The Copa Sul-Americana (or Sudamericana in the Spanish-speaking majority of South America) is a rather odd tournament. It is highly under-valued all over the continent, but particularly in Brazil, where the midweek games at key points in the tournaments are seen as little more than unwelcome distractions. For example this year, when São Paulo, Botafogo and Flamengo were eliminated in the space of 24 hours at the last-16 stage, there was some immediate surprise, but it was very quickly forgotten.
Think of it as the South American version of the Europa League, but with considerably longer travel times.
The tournament got a little boost in the past few years after CONMEBOL decided to award an extremely valuable place to the following year’s Copa Libertadores group stage. As a result, a number of the continent’s ‘lesser’ sides shifted their focus towards the Copa Sul-Americana and away from their own tough domestic campaign, in search of an ‘easy’ route into the Copa Libertadores.
However a close look at this year’s semi-finalists reveals an intriguing anomaly. All four of the teams still alive in the competition are already guaranteed (or almost guaranteed in Liga de Quito’s case) qualification to the 2012 Copa Libertadores through their own respective domestic successes. Does this mean the Copa Sul-Americana is becoming more and more important to South America’s big guns? Quite possibly.
The first of these semi-finals saw Brazilians Vasco da Gama hosting Universidad de Chile at the São Januário in Rio de Janeiro, two of South America’s best teams in 2011. Vasco’s success started early, after winning the Copa do Brasil and sealing their Libertadores qualification along with it. Instead of subsequently taking their foot off the gas for the rest of the season (a worrying problem in Brazil and other South American nations), Vasco pushed on and now with only two rounds still to play in the Brazilian league championship, they are still in with a shout of winning the hotly contested Brasileirão.
Similarly, la “U” won their Copa Libertadores qualification early on in the year, but have gone from strength to strength since then. They strolled to the Torneo Apertura in their native Chile in June, and are in prime position to achieve the clean sweep by winning the Torneo Clausura, having gone unbeaten throughout the entire campaign. In fact, after this result on Wednesday night, Universidad de Chile are now unbeaten in a staggering twenty nine games. Their last defeat came in July.
On the way to the semi-finals, la “U” have been in clinical form, crushing every opponent in their path – including Vasco’s bitter rivals Flamengo - by winning both their home and away legs. However, Vasco’s form has been rather unorthodox, but it certainly has given their fans superb value for money. Vascão have developed a habit of fielding a weakened side in the opening leg away from home and being soundly beaten, before dramitically turning it around in the second leg at the São Januário. The 8×3 win over Aurora (9×6 on aggregate) and 5×2 over Peruvians Universitário (5-4 on aggregate) tell their own story.
Vasco were hit with some injury worries on match day, with forwards Diego Souza and Éder Luis ruled out of contention. The two were left on the bench (as there was not time to call up replacements) and were replaced by youngsters Bernardo and Allan. Cristóvão Borges – Vasco’s interim coach whilst Ricardo Gomes recovers from the stroke he suffered in August (Força Ricardo!) – has often been accused of declining to change anything in the side, but this is simply untrue. Since he assumed temporary control, Cristóvão has been tinkering constantly with the personnel and tactics of his Vasco side. For this one, Vasco started with their basic 4-4-2 diamond system, with veteran Felipe at the tip of the diamond as the number ten, and the energetic Allan on the right side, working tirelessly.
La “U” boss Jorge Sampaoli – a Bielsa disciple if there ever was one – was without any selection problems and went with his 3-3-1-3 shape, a true homage to el Loco. Again, Sampaoli is a coach who will constantly be making small adjustments to his side, and before every game he and his coaching team will obsessively study his opponents.
Note: Universidad de Chile (right to left) did play in white on Wednesday night, unfortunately finding a good picture of this shirt was near impossible…
We had a frantic, fast paced start to this game, typical of Universidad de Chile this season. La “U” play an extremely high-tempo match, pressing constantly, closing down in packs and playing a lovely compact passing game in possession. These qualities have earned them the nickname of the ‘Barcelona das Americas’ in the media. La “U”s main threat is their wonderful right winger Eduardo Vargas, whose superb performances for both club and country have gathered admirers from Europe’s biggest clubs. He plays a role not too dissimilar to Pedro or David Villa at the Catalan club, operating out wide but darting in-field to provide a devastating central threat.
Another key player to la “U” is diminutive Argentine midfielder Gustavo Lorenzetti. An attacking midfielder by nature, 26 year old Lorenzetti plays an important role in the Chilean club, moving back and forward, joining the front three and subsequently dropping back into the midfield three. A ‘false ten’ if you will. Tonight he wasn’t so effective though, a testament to Vasco’s young midfielder Rômulo who marshaled the defensive midfield area superbly.
Vasco began to grow into the game after roughly half an hour, and after a flurry of chances they managed to take the lead on 33 minutes. The goal was somewhat fortuitous, a diagonal pass from Fágner took a wicked deflection and fell into the path of the on-rushing Bernardo who controlled well and tucked the ball into the bottom corner. Fortuitous, but it still displayed the defensive frailties of la “U”s system. Bernardo ghosted in behind the back line effortlessly, and was allowed ample time in possession to bring the ball down and place the shot well into the net.
Immediately after the goal, the ever-reactive Sampaoli made a tactical switch, bringing off the silenced Lorenzetti and replacing him with right-sided Argentine Matías Rodríguez. They immediately sacrificed their 3-3-1-3 shape and moved to a flat line of four in the midfield behind the three forwards, a brave move so early on in the match.
Vasco made a couple of changes going into the second half, bringing off Felipe and Elton, and replacing them with Fellipe Bastos and Alecsandro. Both players had picked up knocks during the game, but these changes were certainly tactical, with a view to shoring up the midfield and holding on to the 1-0.
Here you can see the altered shapes of both sides. Vasco went to a flat 4-3-3 with their substitutions, Fellipe Bastos going into a deep role in the midfield and Allan moving forward to join the front three. This switch is one that Cristóvão Borges often likes to make in the later phases of matches, and as we saw in their loss to Santos, it really doesn’t work.
Breaking up the diamond in Vasco’s midfield appears the ruin the whole formation. When they move to the 4-3-3, they retain no link between midfield and attack, and as a result are left really quite ineffective going forward.
La “U” then took control of the midfield, dominated most of the play and duly scored the equaliser 12 minutes from time, with centre-back Osvaldo González scoring a looping header from a long freekick. It was the least that la “U” deserved after their dogged and workmanlike performance, but Vasco were disappointed to concede after such poor marking from the set-piece.
The 1-1 draw leaves the tie tantalisingly poised going into next week’s second leg in Santiago de Chile, and even though both sides have decisive league games on the weekend afterwards, I hope to see both sides really going for the win.
As far as this game was concerned, it was not a classic, and both teams will have their own complaints about how the game went. But it was a great chance to watch two of 2011′s most impressive South American teams clash, and the mix of styles was at times fascinating to watch. Vasco’s intelligent attacking play makes for exciting viewing against la “U”s high defensive line, and on the other side of the ball, it is always exhilarating to watch a side playing Bielsa’s 3-3-1-3 so well. The match lost a bit of rhythm when Vasco moved to three up front, but it allowed la “U” to score a much deserved equaliser.