Copa Libertadores Preview – O’Higgins, Unión Española and Universidad de Chile

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On Thursday two of Chile’s three representatives in the Copa Libertadores get their campaigns under way as one of them dreams of becoming only the second Chilean side in the competition’s history to lift the famous trophy.

Only one of the three teams in this year’s tournament, Universidad de Chile, is one of the country’s three grandes, which shows the quality throughout the Chilean peninsula.

La U, with their recent history, will interest many fans of South American football but they are actually the least interesting of the three teams. Find out more about O’Higgins and Unión Española below, as well as La U who are still coming to terms with the loss of Jorge Sampaoli, as we review the trio ahead of their start in South America’s premier competition.

ohiggins263O’Higgins

Manager: Eduardo Berizzo

One to watch: César Fuentes

How they qualified: Apertura 2013/2014 winners

Group: Lanús (ARG), Deportivo Cali (COL), Cerro Porteño (PAR)

On Sunday, thousands of O’Higgins fans took to the streets to pay tribute to the 16 fans who lost their lives exactly 12 months earlier after their bus fell off a road side as they made their way back from a watching Los Celeste draw the Campeonato Petrobas 2013 opener against defending champions Huachipato.

It has been a memorable 12 months for O’Higgins, named after famed-explorer Bernardo, good and bad. They made history by winning a play-off against Universidad Católica, having finished level on points with UC, to win the first top level Championship in their 58-year history*.

They begin their Copa Libertadores campaign on Thursday against Copa Sudamericana champions Lanús, while currently placed third in the Clausura – no mean feat considering Berizzo’s rested key players from the Apertura win, plus the significant loss of the talismanic centre back Julio Barroso to Colo Colo.

In Berizzo, they have kept the most important component of their success in recent years. He is one of the best managers in the country, and will likely be the new manager of either Universidad de Chile or Universidad Católica after the Clausura.

Berizzo has worked under Marceo Bielsa, when El Loco was Chile manager, however, he doesn’t quite share the manic philosophy Bielsa is known for. O’Higgins are more measured and methodical in their approach with the ability to speed up and slow the game down depending on the situation, which should serve them well on their travels.

They will likely continue with the 4-2-1-3 formation that has served them so well. They still have Iker Casillas look-a-like Paulo Garces in between the sticks, and they attack with pace down the wings with their full-backs, Yerson Opazo and Alejandro López normally, supporting wide men who can vary their position – Gonzalo Barriga and the mercurial Luis Pedro Figueroa.

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César Fuentes

They are strongest in the centre of midfield, however, with the experienced Braulio Leal and, now Eugenio Mena has left Chile, my favourite player Cesar Fuentes. Fuentes should be the next Chilean player to make a notable move to Europe. *SCOUT ALERT* Teams really should be looking at him. For one so young he can command and control the centre of the pitch. He always appears unfazed and mixes a combative nature with intelligence on the ball and his positioning.

They provide the base for newly-capped Chilean (he’s Argentine but his grandmother is Chilean) Pablo Hernández. He’s the number 10. Unlike normal South American number 10s. He is rangy and has an aerial presence, scoring twice on his Chilean debut one of which was a header. He moves about the pitch looking to link everyone around him and he is no short of options.

Up front is Pablo Calandria. A hit or miss striker but he topped the scoring charts last year and will be dangerous given the service.

They may not have the depth to if any key players are ruled out through injury or suspension but a relatively favourable group means they could perform quite well. They are a team that are really interesting to watch.

*I plan on writing about their win at some point even thought it was about two months ago but they do deserve an article about their success. I want to dedicate a bit of time to it and as of yet I’ve not had that time unfortunately.

Union_espanolaUnión Española

Manager: José Luis Sierra

One to watch: Cristian Chávez

How they qualified: Won the Campeonato Petrobas 2013

Group: Independiente (ECU), Botafogo (BRA), San Lorenzo (ARG)

Since José Luis Sierra took charge of Unión Española in 2010 he has built one of the most impressive and expressive teams in the country. They are the team, who at their peak, were most Barcelona-like.

To get a more in-depth background of the work Sierra has done and just how good the team have been read about his journey from left foot magician to managerial maestro.

However, in recent months there has been signs that it may be becoming a bit stale in the north of Santiago. At their best they played wide, open, expansive football and aimed to control the ball. They have done well to keep a lot of their squad together from the last year or two so have a spine with players familiar with each other. But it can work both ways – after all familiarity breeds contempt. They currently sit mid-table after a 4-1 home defeat to Colo Colo.

From what I have seen of them, and people may disagree with his assertion, they have not played with the same verve or pace but the still have an abundance of quality and have made three very good signings from what I have read, heard and remember – Cristian Chávez, Matías Campos Toro and Carlos Salom.

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José Luis Sierra

They are pretty similar to O’Higgins with their 4-2-1-3. Diego Scotti and Gonzalo Villagra are (experienced) monsters, especially the former, in the middle of midfield. Jorge Ampuero and Matías Navaratte have a solid partnership, probably one of the best in the country, in defence; a good mix of no nonsense and the ability to play out from the back as they are instructed to do.

Diego Sanchez lives up to the stereotype of goalkeepers being a bit mad but he is a very good goalkeeper who fits into the way they play – quick off his line and comfortable on the ball.

They have managed to keep Gustavo Canales, despite him ‘offering’ his services to both Colo Colo and Universidad de Chile. His experience in attack will see him offer a constant goal threat. He played a key role in La U’s Copa Sudamericana run, while Salom comes joins having had a good record at Deportes Concepción.

It will most likely be down to Chávez, who arrives having played understudy to Juan Román Riquelme at Boca Juniors and disappointed at Lanus, to provide the bullets for Canales to fire. They will need more creativity from the wins. Sebastián Jaime is hard-running, physical and can score, while Campos Toro has shown little of the quality which brought him Chilean caps.

Keep an eye out for Oscar Hernández. Currently playing with Unión Española II, he has the potential to shine as a laid-back creator.

They won’t go far just because their group looks difficult, but they will certainly make for interesting viewing, especially at the Estadio Santa Laura. While it looks old and ramshackled, it creates a good atmosphere making it a great place to watch and play football.

Universidad_de_Chile_by_masterbullaUniversidad de Chile

Manager: Cristián Romero

One to watch: Ramón Fernández

How they qualified: Copa Libertadores Liguilla Champions

Group: Cruzeiro (BRA), Defensor Sporting (URU), Real Garcilaso (PER)

Universidad de Chile overcame Paraguayans Guaraní 4-2 in the Copa Libertadores qualifying round, and the 3-2 win in Asunción meant La U became the first Chilean team to win in every country in the continent.

Scan the La U roster and you will see some familiar names – Jhonny Herrera, Osvaldo González, José Rojas and Gustavo Lorenzetti – from the team which lifted the Copa Sudamericana in 2011 or reached the semi-finals of the Copa Libertadores the following year.

However, there is no denying that there has been a gradual change and decrease in quality, which is no surprise when you see some of the ‘outs’ in the last few transfer windows. Their history will obviously make them one of the teams to look out for but to be blunt about it they are not good enough to threaten the latter stages of the tournament the way they did two years ago.

They still haven’t replaced Marcelo Diaz, who has shown how crucial he was to La U in his absence, while he has developed into arguably the key player for Chile. Charles Arañguiz has also recently vacated taking away, arguably the last bit of star dust – if you exclude Lorenzetti.

Mora

Rodrigo Mora’s spectacular goal

One of the big positives has been the appointment of Cristián Romero who has replaced the controversial figure of Marco Antonio Figueroa. It seemed that one bad result resulted in some sort of falling out or crisis. He fell out with both Jose Rojas and Osvaldo Gonzalez, while criticising the signing of Matías Caruzzo, the defender from Boca Juniors, which did not go down well. Not to mention is run-ins with press and officials.

Since Romero took over it has been a happier place, the first hiccup coming on Sunday in a 2-1 defeat to Santiago Wanderers. He seems very keen on returning La U to what they were like under Sampaoli. Although with a less talented squad. There has already been evidence of their high defensive line (which still struggles with long balls played behind them) and numbers in attack.

Yet a common theme throughout this review of La U is the decrease in quality. So much so that I have stumped for Ramón Fernández has the one to watch out for. He scored a belter against Guaraní in Paraguay seems to be trusted by Romero. Although the shoe-horning of both him and Lorenzetti into the team has left Juan Rodrigo Rojas with too much work to do and ground to cover when La U are hit on the break.

There is not the same penetration from the wings, although Roberto Cereceda is continuing to prove a capable replacement for Eugenio Mena. Patricio Rubio and Isaac Díaz will score goals in Chile but they remain unconvincing on a continental stage. Rodrigo Mora has been brought in from River Plate after struggling – he has already proved what he can do with a stunning overhead kick in the first-leg against Guaraní.

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