By Daniel Edwards
The scintillating football played by Universidad de Chile since coach Jorge Sampaoli took over in January 2011 has been a joy to watch for fans out in South America, and one effect has been to put the Azul's stars firmly in the shop window. Nowhere in the team has this been more noticeable than amongst the forward line that has scored so freely since the Argentine came to weave his magic at the Santiago giants.
Edson Puch, Gustavo Canales and Junior Fernandes all left on big-money deals after starring for the U in an 18-month period which has brought three national championships, a Copa Sudamericana title and an appearance in the semi-finals of the Copa Libertadores. The most fanfare, however, surrounded Eduardo Vargas, who moved to Napoli after a golden 2011.
Angelo Henriquez was the academy graduate who helped Universidad fans quickly forget about Edu as he effortlessly slotted into the team, and the striker followed his old companion to Europe by finalising a reported £3.5 million transfer to Manchester United. But, despite apparent promises from Sir Alex Ferguson that he would be given the opportunity to play at Old Trafford, the 18-year-old has been farmed out to Wigan Athletic on loan for the rest of the season. Great care must be taken to ensure that the teenager does not flop across the Atlantic - as Vargas did so spectacularly as he struggled to adapt to the rigours of Serie A.
It should be pointed out that, while a brilliant tally of 14 goals in 25 Apertura games brought 'Gohan' to attention - his nickname coming from a t-shirt he wore sporting a caricature of a Dragonball Z character - he was already well-known in his native Chile as having real promise. Henriquez was the star of an otherwise disappointing Chile campaign in the 2011 South American Under-17 Championships, scoring three times in the Roja's four matches before going out in the first phase. Four Four Two named him as one of the best five U17 players in the world in the same year and his importance to Sampaoli's outfit can be measured in the bitter fight the coach put up to keep him in Santiago until the end of the year, before it became apparent that he would be moving immediately to England.
|"We’re really excited about Angelo because he is a very young man with a huge potential; he’s a goal-scorer with clever movement inside the box and has had a very successful time with his former club Universidad."
Six months or more on loan would have been a great boost to the U as they fight for a fourth successive title. But perhaps more importantly, Angelo himself would have benefited from this extra time to hone his talent and gain further big-game experience. His transfer is one of the biggest ever in Chilean football, up there with Vargas and that of Alexis Sanchez from Colo Colo to Udinese; and Sir Alex Ferguson could have done a lot worse than look at the example set by that pair when deciding his arrival to Europe.
Unlike Edu, who was thrown in straight at the deep end with Napoli after just 12 months in the spotlight - before exploding with Universidad, the forward grew up in the relative obscurity of home town club Cobreloa - Sanchez was afforded time to grow before experiencing European football. Alexis was just 18 when the Italians signed him from Cobreloa, but instead of rushing him into Serie A or letting him rot in the reserves, he was obliged to complete his education in the hard school of South America.
Two years were spent on loan, first at local powerhouses Colo Colo followed by a spell in Argentina with River Plate. When Sanchez finally surfaced in Italy, he was stronger, more intelligent and ready to explode; which he did, becoming a firm favourite with Udinese fans before earning a staggering profit on the US$5m (€4m) originally spent on him as a teenager when a €37m dream move to Barcelona materialised.
|"His importance to Sampaoli's outfit can be measured in the bitter fight the coach put up to keep him in Santiago until the end of the year."
Unlike his compatriot, the forward was given time to grow in the football he knew inside and out, with no rush to produce and, while Vargas was sidelined by Walter Mazzarri in the hope of saving his season with a loan move, Alexis the Nino Maravilla has the world at his feet. Without immediate hopes of starting in a United attack only strengthened this summer by the arrival of Robin van Persie, Henriquez saw chances of regular first-team appearances dry up as quickly as they did for Edu once he fell out of favour in Southern Italy.
Of course, one can only infer so much from such comparisons, and Angelo is a different class of player to the two Chileans he is following to Europe. Unlike his compatriots, the teenager is a born penalty-area forward, who specialises in breaking free of the last man and converting from inside 18 yards. Quick, intelligent and with excellent mastery of both feet, his skills have earned him a second nickname of the 'Chilean Ruud van Nistelrooy'; while in the current United squad, Javier Hernandez is the player that springs most quickly to mind while watching the sensation celebrate yet more goals.
However, those strikes are unlikely to be seen in great volume while Angelo tries to adapt in the harsh surroundings of his new home across the Atlantic Ocean. The striker has the talent to become a star in the same mould as players like Sanchez or Vargas, but United's current refusal to let their new signing develop further in Universidad or elsewhere in South America runs the risk of repeating the lesson learned painfully by Napoli and Eduardo in the first half of 2011.