Copa Sudamericana semi-finals throw up some tantalizing ties

(Article first featured on In Our Humble Opinion 20/11/11)

South America’s version of the Europa League has reached the semi final stage setting up some mouth watering showdowns between some of the continent’s most exciting teams.  Unlike the European equivalent the Copa Sudamericana still represents a meaningful tournament for the teams involved and four clubs from four different countries all have a chance of lifting silverware.

The first semi-final pits Brazilian giants Vasco da Gama against the in-form Universidad de Chile.  Vasco avoided any upsets against surprise package Universitario from Peru, recovering from a 2 goal deficit to win 5-4, while La ‘U’ consummately brushed aside Argentine outfit Arsenal de Sarandi 5-1 on aggregate.  The Chileans have lit up the competition with some dazzling football, leading some to label them the ‘Barcelona of South America’.  Under the leadership of Jorge Sampaoli they play fast, aggressive, high tempo attacking football with emphasis placed on quick ball recovery and pressing.  Similar to the style of ex-national team boss Bielsa, they are however much more solid defensively.  They are also unbeaten in the league this season and in the calendar year have only lost 3 games in all competitions.  Furthermore, their title credentials were underlined after the Santiago club dismantled Flamengo 4-0 away from home.  Can Universidad be the first Chilean club in 20 years or so to emerge as a real power?

They have some exciting players such as Francisco Castro and young promise Angelo Henriquez but leading their hopes is on-form striker Eduardo Vargas.  Top scorer in the competition with 7 goals, he has inevitably drawn comparisons with national idol Alexis Sanchez and been linked with a number of European clubs. The tireless forward possesses great acceleration and pace, can finish well off both feet and has good dribbling skills too.  All hopes will be on Vargas to fire them into the final.

The man charged with stopping him, Vasco’s imperious young centre back Dedé.  Widely considered one of the best centre backs in Brazil currently and attracting a lot of attention from Europe, notably Juventus.  Tall, powerful and surprisingly quick and gets his fair share of goals too, Dede is already a hero among the Vasco fans, and has earned nicknames such as O Mito (The Myth) and Dedéckenbauer.  In my opinion he could well be pushing for a starting place at the back for Brazil at their next World Cup.  Vasco themselves are having a successful season, lying in second place, and have a squad mixed with experience and youth.  Both legs of the semi-final will certainly be fascinating and evenly contested by these two exciting sides.

In the other semi final sees current Argentine champions Velez Sarsfield take on Ecuadorian side LDU de Quito. Velez have for the last couple of years been the stand-out team in Argentina and if everything goes accordingly they should make the final.  But their success has come at a price.  As mentioned in a previous blog, they lost star men Ricky Alvarez, Maxi Moralez & Santiago Silva and consequently have suffered a slight blip in form.  However, El Fortin have recovered strongly and still have plenty of decent players with in the likes of Emiliano Papa and Sebastian Dominguez  in defence and a strong midfield of David Ramirez, Augusto Fernandez, and Hector Canteros, with the mercurial and highly talented Juan Manuel Martinez now accompanied by ex-Hammer Guillermo Franco.  Liga are no chumps though and have lifted both the Libertadores and Sudamericana in recent years.  They have some experienced players such as Luis Bolaños, Paraguayan Enrique Vera and veteran villain Ulises de la Cruz.  In young striker Jose Francisco Cevallos and ‘keeper Jhon Jaramillo they have some decent prospects for the future too 

After last year’s loss to Peñarol in the semis of the Copa Libertadores, I expect Velez to learn from their mistake and take a deserved place in the final.  Having said that, Liga will be no walk-over and any one of the four teams left have a very real chance of lifting the title come mid-December.