprise package Atlético Nacional. A 3-0 defeat to O’Higgins, currently in 2nd, suggested that perhaps El Chuncho were not the same unstoppable force that we had seen throughout 2011.
However, since that defeat they have gone on a run of 6 straight league victories with impressive performances against Cobreloa (4-1), Cobresal (3-1) – who have one of the best badges in football if you haven’t seen – and the pick of the bunch a 6-0 destruction of Audax Italiano. They showed great character to come from 2-0 down to beat Union Española 3-2 and displayed plenty of grit and determination with late winners against Union San Felipe, a Jose Rojas goal edged the tie 1-0, and against Rangers last weekend, both goals coming in the final 10 minutes. They now sit top of the pile with 25 points, 3 ahead of nearest rivals O’Higgins.
In the Libertadores they have also started to show what made them the most lauded team on the continent last year. A breath-taking 5-1 victory against Godoy Cruz was followed by a decent 1-1 draw away to Peñarol and then by a 2-1 victory against the Uruguayans, with a brace from Matías Rodríguez, the second of which coming in the second minute of injury time. Last night they beat Godoy Cruz 1-0 in a much tighter game than their first encounter and now lead a tricky group 8 with 10 points.
As they start to fine their imperious form once again, it seems they have managed to adapt quickly to the loss of Vargas. So who have been the players who have filled those boots?
First up is Junior Fernandes and his fantastic cheek bones. The 23-year-old, good friends with fellow tocopillano Alexis Sanchez, has netted seven times since he was signed from Palestino and sits as joint second top scorer in the Libertadores. This was largely thanks to a superb hat-trick against Godoy Cruz. Although the first was slightly controversial, as he appeared to kick the ball out of the opposition goalkeeper’s hands, there was no complaining about his other two, one a bullet header and the other a cool slotted one-on-one finish. Fernandes already seems an all-round striker with great pace, strength and athleticism, as well as providing a potent aerial threat, and looks set to have a successful debut season.
Another man brought in during the break was the Peruvian whizz Raúl Ruidíaz and he has wasted no time at all in getting amongst the goals, taking his league tally to 8 already. Loaned from Universitario, the 21-year-old has inevitably been compared to Messi due to his short stature, great ball control and dribbling skills. He has also proven himself deadly in front of goal and is a delightful player to watch who is capable of moments of bewitching skill, such as his elastico vs. Audax. However, unlike Fernandes, if he continues to score at this rate he’ll need to work on his celebrations. Unfortunately for La U fans, it seems that he is almost certainly destined for Europe in the summer, with Benfica, Sporting and Sevilla among the rumoured destinations.
While Francisco Castro remains a talented young prospect, often playing as one of the wide forwards making up the front three, he needs to add more goals to his game and perhaps the successor to Vargas comes in the form of a young player from the academy. Ángelo Henríquez, still only 17 for another week, came off the bench to score in the 5-1 victory over Godoy Cruz and was on target against Cobreloa in the league with two very well taken goals. The teenager came back to haunt the Mendocinos as he scored the decisive goal in the 1-0 win on Wednesday night, all but burying El Tomba’s chances of qualification. He’s very highly regarded and Manchester Utd already have first option on him having moved quickly last year following an impressive under-17 Sudamericano championship in which he scored three times in four games. Although he is not quite ready to step up to the responsibility of being La U’s main marksman, he has done well when he’s come on and is definitely one to watch for the future, which will probably lay farther afield than Santiago.
Aside from the out and out strikers, a player that has really stepped up this year is Argentine Gustavo Lorenzetti. The departure of Canales has given him more of a run in the team and, with his ability to drop deep and float around just behind the strikers, has allowed the intelligent playmaker to provide the spark to much of the good play that has led to the team’s goals. Last night it was his incisive pass that picked out Mena’s perfectly timed run and led to Henríquez tapping in the fullback’s saved effort.
However, despite these players’ fine performances it’s not to say they have fully replaced a player as talented as Vargas. What with Ruidíaz and presumably Henríquez leaving in the not too distant future, there still remain question marks over who could be a more long term solution. Fernandes certainly has the capability if he keeps improving. If they were to bring in a new striker then one possible option would be Santiago Wanderers nippy striker Sebastián Ubilla, who currently leads the scoring charts with 11. He has attracted attention from Italy recently, being compared to Zola by Corriere dello Sport, so he may also move across to Europe this summer, but visa issues means that perhaps a move to one of the bigger Chilean sides would be a prudent step for the 21-year-old. There was a talk of Dayro Moreno last transfer window and that rumour could rear its head again come the end of the season, while Humberto “Chupete” Suazo or Mauricio Pinilla would be dream signings if they could afford it.
Aside from these purely speculative targets, Universidad de Chile appear to be finding their form again and with one more group game remaining and qualification already secured, the likes of Fernandes, Ruidíaz and co. should make the memory of Vargas a distant one for now at least.