Voyage into the unknown

One of the great joys of South American competition is that nobody knows anything.

Teams are in such a state of flux that there is no consistency. Nobody can ever build a dynasty and, at the same time, any side could shake the kaleidoscope and come up with a devastating combination.

Universidad de Chile were the stand-out side of last year, winning both the apertura and clausura in Chile and going on to lift the Copa Sudamericana in thrilling style, sweeping all before them with their Marcelo Bielsa-inspired high line, hard-pressing and vertical football.

Their coach, the Argentinian Jorge Sampaoli, was almost as much fun as the team. He is a self-confessed “disciple” of Bielsa, but while El Loco is famous for taking precisely 13 strides to cross his technical area, Sampaoli, whose sartorial sense is Tony Pulis baseball cap rather than Bielsa granny-glasses, fizzes around in a state of constant fury.

Inevitably, the predators came circling after the Sudamericana final.

Eduardo Vargas, the free-scoring right-sided forward, went to Napoli. His strike partner Gustavo Canales went to the Chinese side Dalian Aerbin and the defender Marcos Gonzalez to Flamengo. Jose Manuel Rojas, now the captain, would have joined him in Brazil but for a failed medical.

Not surprisingly, La U have wobbled as Sampaoli readjusts — and, it should be said, a lot of sides who have a season as good as they had last season find it hard to start again the following year.

Their 3-0 defeat to O’Higgins (based in Rancagua and named after Bernardo O’Higgins, one of the founding fathers of Chile and the illegitimate son of Ambrosio O’Higgins, a Spanish aristocrat born in Sligo) at the end of February came as a particular shock. O’Higgins are joint leaders of the Chilean championship, but what makes them particularly notable is that they are coached by Eduardo Berizzo, who was Bielsa’s assistant as coach of the Chile national team.

El Loco was notoriously distant, preferring to shut himself away with his tapes rather than engage with other Chilean coaches, but his influence is far-reaching and, as South America-based journalist Tim Vickery points out, his time as national manager not merely gave Chile a discernible identity, something their football had lacked until then, but also one that fits perfectly with the stereotype of the Chilean player: short, skilful and industrious.

La U drew 1-1 away to Penarol in the Copa Libertadores last Tuesday, a result that leaves them second in the group and well-placed to qualify. The rangy striker Junior Fernandes got their goal with a fierce volley, adding to the impression that he may in time turn out to be a highly effective replacement for Vargas.

But the team who have really caught the eye are the group leaders, Atletico Nacional of Medellin. They have brought in 18 players over the past year, effectively rebuilding the side that won the Colombia apertura last season. They beat La U 2-0 in their first group game and followed that up with a 4-0 demolition of Penarol in Montevideo.

Their captain, Macnelly Torres (he is named after a baseball player in vogue at the time of his birth), has returned to Atletico after a successful loan spell there from Colo Colo of Chile in the apertura last year — he spent the second half of the year on loan with the Mexican side San Luis — is an intelligent playmaker, his link up with the explosive Dorlan Pabon, who has six goals in three games so far, being the key to their fluent attacking play.

They had looked solid at the back, as well, keeping clean sheets in their first two Libertadores games, but then drew 4-4 against Godoy Cruz in an astonishing game in Mendoza last Thursday. Coming on the back of successive 1-0 defeats in the Colombian league, that perhaps suggests Santiago Escobar’s side are not as well equipped as La U were last season to emerge from the shadows and overwhelm the continent.

And, although they have played two away games, the fact they have to go to Santiago perhaps means their passage to the last 16 is not as secure as it seems. Certainly Godoy Cruz, for whom Leandro Caruso hit a hat-trick, looked a different team to the side humiliated by La U.

Next week’s games — Atletico Nacional against Godoy Cruz and Universidad de Chile against Penarol, should be fascinating.

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