After 93 minutes of Chilean suffering, La Roja are only one game away from ending what has been a 99-year curse following a scrappy, gritty and controversial win in the Clásico del Pacifico. And it was a Queens Park Rangers flop who was the hero with a two goal salvo as La Roja edged out 10-man Peru. Just.
Back in 2011, following an incredible period with Universidad de Chile Eduardo Vargas agreed a multi-million pound move across the Atlantic to Napoli. He had just helped La U, under the management of Jorge Sampaoli, to win the club’s first ever international trophy, the Copa Sudamericana. The 25-year-old was voted player of the tournament having finished as top goal scorer.
Yet disappointment in Serie A was followed by mediocrity at Valencia in La Liga and then he joined the cast of players to have failed at Queen’s Park Rangers even if he was liked by the fans and was impressive in patches. In between Napoli and Valencia here was even a spell with Gremio in Brazil. But he is still to find the consistency he enjoyed at La U and the confidence of a manager like Sampaoli. When it comes to the red of Chile, Vargas turns into a different beast.
If Alexis Sánchez, Arturo Vidal, Charles Aránguiz and Jorge Valdivia have had their moments so far, last night was all about Vargas as Chile struggled past their neighbours and rivals. His fortuitous first goal minutes before half-time drew Vargas level with Humberto Suazo in the all-time scoring records before his howizter in the second half, which put Chile back in the lead and into the final, pushed him clear of El Chupete with 22 goals in 47 caps. He is now level with Jorge Aravena and fifteen behind Marcelo Salas at the top.
The two nations have had a somewhat chequered history. Back in 1864 they joined forces for two years against the Spanish who were attempting to take back control of its former colonies in the Chincha Islands War. Thirteen years on and the countries were on the opposite sides of the Guerra del Pacifico which lasted four years and resulted in Chile increasing its land holding from Bolivia and Peru. In more recent years Peru and Chile have been at loggerheads over maritime issues.
Last night’s tempestuous encounter would have done little to smooth relations. It began as early as the fourth minute when Peruvian centre back Carlos Zambrano and Vidal clashed on the touchline with the Chilean lucky to escape a red let alone a yellow after pushing his Peruvian opponent in the face. Zambrano was soon in the book for dissent before what could prove to be a key turning point in Chile’s bid to lift the trophy on Saturday evening. Zambrano was again involved, this time winning a header but following through on Aránguiz, scraping his studs and then planting his knee into the Chilean player’s back. There could be little complaint.
Yet up until that point Peru were the dominant side. With André Carillo in for Claudio Pizarro the Los Incas attacked with pace and dynamism. Carillo joined Jefferson Farfán and ex-Unión Española trickster Christian Cueva behind the appropriately named Paolo Guerrero. The Chilean’s left-hand side, a problematic area for Sampaoli was targeted. Miko Albornoz became the third different left-back in five matches while José Rojas took Gonzalo Jara’s place in the centre of defence.
Chile were forced back by Peru’s pace and power with Luis Advíncula bombing on from right-back and Guerrero bullying Rojas who has been on a decline since the aforementioned La U Copa Sudamericana win. It was Rojas who was beaten in the air by Farfán, his effort rebounding off the post. Peru’s momentum was tempered rather than ended by the sending off. They simply regrouped and began to defend deeper.
Chile’s normal swashbuckling style was nowhere to be seen. The red card should have acted as an elixir. But there was no revival. Passing continued to be sloppy and crosses were repelled with ease. Valdivia was the one most likely to produce a spell which would break through the stern Peruvian rearguard, yet he was off by mere centimetres.
With Peru keeping compact Sanchez began to drifter wider and wider to find space to operate. He punished lax covering from Farfán who was caught up the park requiring Guerrero to try and fill in at right midfield. Sánchez easily drifted infield, curling a cross goal wards. Dummied by Aránguiz the ball came back of the post and was agonisingly bundled into the net by Vargas – Chile’s very own David Healy. Footage would show that Vargas was marginally offside when the ball was initially swung in.
It was of great relief coming only moments before the half-time interval. On came Eugenio Mena to offer a greater attacking threat down the left and David Pizarro for the underperforming Marcelo Díaz. The Fiorentina playmaker is a more adept long-range passer than Díaz, a sensible move to keep switching play and Peru moving. But at no point in the second half, except until the dying minutes when Peru tired, did Chile look like a team with an extra man.
There was no domination by numbers and territory as in the thumping of Bolivia. But Peru are a different proposition as shown by the way they swatted their fellow neighbours aside in the quarter-final. They continued to pass the ball with care and attack with pace. Advíncula was in beast mode down the right-hand side, sending in a tantalising cross for Farfán who could only shoulder it into the arms of Bravo before he provided the assist his performance deserved.
Guerrero dropped deep pulling both Mena and Rojas towards him. The latter’s confidence was shattered as he stood in no-man’s land and allowed Guerrero to find Advíncula. The right-back whipped in a cross which was heading to Carillo before Medel stuck out a foot and clipped the ball past Bravo. A goal they fully deserved.
Rather than silence the Estadio Nacional the Chileans rallied with cries of Vamos, Vamos Chilenos. The word destiny has been used as Chile have progressed in the tournament while it has been referred to as Nuestra Copa. The last time the country hosted the tournament they finished third. It is no longer a dream to achieve better but an obsession. The final won’t be enough. It is win. Win at all costs. But they had to get to the final first. Enter Eduardo Vargas.
All night Guerrero had seemingly been covered in Velcro. No matter if the ball went to his head, chest or feet, he’d make it stick, turn and twist and terrorize. This time, however, a pass into his feet bobbled around under pressure from two Chileans on the half-way line. The ball eventually broke the way of Vargas and as the defence backed of the diminutive forward spotted Pedro Gallese too far over to his left and sent an arching shot into the far corner. The trajectory suggested it took a deflection but it was all Vargas. The movement and pace on the ball were wicked. The scenes jubilant. Similar to Isla’s winner against Uruguay the crowd erupted, the bench emptied, Sampaoli exulted.
The game should have been completed moments later when Vargas had the ball in the net again with a fine volley across Gallese but he was wrongly flagged offside. But as they showed against Uruguay there is a grittier side to the team now. They aren’t pushovers and have discovered a solidity to go with their style. They looked more likely to add to the result than relinquish their lead. They kept their nerve and held on until the end.
That was there aim at the start. To be there at the end. A further step forward has been achieved. Only the winner of Paraguay and Argentina now stand between Chile and glory. Between heartbreak and hero worship.