By Nicholas Rosano
Claudio Borghi was never going to find it easy living up to Marcelo Bielsa’s legacy as Chile coach, but as World Cup 2014 qualifying kicks off, he now faces even more challenges based on events outside of his control. His squad is plagued by injuries to key contributors, while memories of his side’s premature Copa America elimination at the hands of Venezuela have the critics lining up should Chile fail to kick-off the qualifiers in style.
The biggest name on Chile’s injury list is no doubt that of new Barcelona sensation Alexis Sanchez, while CSKA Moscow winger Mark Gonzalez and Sevilla's Gary Medel are also stuck on the sidelines. All have featured in Borghi’s squads, and their absences strike a significant blow to the pool of talent the Argentine has been able to count upon in his first months as coach.
Yet with every setback comes an opportunity to find a solution, though this one just might not have been readily apparent to those unfamiliar with the multitude of young talent plying its trade in Chile.
When Udinese and Chile wing-back Mauricio Isla highlighted young Universidad de Chile attacker Eduardo Vargas as a replacement for injured star Alexis Sanchez, you could be forgiven for asking, ‘Who?’
|THE BANE OF SPAIN
|FROM OUR LIVE COMMENTARY|
||GOOOOOOOOOAL FOR CHILE!!!! Vargas doubles the lead against the world champions after exchanging a delightful one-two in midfield and driving towards the Spain goal before taking the ball round Casillas and slotting home. 2-0!|
| PLAYER RATING
Took his goal excellently and was a willing worker up front. A big part of the side's intricate and exciting build-up play in the first 45 minutes.
After all, while Sanchez has proven his ability in Argentina then in Italy, earning him a move to the pinnacle of club football, Vargas has never featured for a club team outside Chile. He joined Universidad de Chile from Cobreloa in January 2010 for the princely sum of €525,000, which, granted, is no small price to pay for a then 20-year-old in the Chilean league.
However, as most teams in Chile will tell you, Vargas – recently selected among Goal.com’s 10 players to watch in the Conmebol qualifiers – is not an opponent to be taken lightly. The now 21-year-old forward, who is capable of playing both centrally and on the wings, has been an integral part of Universidad de Chile’s stunning run in 2011 and has even started to make noises with the national team, where he has been capped five times at senior level since being called up by Marcelo Bielsa as a 19-year-old in 2009.
Since debuting for Cobreloa at the age of 15, he has appeared 125 times for his two teams, scoring 34 goals in all competitions and setting up plenty more. After moving to the Santiago giants he has made a big impact, playing a role in his new club’s run to the 2010 Copa Libertadores semi-finals and, more recently, putting in a series of masterful performances in 2011 as La U continue to impress in both domestic and international competitions.
Under the guidance of club coach Jorge Sampaoli – a disciple of Bielsa who currently has his team on a streak that has seen them lose just two of their last 37 games in all competitions – Vargas has flourished, being given freedom to wreak havoc down the flanks and even chip in with a few goals.
“Eduardo is having a good time now…he is capable of contributing to the national team,” Sampaoli told reporters at a press conference a few weeks ago, following the announcement of Sanchez’s injury. Granted, Sampaoli had some pretty clear evidence on which to base his conclusion.
After being called up by Borghi for Chile’s September friendlies, Vargas showed his potential against one of the highest-level opponents he might ever face, scoring his first international goal to put Chile 2-0 up in their friendly encounter with Spain. Though the world champions would go on to win 3-2, the strike itself was nothing to scoff at, as Vargas broke behind the defensive line, controlled a chipped pass and managed to round Iker Casillas, poking it home with the outside of his foot while barely managing to maintain his balance.
|We have Medel and Sanchez out... but it seems to me we have perfectly good alternatives, like Eduardo Vargas
- Chile legend Ivan Zamorano backs Vargas to shine
And from the sound of things, his early promise has already convinced some of his more experienced, distinguished colleagues.
“I trust Vargas because he has already been with us, he plays a very similar game to Alexis. He played great against Spain and I think in the U [Universidad de Chile] he is doing the same," Udinese's Isla told Triunfo when asked about his new Chile team-mate.
Indeed, the comparisons to Sanchez are not far off the mark. Blessed with a soft touch, a knack for cutting inside and a preternatural ability to manoeuvre himself around defenders, Vargas could see himself used in much the same way Sanchez was used by Borghi in the Copa America.
While he might not be on the field at the opening whistle – especially in Chile’s high-intensity first fixture at Argentina’s Estadio Monumental in Buenos Aires - he is the kind of energetic player who is easily capable of providing a spark from the bench. With the traditionally gruelling World Cup qualifiers just beginning, Borghi will need to count on all the help he can get, and Vargas looks ready to answer the call.
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