Losing is not something Universidad de Chile have been accustomed to lately. After a sensational 2011, the Chileans are now aiming to win the Copa Libertadores for the first time in their history. Their hopes of doing so are hanging in the balance, however, after their 2-0 reverse against Boca Juniors in the first leg of their semi-final.
Overturning that deficit will be no easy task against the Argentinians, whose domination in last week’s meeting was not wholly reflected in the scoreline. Then, three days after the loss in Buenos Aires, La U received a further blow to their morale when eternal rivals Colo Colo inflicted another 2-0 defeat on them in the semi-finals of the Chilean Apertura, ending their bid to win a third consecutive title.
“Losing those games hit us hard, but this is no time for us to sit around feeling sorry for ourselves,” Charles Aranguiz, one of the architects of Universidad de Chile’s recent achievements, told FIFA.com.
Looking ahead to the return match with Boca, the attacking midfielder maintained La U are not out of it yet: “It goes without saying that we’ve more than enough ability to turn it around. It’ll work out right as long as we put our minds to it. The important thing now is to stay calm.”
A dynamic presence in the midfield, Aranguiz possesses vision and drive and was a key offensive component of the side that won two league titles and the Copa Sudamericana last year. Nicknamed El Príncipe (The Prince), the 23-year-old would appear to have developed into the great attacking midfielder many predicted he would become when he made his debut for Cobreloa as a teenager in 2006.
Coach Jorge Sampaoli made a point of bringing him to La U at the start of last year. Since then he has flourished, taking on an even more prominent role after the departure of Eduardo Vargas for Italy.
“I think I’m in the best form of my career,” said the midfielder, who stands 5'7" tall and was born in Puente Alto, on the outskirts of Santiago. “I’ve felt great since I came here because I settled in quickly in a team where I know most of the players. You can see that on the pitch.”
Aranguiz has also been replicating his club form for his country, scoring in both of Chile’s last two qualifiers for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™, where they picked up away wins in Bolivia and then Venezuela. The two goals (the first coming in first-half injury-time against the Bolivians, and the second very late on against La Vinotinto) revealed his attacking attributes. Starting each move, Aranguiz was on hand in the opposition’s box to finish them off.
As his goalless record in this year’s Libertadores indicates, however, scoring is not one of his strongest suits. “The match against Boca would be a good time to start,” he said, aware of the stakes ahead of Thursday evening’s return game. “The key is to take whatever chances come our way, whether it’s me on the end of them or someone else. They’re a very experienced side and they won’t be giving many opportunities away.”
Reasons to believe
This is not the first time Universidad de Chile have been on the ropes in this year’s competition. They looked to be heading out in the last 16 when losing 4-1 at Deportivo Quito, only to hit back in the return with a stunning 6-0 win.
“To be honest, I can’t see a repeat of that game, where we had so much space,” warned Aranguiz. “Boca don’t give you any and they press high up the pitch, which took us by surprise in Buenos Aires. They closed us down right outside our area and never let us play our own game, which is to keep it on the deck, move and open up gaps by passing the ball around. They just didn’t let us do that.”
As defeats such as the one at the Bombonera showed, La U have been unable this year to repeat the polished away performances they produced in winning the 2011 Copa Sudamericana, a conquest that included notable wins on the road in Brazil, Argentina and Ecuador.
Asked why that is the case, Aranguiz had this to say: “One of the reasons is the opposition: teams in the Libertadores buy more players and they buy better. Then there’s the fact that we’ve had new players come into the side. Though they’ve done well, we still need to make one or two adjustments to get back to being the team we were last year.”
That said, and as the midfielder pointed out, La U’s home form has improved: “In Santiago we’ve always found a way to win games.”
The statistics show that to be the case. In their five home outings in the competition so far, the Santiago side have won four and drawn one, scoring 16 goals in those games and conceding only five. That solitary draw almost ended in disaster, however, the Chileans being held by Libertad of Paraguay in a quarter-final tie they could easily have lost and only ended up winning after a penalty shootout.
A repeat of that performance against Boca, who are unbeaten away from home, would prove fatal, though Aranguiz is thinking only positive thoughts: “We can’t look at it like that. As I said before, we need to be focused, stick to our principles and play an intelligent game. We’ve got everything we need to turn this tie around.”