Everyone knows the goal. Chile had qualified for their first World Cup since 1982 and La Roja are at Wembley playing England in a warm-up game for France ’98. The ball drifts over the head of David Batty and there he is, Marcelo Salas. In his stride he controls the ball with his left thigh before volleying past Nigel Martyn one of the most memorable goals scored at the famous stadium.
Understandably it is Salas’s deadly marksmanship that is recalled time and time again. But what most people tend to neglect is the sublime, floated pass which locates Salas. A pass delivered from the half-way line and a pass so perfect in both its pace and trajectory that the iconic Chilean striker need not deviate from his natural movement. That pass came from the majestic left foot of José Luis Sierra.
More than 15 years later, and in the dugout of Santiago based side Unión Española, Sierra has just delivered another memorable feat, leading la furia roja to the seventh league title in their 116-year history and first since the 2005 Apertura, and in the process making up for the disappointment of losing last year’s Clausura play-off final to Huachipato.
Appointed in 2010, Sierra is a self-confessed Española fan who was part of the playing squad when the club last tasted success in the league. His and the club’s history have been intertwined for nearly 30 years. He came through the youth system of the club amassing more than 500 appearances for the club in two spells that bookended either side of his playing career. In his first spell there were three Copa Chile successes and in the latter the aforementioned league win.
Even when he was not playing for the club he was still having a hand in their fortunes. He scored a goal for Colo Colo in a 3-2 win at the Estadio Santa Laura which condemned UE to a play-off against Antofagasta, resulting in relegation from the Primera División for the first time in their history – in the year which they celebrated their centenary.
Sierra’s emotions after the goal said it all. He instantly grabbed his top and pulled it over his head, while throwing his hands out as if to ask ‘why did I just do that?!’
But any feelings of resentment Española hinchas held over el Coto were wiped away after the 2005 triumph and he entered the pantheon of great club servants at the weekend after securing a title as their head coach – only the 10th coach in Chile to win both as player and manager.
This season has been the culmination of hard work, belief in a system, patience and gradual growth over the last three years.
Sierra took over for an eight game spell in 2010, leading the club to fifth place in his first year in charge and into the Copa Libertadores through the Liguilla play-offs.
But his real work would begin in 2011 with the employment of a 4-2-1-3 formation which focused on ball possession with the aim of stocking the team with creative and attacking talent. When the league reverted back to the Apertura/Clausura format in 2011, two play-off finishes would ensue resulting in another qualification for the Copa Libertadores in 2012.
It was that year that Sierra’s work, in the shadow of Jorge Sampaoli at Universidad de Chile, began to get a semblance of recognition it deserved. They reached the knock-out stages of the Copa Libertadores, only to be defeated by Juan Roman Riquelme-inspired Boca Juniors who reached the final, but maintained their form in the league by reaching the play-offs of both the Apertura and Clausura.
The team showed not only their confidence but the quality they possess by defeating the tres grandes in 2012 Apertura and Clausura play-offs; 4-1 aggregate wins over La U and Universidad Católica and a 5-1 aggregate win over Colo Colo.
They looked to be heading for the Clausura 2012 title as they took a 3-1 lead to Talcahuano for the second-leg against Huachipato. But in cruel fashion they not only conceded late on to lose the game 3-1 but they were then defeated on penalties.
In an interview with 3TV in April Sierra admitted that “the biggest error that I have committed is to have lost last year’s final against Huachipato. I attributed it completely and it turns me until today. I spent a week thinking and thinking that I could have done something different.”
But is time for redemption would soon come.
While many continued to be taken by the swashbuckling football of Jorge Sampaoli and his La U side this writer maintains that Española were at times more entertaining to watch.
Under Sierra they had found a balance between La U’s relentless pressing and attacking and a more possession based approach. The full-backs stayed wide and high, the centre backs would collect possession from the goalkeeper, the two midfielders would act as a link between defence and attack, while offering, protection to allow the central playmaker to terrorise opposition defenders alongside the front three each possessing different qualities.
It seemed the chance to win silverware had gone for Sierra after the heartbreak in December as important players moved on, including goalkeeper Eduardo Lobos, centre back and captain Rafael Olarra, Argentine dynamo Mauro Díaz, the most exciting attacker in the 2012 Clausura Emiliano Vecchio as well as the inconsistent but equally talented Emilio Hernández.
Yet Sierra and the club highlighted their nous in the transfer market, replacing each player and keeping the dynamic of the side the same, allowing for a continuation of the club’s project that had appealed to Sierra.
The key signings of Diego Sánchez, Francisco Castro and Christian Cueva were supplemented by the confidence placed in players from the club’s youth ranks, including Matías Navarette, Mario Larenas and Oscar Hernández. The most notable addition was that of Gustavo Canales who returned to the club for his third spell having tested positive for a banned substance while playing in Argentina with Arsenal de Sarandí. But he could not feature until the end of March.
Along with those still at the club they would go on to play important roles in the season, which kicked into gear in week three against La U in the Estadio Nacional after opening the campaign with a win and a defeat.
In two games Española knocked in seven unanswered goals against los azules and Audax Italiano. The win over La U was most telling; Española putting in performance full of verve and one that was more dominant than the 3-0 win suggested. Sampaoli’s La U were termed the ‘Barcelona of the Americas’ but in Chile many likened Española to the Catalans.
The La U result begun a run of nine games unbeaten in the league and Sierra’s side looked to have matured as a team and become more rounded in comparison to previous campaigns. They are an adventurous side who play with a high-line, press high and work hard off the ball. Anyone who knows a thing or two about football will know it is fun to watch but the side do take risks.
Since 2010 there has been a vulnerability about Española which has resulted in goals being conceded. However, the recruitment process, added to the development of key young players to go with the talented players already at the Estadio Santa Laura brought about a firm spine which, when unbroken, required military precision and skill, usually only seen by Jack Bauer 24, to break it down.
Despite relegation with Unión San Felipe last season, Diego Sánchez has been unfazed producing exceptional performance after exceptional performance. Even when he has had little to do he exerts complete confidence with amusing ball skills both with the ball at his feet and in his hand. Anyone who seen Lobos last year would have been concerned for Sierra trying to find a replacement but he has been the ideal signing for the way UE want to play; comfortable with the ball at his feet and rapid off his line as if been propelled by a slingshot.
In front of him he had the formidable partnership of Jorge Ampuero and Navarette. The former found a consistency to not only lead Navarette but the team. The duo were incredible together and Ampuero would have came in for infinitely more praise if it wasn’t for the performances of his 21-year-old defensive partner. Quick and confident, he displayed all the qualities of a top level centre back with a fine understanding of the defensive arts and an ability to advance from the defence with the ball.
In attack the team are overrun with talent. The season started with Francisco Castro, Patricio Rubio, and the indefatigable Sebastián Jaime leading the line with the stardust provided by 20-year-old Oscar Hernández. An unknown quality before the season he offered a different proposition to the man he replaced, Vecchio. A throwback to the classic/traditional number 10; graceful and almost gangly. Rather than bursts of power and fleet-footed dribbling, he ambled about the pitch looking for pockets of space to get the ball and provide the bullets for the strikers to shoot. There were moments when his fearlessness game to the fore. Against Audax Italiano he produced a fabulous turn no one expected but instead of laying on a goal for a team mate he impulsively shot high and wide. He did find himself substituted more often than not with exciting Peruvian Christian Cueva an alternate solution providing similar qualities to Vecchio.
But in between defence and attack was the glue that held the team together. Veterans Gonzalo Villagra and Diego Scotti – labelled the two pillars by La Tercera. They were the hook. Thirty-one-year-old Villagra would often start attacks from deep and hold the fort when the team attacked, while Scotti’s Uruguayan legs belied the 36 years on his birth certificate to provide attacking runs and smart ball circulation.
It appeared the task of going on to lift the league title was a formality especially as Gustavo Canales returned from his drug ban. But disaster struck in La Calera when both Scotti and Villagra left the pitch with injuries and la furia roja fell to their first defeat since week two, with defeat number three coming the following weekend against title rivals O’Higgins.
The side looked to have hit a brick wall, with the latter loss showing a sign of weakness in Sierra’s side; the ability to beat a team who were organised, disciplined and defended deep.
With four games left Española were not just holding off one team, but attempting to hold off five who harboured realistic aims of winning the league. But one-by-one they won their games and one-by-one their challengers fell.
Nerves had made their presence felt but they were swatted away with composure and patience. Only once in the four games did Española lead at half-time – seven of the eight goals came after the 66th minute. And in times like those big players score big goals and Gustavo Canales, the darling of the Santa Laura crowd, netted on five occasions.
The final encounter, with Colo Colo epitomised not just the run-in but the positivity instilled in the team by Sierra. Española had their first half chances, while at the other hand Sánchez made crucial saves and the centre back duo made decisive interjections – the team ending with only 12 goals conceded in 17 games – before right-back Dagoberto Currimilla appeared in Colo Colo’s box after a counter-attack to fire a cross-shot into the six yard box for Rubio to knock home and give Española their first title in eight years. A fine personal moment for Rubio who only three years ago was struggling to provide for himself let alone his family when playing in Argentina for Rivadavia.
“With Colo Colo I won three titles, but to win one with Unión Española has another price.”
In the days leading up to the game Sierra had been linked with the now vacant post at the Estadio Monumental – but would only be considered if he won the tournament. However, he is heading to Spain to meet the Española’s owner Jorge Segovia to discuss a new contract, with his current one lasting until next year, while putting plans in place for the 2014 Copa Libertadores.
Just as he had to do with the Salas goal, Sierra lived in the shadow of Sampaoli’s Universidad de Chile success. But now he is finally getting the recognition he has deserved for the last three years.