by Marc Serber
Imagine a Europe League semifinals in which Lyon, Liverpool, AC Milan, and Porto were all participating. That is essentially what you have in South America in the penultimate round of the Copa Sudamericana.
Brazilian giants Vasco da Gama, Chilean table-toppers Universidad de Chile, Ecuadorian high flyers LDU Quito, and Argentine powerhouse Velez Sarsfield are all in with a shout of reaching the final. For the neutral, any two of these four teams will make for a final worth watching.
This evening, Vasco da Gama hosts Universidad de Chile in the first leg. In the last two rounds Vaco da Gama lost away in the first leg, only to overturn large deficits with extraordinary performances at home to live up to their nickname, “the king of the comebacks.”
Vasco’s last two opponents were Aurora of Bolivia and Universitario of Peru and while comebacks of three and four goals respectively are impressive, U de Chile is made of sterner stuff. The Chileans are in top form, storming towards the domestic title at an unprecedented pace with an undefeated record.
Add to the equation, the fact that Vasco has to play the first game at home and all of a sudden, the Brazilians need a result in the first leg.
With such a big lead at the top of the Chilean table (10 points), Los Chunchos are primed to fight on two fronts. They can rest players domestically in order for a run to the final. Heading into tonight’s match, U de Chile have no injury concerns, meaning head coach Jorge Sampaoli has a full squad at his disposal.
Eduardo Vargas is the man to watch for U de Chile. The 22-year-old has 23 goals in all competitions, including seven to lead all scorers in the Copa Sudamericana.
Vasco da Gama, however, is just two points off the pace in the Campeonato Brasileiro with two matches left. In order to win their first league title since 2000, Vasco must win Rio derbies against third place Fluminense and Ronaldinho’s Flamengo. The tight race in Brazil has prompted interim head coach Cristovao Borges to use a mixture of reserves and starters throughout the Copa Sud.
In the last game, however, Borges went through his normal routine of saying that Vasco’s priority was the Brazilian championship and that he would use mostly reserves in the return leg against Universitario. But when the team sheets came out, the likes of Dede, Renato Silva, Juninho and Elton were all present and speculation is that Borges is going to put field his strongest weapons again in order to face the Chilean challenge.
This means that both Dede and Juninho are likely to feature this evening for Vasco.
Dede is currently considered the best center back in Brazil. The 23-year-old has great positional awareness and is strong in the tackle. He is also a threat going forward, especially on set pieces. Against Universitario, Dede scored two goals and set up the game winner by attacking a corner kick, allowing for Alecsandro to get the final touch. A menace at both ends, Dede’s days in Brazil are most certainly numbered with European teams licking their chops.
Fans of Lyon and the European game will certainly remember Juninho. A midfield orchestrator and a master of the dead ball who belted 100 goals in nine seasons at Lyon. 44 of them from set pieces. Despite being on the wrong side of 35, Juninho continues to play at the highest level. His ability to control the midfield, decisive passing and knuckling free kicks were the catalyst for Vasco’s last two comebacks.
Now in his second stint with the club, fans still sing about his glorious set piece strike away to River Plate 13 years ago which put Vasco da Gama into the final of the Copa Libertadores.
Viewers can expect to hear this song belted out at least once or twice throughout the match while the atmosphere at the Estadio Sao Januario is certain to be just as electric.
The Vasco players must match their energy as this time there is no room for error in the first leg. U de Chile will be their toughest test yet in the tournament.
For your viewing pleasure, some of Juninho’s best free kick goals over the years.
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