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Big week for South America's big guns

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Tim Vickery | 12:00 UK time, Monday, 12 December 2011

Crunch time is approaching for this year’s two outstanding South American clubs.
Over the next few days both Santos of Brazil and Universidad de Chile are seeking to scale new heights.

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 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?
Tomjedur Rahman

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?
Chris Smith

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?
Ahmer Khokhar

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.



  • Comment number 1.

    Universidad de Chile would have to win the Copa Libertadores next season which for seems unlikely. With regards to Santos, i believe they can win the world club cup as this maybe their only opportunity in a long while. If both Santos and Barca get knocked out at the semis then that would be interesting:)

  • Comment number 2.

    I don't understand the title of this piece.
    La U and Barcelona are playing in different tournaments, where is the showdown?

  • Comment number 3.

    At 15:03 12th Dec 2011, bosterososvigilante wrote:

    I don't understand the title of this piece.
    La U and Barcelona are playing in different tournaments, where is the showdown?


    I believe Tim has alluded to the fact in the past that BBC sub editors title his piece while he writes the text. Whoever wrote the headline hasn't read his article properly. It should be either 'Santos prepare for Barca showdown' or 'Santos and Universidad de Chile both facing big games', whatever they prefer. They've ballsed up.

  • Comment number 4.

    I really wish South America could hold onto its players for longer!

    This is probably the strongest side they have put against us in years, its almost a shame its against a side of barcelona's quality as they may find themselves in a very strange position chasing Xavi and Iniesta and end up looking bad, which would put them in good company I suppose!

    Saying that, Neymar could cause chaos if they can isolate him with a single barca defender. IN that respect, Ganso is going to be utterly vital in feeding him.

  • Comment number 5.

    Santos don't stand a chance against Barcelona. Neymar, Gantso and Elano, will see so little of the ball to exert any influence on the game. Brazilian sides wilt when denied of ball possession. If both sides meet in the final the game will be Barca's to lose.

  • Comment number 6.

    Great article. As for if Santos face Barca there is only one real outcome, as Barca have already proven and fantastic players. Santos have an amazing amount of potential. Will be interesting to watch Neymar though, as Barca's defence is far from the best. Problem always is that you need the ball to attack.

  • Comment number 7.

    Santos have to negotiate Kashima Reysol of Japan in a semi-final, while Barcelona face Al Sadd of Qatar.


    The team is called KASHIWA Reysol not Kashima. That's a completely different side.

    I think Santos should win that game. The problem with Kashiwa is that they have been playing pretty much non-stop since May. Because of the earthquake and tsunami back in March, the league had to suspend the first few months of the season and scrap the routine summer break. As such, Kashiwa have had to fight in the league, league-cup and still have the Emperors Cup to play for in the coming weeks. All very tough on the old legs.

    I think as you've said in the past Tim, Santos have been preparing for this match for months now, whereas for Kashiwa its just another match on a very long and tiring season.

    But I still have no idea why this match is being played in Toyota though. Okay, its the home of the sponsors but part of me feels like they had already thought Nagoya would win the title and would be able to sellout the stadium. It would have made more sense for them to have both Santos and Barca camped in Yokohama/Tokyo and at least allow Kashiwa fans the chance of not having to travel across the country to watch their matches. Very poor scheduling imo. The semis and final should have been in Yokohama with the playoffs and first round matches in Toyota.

    Although perhaps the Tokaido route from Chiba to Aichi is 'fun-to-drive'.... *boom-boom*

  • Comment number 8.

    Inteligent and fun to read blog Tim! Long time reader.

    Question for you. As a big fan of the Valderrama Colombia side I know they had certain aspects of "total football" like a high defensive line, intricate passing, etc. but I also heard that they had players rotating positions frequently like the Netherlands in the 70s. Is that true?


  • Comment number 9.

    Tim, I think those four sides (Brazil '82, Holland '74, Hungary '54 and Brazil '50) are among the greatest teams ever to grace the World Cup competition, irrespective of winning or losing.
    As far as 'on paper' is concerned, there shouldn't be any doubt that Santos will progress to the final and lose to Barcelona. However, football has its own logic, and potential upsets are only a moment away (look at Spurs' demise at Stoke on Sunday). I dread the thought that they might fall to Kashiwa, who I think might be more dangerous adversaries than Monterrey would have been, because of the different and energetic style of the Japanese game.
    However, I agree that Neymar, Ganso and Elano will be the key to scoring against Barcelona, although Brazilian striker of the year Borges deserves a mention, as his form has been impressive - an innate goalscoring talent! And if Danilo gets a chance to get near goal he is able to unleash some powerful and well-placed shots.
    But as you say, it all comes down to how much of the ball they will see. With defensive cover Adriano out injured, fullbacks Jonathan and Alex Sandro sold to European clubs and the hugely talented Léo a little slow in defence, Arouca will have his work cut out protecting the centre of defence, which has been Santos' big problem throughout the latter half of this year.
    Let's hope both teams are able to display the talent that has made them the outstanding sides in their respective continents and turn it into a final that will stay long in people's memories - for all the right reasons!

  • Comment number 10.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • Comment number 11.

    pointless competition. If it is to have prominence, it should be held at the end of the season.

  • Comment number 12.

    Yes, Barca will be firm favorites. But as we all know surprising results happen all the time (England 1-0 Spain) and if Santos can get the ball in advanced possitions for any sort of time, then Neymar, Ganso and Elano can hurt them.
    Barca can be got at, as their defense is a little slow but as mentioned before, Santos have to actually get the ball first!
    In the Champions League Final, Manchester United had them wobbling for the first 15 mins and Rooney scored a very good goal.
    Should be a great game.

  • Comment number 13.

    Great piece as ever, and so out of place on this website - though whisper that bit because they'll probably try and dumb you down to fit in. Agree that the spaces behind the Barca line look very inviting, but I've seen better teams than Santos fail to get close to exploiting them. No doubt the World Cup will be almost completely ignored yet again by English TV, but I for one will be rooting for the Sth Americans.

  • Comment number 14.

    @11 - It is at the end of the season. Its at the end of the Japanese season and at the end of the Brazilian season for one.

  • Comment number 15.

    Watching Santos, I'd give them a chance of an upset, Neymar given the opportunity will definitely trouble Barca because they are tailor made for him.

  • Comment number 16.

    For me, This is probably the strongest side they have put against us in years, its almost a shame its against a side of barcelona's quality as they may find themselves in a very strange position chasing Xavi and Iniesta and end up looking bad, which would put them in good company I suppose! Saying that, Neymar could cause chaos if they can isolate him with a single barca defender. IN that respect, Ganso is going to be utterly vital in feeding him. Regards

  • Comment number 17.

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  • Comment number 18.

    Not sure whether it was you or the Guardian I was reading following their emotional reunion in Bilbao a month or so ago Tim, that told how Guardiola flew over to Argentina at the outset of his coaching career to meet his mentor. With Universidad doing well, seems like Bielsa's methods have quite a bit of merit, not only in entertainment value.

    Japanese football continues to grow, underlined by the impact of players like Kagawa and Honda in Europe, but with being out on a limb over here, it's difficult to gauge the level of J1 and J2. I saw bits of Kashiwa's game against Monterrey was it? And during that time, initially, the home team looked under the cosh, so was a little surprised to hear they got to penalties, let alone go through. I expect Barcelona to take this game seriously as this competition's profile seems to be growing, and therefore it increasingly serves a purpose for global branding. I think they will be a different kettle of fish to what Sunday's opponents were. Maybe European clubs haven't traditionally taken these tournaments so seriously in the past, but I wonder whether such words sometimes come from a few sensitive defeated egos.

    Have mentioned it before, but I would love to see Bielsa coach in England. Not sure he'd be so inclined, but wouldn't it be worth a sleeping giant taking a chance? The worst that could happen is that they end up where they started.

  • Comment number 19.

    Aarfy_Aradvark. Good comments. May I add Reysol were not to expected to win the League, but they have and are going on with it. They seem to be enjoying the lime light, the are well organised and I think at least they will give Santos a good game!

  • Comment number 20.

    Barcelona seems to be unbeatable with those big guns from America now!

  • Comment number 21.

    @ 10: Yes, the South Americans take their competition with Europe very seriously, which is why it has rankled so much that all their talent has been heading to Europe at an increasingly young age. The trend seems to be slowing now though. I was frankly embarrassed by Liverpool's display back in....1981 I think it was. Looked like they were out for a kickaround on the beach and Flamengo ran rings round them. It was a great Flamengo side, but I'd been expecting Liverpool to at least make a match of it!

  • Comment number 22.

    This blog is full of South American Football fans. I'm going to voice the opinion of Barcelona fans...

    - Neymar is good , I've seen him play - but he is an uncut diamond.

    - I just read "Barcelona's defence is slow" - they beat the fastest attacking team in the world at the weekend and as I said Neymar's good but he's no C.Ronaldo who Puyol at +34yrs. kept quite.

    Its Barcelona's to lose - they need a single one of Iniesta, Xavi, Messi, Sanchez, Villa, Fabregas to turn up on the night (of the final) to win.

  • Comment number 23.


    I thought that one of the duties a sub-editor might have before titling a piece is actually reading it!

    Typical BBC bias.

  • Comment number 24.

    Tim, I'd like to know your thoughts on the Brazilian influence at Kashiwa. Their coach, Nelsinho Baptista, has made history by taking Kashiwa to successive J2 and J1 titles, despite heavy pressure from Gamba Osaka and Nagoya Grampus. He has a pretty good track record in the J. League but seems to have achieved little in his homeland - would this be fair to say?

    Their star player, and J1's best player this season, is right-winger Leandro Domingues, with another Brazilian, Jorge Wagner, supplying creativity and fierce shooting on the left. I've glanced at their career histories and they both seem to have had middling careers back home. Could you shed any further light on their pre-Japan careers?

    As another poster pointed out, Kashiwa have had a crazy schedule, with the games postponed in the wake of the Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami squeezed into the hot, humid summer months and the league only won last Sunday, plus the 2 subsequent games against Auckland City and Monterrey. This fatigue could well be their downfall, particularly if they fall behind early. Another player to look out for is the RB Hiroki Sakai - an exciting attacking prospect who links up well with Leandro down the right. Looking forward to the game!

  • Comment number 25.

    @1. Why do you think la "U" won't be able of winning la libertadores? I think universidad has great chances, even more if they can find a striker like Vargas who is probbably going to Europe next season.
    For me la "U" is by far the best club in south America this days, even more than Santos, and you can notice that by watching them play. As Tim said, the game against Vasco in Brazil that should have endded 7-0 was indeed the football highlight of the year.

  • Comment number 26.

    It's worth pointing out that Santos finished a lowly 10th in Brasil's Serie A this season, winning 15, losing 15 and drawing 8. I wouldn't expect them to beat Barcelona.

  • Comment number 27.

    Tim, are you suggesting that a team pulled by Elano may be a threat to Barcelona? The same Elano - journeyman from Russia who could not make the starting 11 of a poor City side a few years ago? If anything, Santos will be pulled by Gnaso. Neymar is one for the future.
    Barca, if they score early, will beat Santos 5-1.

  • Comment number 28.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 29.

    @19 - I'm a Kawasaki supporter and have a bit of a soft spot for Kashiwa. When he had the chance of winning the league title back in 2009, the Kashiwa fans were absolutely amazing on that day despite being relegated back to the J2. They've always been something of a yo-yo club but one thing that always intrigues me is how well clubs are supported in Chiba.

    Again, such a shame to see JEF down there. Hopefully they will be back soon and start competing again. A great club with great fans.

    @26 - And if you bothered to read Tim's previous statements on this - he will tell that you that Santos have pretty much switched off for the latter part of the season once the title was out of reach. They have been preparing for this match for months now and have been going through the motions in the Brazilian Championship. Already qualified for the Copa Lib next year - therefore nothing to play for domestically.

  • Comment number 30.

    Wednesday should be avery interesting day with Santos playing Kashiwa Reysol and U de Chile facing Liga de Quito. Santos well remember the embarassment Internacional suffered by losing to TP Mazembe and thereby becoming the first South American club to fail to reach the World Club Cup Final. Despite Barcelona's brilliance, Estudiantes gave them all they could handle 2 years ago in the final, Santos have the offensive ability to cause Barcelona some troubles but without Adriano to help the energetic Arouca out in shielding the back line, I do wonder how Santos will defend vs Barcelona. First things first though and they must defeat Kashiwa. Kashiwa's Jorge Wagner was playing for Santos' rival Sao Paulo earlier this year and their coach Nelsinho Baptista is a former player and coach for Santos so the Japanese club will know Santos well.

    As for the Copa Sudamericana final as a native rosarino I have to point out how both finalists coaches have ties to the city, Jorge Sampaoli played in Newell's youth system and is a disciple of Newell's very own Marcelo Bielsa while Liga's Edgardo Bauza was a well know player for rivals Rosario Central. I like to think of U de Chile's first leg win as being one for Newell's over Central too! ;)

    One can not help but be impressed with the energy that U de Chile play. They really are a treat to watch and with Liga obligated to go forward, there should be space for La U to counter attack. Liga however are a veteran, battle hardened team and I would not expect Hernan Barcos to again miss chances like he did in leg 1.

  • Comment number 31.

    @PulpGrape #26 - As Tim alluded to and as somebody previously mentioned, this world club championship is all important to South American teams and especially those in Brazil. Santos did not struggle to finish 10th, they fielded a weakened team to give their stars a rest in the run up to this tournament. It is THAT important to them.

    @A wet windy night in Stoke #27 - Think you're being a bit harsh on Elano. He is more than a journeyman player and regularly carried the Man City team that he played in. I remember him beating a solid and resolute Everton defence and winning the game singlehandedly for a then average City. Also recall him being the difference between Brazil and Argentina when they met at the Emirates stadium in London a few years ago. Decent player.

  • Comment number 32.

    My mate Jas Notta is happy to fund the purchase of Neymar for any premier league club in exchange for being made match mascot. However I think Neymar is too highly rated, and Jordi Gomez of Wigan is a more complete player.

  • Comment number 33.

    Are LDU in another altitude fueled continental final?.................Yawn.

    Why does the rest of the world not care about these titles again..............................?

  • Comment number 34.

    Well the first part went OK for Santos this morning, 3 very nice goals.

  • Comment number 35.

    Tim, there was a member of that SUB-20 team that took his own life a few years ago. And I thought it was Markic. Obviously it wasn't him if you say he was coaching Tigre. But do you remember who it was?

  • Comment number 36.

    At 13:55 14th Dec 2011, lordgormly wrote:
    35. At 13:55 14th Dec 2011, lordgormly wrote:
    Tim, there was a member of that SUB-20 team that took his own life a few years ago. And I thought it was Markic. Obviously it wasn't him if you say he was coaching Tigre. But do you remember who it was?

    You must be thinking of someone else in another squad, because all of the 1997 Argentina U-20 squad are still very much alive, including Markic and Serrizuela. You can check the others here:

  • Comment number 37.

    @ 26: Santos spent the first half of the Brazilian championship trying to balance it with their Libertadores commitments. Brazilian teams are novices at this and don't have the squads to be able to cope with such conflicting demands. Consequently, they even flirted with the relegation zone and were pretty drained by the time they won the continental title. They then found themselves obliged to sell some good players (Jonathan and Alex Sandro), since the financial demands of keeping together the entire team were beyond the club's resources. They nevertheless managed to string together an unbeaten run that lifted them from 16th (after 15 games) to 8th (after 23 games, just 8pts behind the leaders on a games played basis) before tiredness, injuries and a couple of unexpected defeats made them realise that the sheer effort required to go after the title (as champions they were already automatically qualified for next year's Libertadores, so top 4 wasn't necessary) could jeopardise their next important goal, of the World Club Championship. So they took their foot off the pedal. Nevertheless, I agree with your conclusion that they aren't, at least on paper, a match for Barcelona. But you can say that about any team in the world today. Yet Barça still lose the occasional game. Who knows?

  • Comment number 38.

    @ 27: no Tim's talking about the Elano who was an underappreciated but vital and versatile ingredient of Santos title-winning sides, a hero at MC until they brought in a new manager who ostracised him and was Brazil's best player in the WC 2010 (and whose absence against Holland was the biggest reason they lost. Even now, as a veteran back at Santos, he has played an important role in their state and Libertadores title winning teams, despite experiencing some dire personal challenges during the period. Santos isn't in this competition because they've got Neymar and Ganso (who I agree must be on top form if they are to have any chance of beating Barça), but because they also have Elano, Arouca, Borges, Danilo, Léo, Raphael, Durval....all of whom have played vital roles in their success this year...even Edu (shame they've lost Jonathan and Alex Sandro and Adriano is injured!).

  • Comment number 39.

    Vox populi thanks for the return must have been someone from another sub-20 team, coz I do remember the news on Diario deportivo Ole. Maybe from the 1995 team.


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