On Sunday Universidad de Chile and Universidad Católica will reacquaint for the 175th top division instalment of the Clásico Universitario.
The University derby is regarded as the original or traditional ‘clásico’ in Chile; the history of the match-up stretching back to the early 1900’s. Despite La U’s rivalry with Colo Colo superseding it to become the ‘Superclásico’, the rivalry remains intense – and with Católica still looking to confirm their place in the Clausura play-offs, Sunday’s clash takes on even extra meaning.
Both teams go into Sunday’s game on the back of Copa Sudamericana quarter-final ties which saw them record surprisingly different results. Universidad de Chile were first up against in-form Brazilian giants São Paulo, and were comprehensively brushed aside 2-0 in their own backyard; their first home defeat in continental competition since August 2010.
Meanwhile, UC travelled to Argentina to play seven-time Copa Libertadores winners Independiente who, unlike São Paulo, played a makeshift team as their focus remains firmly on domestic business. Despite the weaker opposition Los Cruzados delivered a fine performance, leaving the Estadio Libertadores de América with a commendable 2-2 draw that could easily have been five or six in Católica’s favour.
Looking ahead to Sunday’s match, the build-up and intrigue was intensified when La U coach Jorge Sampaoli told the media that he would rest players against UC with the game being sandwiched by the two Copa Sudamericana dates, but if it was Colo Colo they were facing he would be putting out his strongest team.
This goes back to the history of the Clásico Universitario. The game has more history than that of the Superclásico, but Sampaoli’s comments highlight how the importance of the game has lessened to some extent over the years. As expected, the comments struck a chord with Católica, whilst even Colo Colo striker Carlos Muñoz talked of Sampaoli’s disrespect.
But whatever Sampaoli may say, this is another massive match in the Chilean football calendar, the fixture providing some special and momentous moments in the last two years alone. In the 2011 Apertura, the two teams clashed in the play-off final over two-legs. UC won the first-leg 2-0, but in a mesmerising second-leg La U thumped Los Cruzados 4-1 in a game that saw four red cards, handing Sampaoli his first trophy with Los Azules and kick-starting a very special spell for La U which is still continuing, albeit it a reduced speed.
Católica claimed a semblance of revenge in the Clausura play-offs of that year when they ended La U’s magnificent 35 game unbeaten run (discounting the Copa Chile) in the semi-final stage of the play-offs, yet La U still went on to pick up the Clausura trophy to go along with the Copa Sudamericana.
UC’s standards have slipped somewhat since then. Martín Lasarte is now the head coach but has come under increasing pressure of late with Los Cruzados’ fans voicing their opinion of his management in a recent 2-0 home reverse to Huachipato. To call Católica’s form indifferent would be something of an understatement – they have recorded a pair of wins and draws and four defeats in their last eight league games, while in the Copa Chile they have qualified for the knock-out stages despite a 6-1 home defeat to Unión Española. It is thought that the club’s progression in the Copa Sudamericana has saved Lasarte from the sack.
UC’s inconsistent from surely represents the inconsistencies in team selection. Cristopher Toselli has not had a settled back four in front of him for much of the year; captain and talisman Cristian Álvarez has been besot by injury problems. Further up the pitch it seems Lasarte is unsure of his best strike partnership, and with an abundance of options comes an abundance of changes.
Midfielder Michael Ríos has probably been the club’s best player in the Clausura yet even he has been shifted around, sometimes playing at right-back.
La U haven’t had as many problems as UC, but it hasn’t been the best of times for Los Azules. They have been playing catch-up for most of the year having taken part in the Recopa Sudamericana and Suruga Championship. Sampaoli has had to shift his team and formations around with different personnel as they attempt to make a fist of it in all competitions.
It has given Juan Ignacio Duma and Christian Bravo, amongst others, playing time in the first team as La U continue to develop the best talent in the country.
Problems have come with recent signings as Luciano Civelli, Eduardo Morante, Waldo Ponce and Pedro Morales have struggled for form and/or fitness. They were meant to give the squad depth rather than be part of the problem.
The key players remain those that made up the bulk of the Copa Sudamericana winning team: José Rojas, Jhonny Herrera, Osvaldo González, Eugenio Mena, Charles Aránguiz, Matías Rodríguez and Gustavo Lorenzetti.
Mena, a fabulously underrated wing-back, and Herrera, one of the best goalkeepers in South America, will miss the clash with UC.
The Clásico Universitario may no longer have prestige of the Superclásico but search through the history books and you will discover the considerable importance of the match in Chilean football. Despite what Sampaoli may tell you these are two Chilean institutions going head-to-head.
The Clásico Universitario kicks off on Sunday 4th November and Joel will be covering the action via out twtterfeed.
Joel Sked is a journalism graduate, aspiring sports journalist and Chilean football enthusiast. Find all your football needs from the Andes to the Atacama at 'The Red One'.