Joel SkedComment

PREVIEWING THE CHILEAN APERTURA

Joel SkedComment

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2011 was the year of Universidad de Chile. Winning the Apertura after a manic two-legged play-off final against rivals Universidad Católica was the warm-up for the season which will be the reference point for years to come; 36 matches undefeated, a Clausura title and a Copa Sudamericana win, prompting much attention and fascination in the way they played under Jorge Sampaoli – unbeaten throughout the tournament, conceding only two goals but thrilling fans with their exhilarating and dominant attacking play.

The success could be traced back to the mid-to-late ‘noughties’. As the decade wound down Chilean football woke up in terms of recognition out-with South America. Marcelo Bielsa took over the national team, leading Chile to South Africa in 2010; the country’s first World Cup since 1998. In South Africa the national team won admiring glances for their expansive and high-tempo approach in what was a notoriously turgid and low-scoring tournament. On the back of the World Cup Chilean’s became a valuable commodity in Europe while those who were already playing in Europe, such as Alexis Sanchez and Mauricio Isla enjoyed burgeoning reputations. At the turn of the New Year the Primera Divisón exported another fine talent in Eduardo Vargas, with Napoli paying in excess of £10m.

The Primera División and ANFP –Chile’s national football association – should be given credit at a time when coaches and supporters are lining to have a dig at their national associations. Appointing Bielsa, now at Athletic Bilbao, was a shrewd decision, not only in what he achieved with the national side, but his influence on players and other coaches which has already reaped rewards through the Bielsa-disciple Sampaoli and should leave a lasting impression on the country’s football.

The league system of 18 teams also plays its part despite its complexities (can be read in more detail here). Since its inception in 2002 there have been 11 different teams contest play-off finals showing a degree of competitiveness missing from many leagues in Europe and an environment in which young players are granted opportunities.

2012 is setting up to be another exciting, intriguing and competitive year with added attention, a new batch of talented youngsters and eye-catching signings.

As Universidad de Chile romped to a 4-0 aggregate triumph over LDU Quito in the final of the Copa Sudamericana talk began of the clubs assault on the 2012 Copa Liberatadores – IF they could hold on to the squad assembled by few, mastered by one. Before celebrations had died down however Vargas had left for pastures new. But the expected exodus of the Copa Sudamericana winning team failed to materialise. Now Sampaoli has a team missing the éclat of Vargas but a squad with an array of options.

Despite Tension arising between goalkeepers Jhonny Herrera and Paulo Garcés during the break which, with Herrera involved, is unsurprising most of the focus has been centred on the transfers in and out of the club.

A group of Flamengo fans campaigned to have Sampaoli appointed at their club; the 4-0 thrashing they received from La U in Brazil still firmly in mind. Importantly for the club he has stayed and freshened up the squad with further dynamism in Junior Fernandes, a stand-out for Palestino last year, Peruvian ‘wunderkind’ Raúl Ruidíaz and Ecuadorian centre back Eduardo Morante who should replace Flamengo-bound Marcos González. Pedro Morales has returned from Dinamo Zagreb to offer further fantasy in a midfield already laden with the talents of Marcelo Díaz, Charles Aránguiz and Gustavo Lorenzetti.

A side built on pressing and combination play, it was essential that Díaz and Aránguiz, Eugenio Mena and Osvaldo González have stayed loyal while José Rojas’ transfer to Botafogo fell through and Matías Rodríguez remains.

Excitement surrounds the signing of Ruidíaz on a six-month loan with the forward a potential Vargas replacement but there should be further opportunities for those from La U’s prosperous youth system; Sebastián Martinez, Christian Bravo and Igor Lichnovsky showed why they are highly thought of in fleeting appearances in Clausura matches while much is expected of striker Ángelo Henríquez. All should see involvement along with the new signings in the Apertura as the clubs thoughts centre around adding winning their first Liberatadores title.

La U’s internationa ambitions may be a blessing for the pretenders; most notably Santiago rivals Universidad Católica and Colo Colo. The managers of both clubs came under scrutiny in the Clausura but remain in their jobs and have endeared rather enjoyed the break over New Year.

Católica, who succumbed to La U in the play-offs of both Championships in 2011, were at odds with their rivals ever since the season ended. They claimed Los Azules had an agreement in place with both Roberto Cereceda and Fernando Meneses, important first team players at Cató, before the Clausura semi-final play-off. A claim denied by both players and club. Only the former ended up penning a contract with La U. Meneses is involved in a contractual dispute with the club yet has signed for Peruvians Alianza Lima.

Mario Lepe was criticised for his team’s negative play as he struggled to qualify UC for the end of season play-offs and it appeared as if Lepe may encounter another struggle; Cerceda and Meneses were joined by talismanic captain Milovan Mirosevic and strikers Pablo Calandria and César Carignano through the exit door. Lepe has done well to recruit Paraguayan striker Roberto Ovelar as well as two notable performers in the Clausura; Nicolás Trecco who was inspiring in Cobreloa’s run to the play-off final and Chilean international Matías Campos Toro on loan from Spaniards Granada after his move from Audax Italiano.

Católica are the second of three Chilean representatives in the Liberatadores but may not have the depth to compete on two fronts. It will be an important year for the wonderfully named Kevin Harbottle. The 20-year-old stood out in the crunch games towards the end of the Clausura.

Colo Colo do not have the distraction of international competition with the club investing in a team that is expected to challenge for the clubs first title since the 2009 Clausura title. A place in the play-offs semi-final is the minimum requirement.

Those in charge of the club want to be back in international competition, namely the 2012 Copa Sudamericana. Two stalwarts from the past returned to the club they began their career with in Chilean internationalist’s Pablo Contreras and Gonzalo Fierro. The vastly experienced Contreras is expected to shore up what has been too porous a defence for a club of Colo Colo’s stature. Despite the financial outlay on various talents performances in the warm-up games drew mixed reactions. Plagued with goalkeeping errors it seems the club neglected to strengthen an important position to help cure defensive inadequacies. And with Esteban Paredes struggling in front of goal they are lacking a ‘go-to-man’.

Pressure is expected at Chile’s most successful club and if Ivo Basay can get his back three to gel Los Albos have the necessary attacking verve and fluidity to torment most backlines.

Audax Italiano, Cobreloa and Chile’s third Copa Liberatadores representatives Unión Española have all seen their most valued talents leave for greater riches. Los Tanos are the most affected. Not only have they lost Campos Toro but also top scorer Facundo Pereyra, creator Crisitián Canío and the gifted Bryan Carrasco who caught the attention of Udinese’s all-seeing eye. Recruitment of solid Primera Divisón players and the retention of young defender Lucas Domínguez should still see the La Florida club challenge for a play-off place along with Cobreloa. Nelson Acosta has lost Trecco and goalkeeper Nicols Peric but purchased Canio to join a well-organised and functioning side.

Española have already begun the season well with a 1-0 first round first-leg Copa Liberatadores victory over Mexico’s Tigres. They will have to make do without stocky goal-getter Leandro Monje after his move to Argentina but have not been shy in the transfer market. Mauro Díaz, formerly of River Plate should be a player of interest.

The surprise of the Apertura may well be Fernando Vergara’s Deportes Iquique. Promoted in 2010, consolidation in 2011 a run at the play-offs in 2012 should not surprise after astute transfer dealings which has brought midfielder Edson Puch back from the United Arab Emirates to the “team of his heart.” He is joined by the gangly and versatile wing-back Boris Rieloff who possesses skill belying his stature and tremendous stamina.

It should be commended that only three teams begin the new season with a new man at the helm. It was close to four but Víctor Castañeda hung onto his job at Universidad de Concepción.

Palestino’s new coach Daniel Carreño has an air of Andre Villas-Boas about him; young, well-dressed, and bold. Introducing his eight signings he stated that with a mixture of youth and experience the expectation is to reach the play-offs in both tournaments and a good run in the Copa Chile.

Santiago Wanderers survived relegation on the last day of the Clausura and Arturo Salah will be expected to further develop the youth at the club. He will look to journeyman Pablo Calandria for goals and experience. Eduardo Berizzo at O’Higgins may have the toughest job on his hands replacing marksman Sebastián Pinto who has moved to Turkey. Berizzo will be hoping his nine new arrivals can compensate for Pinto’s absence. Come the Clausura it won’t be of great shock if O’Higgins are scrapping for points to stay above the Primera B threshold.

The two new arrivals from Primera B are Antofagasta and Rangers. Unlike their Scottish namesake Rangers have made a plethora of signings; 13 in to replace the 13 that departed. By signing goalkeeper Peric from Cobreloa they have gained a solid last line of defence who could prove the difference between a good and bad start to the Apertura as the club acclimatise themselves to the league they left behind in 2009.

Antofagasta were relegated the year before Rangers but shone in promotion last year, winning 22 of 38 games. Gustavo Huerta was less active in the transfer market which shows that he has confidence in the players who got him promotion.

Once the action gets under way on Friday night expect the next few months to fly by with goals, attacking football and vivacious talent; Primera Divisón style.

You can read more on Chilean football from Joel at The Red One, and be sure to follow him on twitter @sked21

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