No stopping Sampaoli and La U's rise
© AFP

Few teams around the world have been in better form during the past 18 months than Universidad de Chile. Having defeated rivals Universidad Catolica in the 2011 Apertura final to secure their 14th Chilean title, La U then navigated the subsequent Clausura campaign with just one loss in 23 games to be crowned domestic champions once again in December of last year.

Just a fortnight before that double victory was completed, Jorge Sampaoli’s side secured the first and only international trophy of the club’s 85-year history to date, the 2011 Copa Sudamericana. Brushing aside Flamengo, Arsenal Sarandi and Vasco da Gama on the way to a showpiece meeting with Liga de Quito, Universidad thrashed their opponents from Ecuador 4-0 on aggregate and finished the competition unbeaten.

Three of their goals across the two-legged final came from forward Eduardo Vargas, who also finished as the tournament’s top scorer with a record 11 strikes. The Chilean’s dynamism from a wide position was often a key factor in La U’s excellent campaign and his performances soon attracted the attention of Europe’s biggest clubs, with a move to Serie A side Napoli sealed in January 2012.

Vargas’ departure appears to have had little negative effect on the Santiago-based outfit, however, and Sampaoli could guide his men to surpass their previous achievements during the months to come. Universidad finished five points ahead of their closest rivals when the regular Apertura season concluded in May and they hold a two-goal advantage after the first leg of their play-off quarter-final against Cobreloa as they go in search of a third consecutive title.

I cannot imagine La U not trying to play with the intensity that we always play. I’d never tell my team to safeguard [a result].
Jorge Sampaoli, Universidad de Chile coach

Even more significantly, La U are four matches away from claiming their first-ever Copa Libertadores title. Universidad finished as the fourth best team of the competition’s group stage before eliminating Deportivo Quito and Libertad, narrowly after a penalty shoot-out, to set up a semi-final showdown with Argentinian heavyweights Boca Juniors. Corinthians or Santos potentially await in the final.

Much of Universidad’s success can be attributed to the tactical acumen and decision-making of Sampaoli. Like many of his peers, the 52-year-old has been heavily influenced by Argentinian coach Marcelo Bielsa, who altered the thinking of Chilean football during his four years at the helm of the national team. “My relationship with Bielsa is almost mythical,” Sampaoli told FIFA.com in February.

The man nicknamed ‘El Loco’ had a significant impact on the South American country and its football, introducing a high-intensity game with a focus on pressing and hard running. Bielsa’s methods helped La Roja reach the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™, where they impressed the watching world before being eliminated by Brazil at the Round of 16 stage.

Although Bielsa has since departed to Spain and Athletic Bilbao, his effect can still be witnessed throughout the country’s domestic league, not least at Universidad. Sampaoli has taken his compatriot’s typical 3-3-1-3 formation and fine-tuned it to suit La U, but has also been willing to adapt his tactics when necessary. Subtle changes dependant on the opposition have proven a cornerstone of his approach, paying off handsomely during their triumphant Sudamericana campaign.

Challenges await in June
Sampaoli has travelled a nomadic path to Universidad, having started his coaching career a decade ago in Peru. Taking charge of four different Peruvian clubs in five years, culminating in a short-lived spell at Sporting Cristal in 2007, Sampaoli first arrived in Chile a year later to take the reins at O’Higgins. He then switched to Emelec of Ecuador before his appointment at La U kick-started an unprecedented period of achievement for both coach and club.

A passionate collector of football videos with a keen interest in technology, Sampaoli has a strong sense of self-belief in his methods. He recently told the club’s website that his team would never abandon their intense style of play. “I cannot imagine La U not trying to play with the intensity that we always play,” the coach explained. “I’d never tell my team to safeguard [a result].”

June will present the biggest challenge to Sampaoli’s philosophy, however, as La U chase glory at home and on the continent. Should they complete the job against Cobreloa, a two-legged semi-final and final must be navigated for a third successive championship, a feat only previously accomplished by Colo Colo and Magallanes.

Progress to a maiden Libertadores trophy, and with it qualification to the FIFA Club World Cup Japan 2012, seems even tougher too, with reigning Argentinian champions and current league leaders Boca standing in their way in the last four. Universidad have been beaten just twice during the 2012 edition, though, and given their stunning exploits during 2011, few would doubt that this could be the year of La U again.