Big week for South America's big guns
The Chileans, ‘la U’ for short, extended their unbeaten run to 34 games on Sunday, brushing aside Union Espanola to book their place in the semi-finals of the local championship.
This, though, is hardly the priority. They already have 14 Chilean titles to their name, including the first of the two played this year.
FC Barcelona midfielder Xavi (centre) and other players warm up during their training session in Yokohama, in Japan, ahead of their involvement in the Fifa World Club Championship. Photo: Getty
What they do not have is an international trophy - yet. Another unbeaten game on Wednesday night will guarantee them the Copa Sudamericana, the continent’s Europa League equivalent.
Much of the hard work has been done. Last week in the first leg of the final they won 1-0 away to LDU, or Liga of Quito.
The altitude of the Ecuadorian capital forced them into a defensive change, sacrificing a winger in favour of a holding midfielder.
But on Wednesday in Santiago it should be business as usual. ‘La U’ will surely take to the field with their customary two wingers and a central striker.
They will defend with a high line, marking aggressively, seeking to keep the opponent under constant mental and physical pressure, winning possession in the opponent’s half, and exchanging quick passes in the dynamic style which has captivated the continent.
It is the way that coach Argentine Jorge Sampaoli sends his team out to play. The little coach is every bit as dynamic as his team, constantly pacing up and down - and frequently outside - his technical area as if he is running on batteries.
His side have been dubbed ‘the Barcelona of the Americas.’ Sampaoli is rightly quick to play it down. But the comparison is not without foundation.
Because in that fascinating way that footballing ideas can bounce around the globe, there is a common link.
Barcelona freely acknowledge the role of Johann Cruyff as the father of the club’s on-pitch philosophy.
His appointment of coach over 20 years ago led to the long-term adoption of many of the principles and practices of the Ajax and Netherlands teams in which he had starred.
The Netherlands team of 1974 (and their so-called Total Football) also proved extremely influential in South America.
Brazil tried to copy them in 1978 and the excellent Colombia team of the late 80s and early 90s also borrowed many ideas from Cruyff and company.
But the South American coach most successful in capturing the dynamism of the Dutch has been Marcelo Bielsa, the Argentine who took his native land to the 2002 World Cup and then did such impressive work with Chile, who won over the neutrals last year in South Africa.
Sampaoli is a Bielsa disciple. After spells in Peru and Ecuador he has found that the work carried out by his mentor has made Chile fertile ground for his ideas.
His side have been a joy to watch - their 4-0 hammering of Flamengo in Rio is my football highlight of the year.
It is worth pointing out that they also knocked out Vasco da Gama on their way to the final.
It is often the case that Brazilian clubs have problems against teams which operate with strikers in wide spaces - a pertinent thought as Santos prepare to meet Pep Guardiola’s men, ‘la U of Europe,’ with the Fifa Club World Cup in Japan at stake.
In 1962 and 63, with Pele at his peak, Santos beat the European Cup winners to win the old Intercontinental Cup. Now all the continents are involved, which increases the prestige, but also the risks.
Santos have to negotiate Kashima Reysol of Japan in a semi-final, while Barcelona face Al Sadd of Qatar.
As well as winning their own game, Santos will also hope that there is no slip-up from the Catalans.
They have been dreaming of a clash with Barcelona ever since they were crowned South American champions back in June.
This gives them a clear advantage in preparation. As their 10th place finish in the Brazilian Championship shows, Santos have been on extended holidays.
Barcelona, meanwhile, have been in competitive action right up to Saturday night. Compared with the trip to Real Madrid, this tournament in Japan is almost an afterthought. For Santos it has been in every thought.
The other factor that may level the playing field is the fact that Barcelona do not have a monopoly on outstanding individual talent.
Neymar of Santos is undeniably something special, and though injury hit and the recipient of dangerously early hype, playmaker Paulo Henrique Ganso is a wonderful prospect.
Should both sides make the final it will be fascinating to see how the Santos pair cope with the high- pressure marking of Barcelona.
The prospect of a great game lies in the view that Santos can do more than hold on for grim death and seek to snatch a win with a single counter attack.
If Ganso can pass into space behind the Barcelona line, or if Neymar can cut through it with one of his dribbles then things could be very interesting.
And there is another area where Santos will look to cause damage. If coach Muricy Ramalho has cause to regret the injury suffered by specialist midfield marker Adriano, he can celebrate the return to fitness of Elano.
From the ‘if you want to see a spectacle then go the theatre’ school of coaches, Ramalho has built a reputation producing teams that are more efficient than eye-catching.
He won three consecutive Brazilian titles with Sao Paulo, whose captain and goalkeeper Rogerio Ceni recalls that “he never wanted to take risks.
He set up a strong system of marking, he liked to have a tall team and he paid a lot of attention to set pieces.”
Elano is his best striker of corners and free kicks. Without much height in their team, Barcelona could be vulnerable to his delivery.
Every time Neymar goes to ground within range of goal Muricy Ramalho will be licking his lips and dreaming of glory.
You can comment on this article below and send questions on South American football to firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll pick out a couple for next week.
From last week’s postbag:
Q) A question from a Manchester United fan about Rodrigo Possebon: I was really disappointed when we sold him, as he looked really promising before he had his injury, and I feel we didn't give him enough time to rediscover his form. How has he been doing back "home" with Santos?
A) So far it looks as if United were right to say goodbye. He’s played - either covering for injuries or as part of a reserve side. But he has made little impression, and hasn’t even been included in the squad for the 2011 Fifa Club World Cup.
Q) I remember watching a player called Diego Markic at the 1997 Under-20 World Cup and being extremely impressed with him. I think he captained the Argentina Under-20 side on occasions in that campaign and for me was one of the outstanding players in a side featuring Cambiasso, Walter Samuel, Juan Riquelme, and Pablo Aimar. I believe he played as a central midfielder, sweeper or centre-back and looked like a quality prospect. I wondered what happened to him?
A) This is probably a case of a player shining early as a result of premature physical development. For the Under-23s at the start of 2000 it was obvious that he was massively short of top level. He gave Bari in Italy sound service for a while, but has been retired for a few years and is now assistant coach at Tigre in Argentina’s first division.
Q) Like many people I was mesmerised by the Brazil side of 1982 which was top heavy with midfielders but dazzling to watch. Do you think that side is the greatest to never win the World Cup when you consider that Netherlands reached World Cup finals in 1974 and 1978?
A) Much as I love Brazil of 1982 I wouldn’t consider them the best non-winners ever. Even as a third choice centre forward they could have done better than Serginho (Claudio Adao, perhaps) and there was an imbalance in the team between the left and right flanks. Despite their undoubted greatness, I would put a few sides in front - Netherlands of 1974, as you mentioned, but also Hungary of 1954 - and a word, too, for Brazil of 1950, a truly remarkable team unfairly branded as failures because of a few bad minutes.