The explosive young striker scored twice to help his side to Copa Sudamericana glory, and despite strong interest from outside the temptation to stay could yet win his heart
By Daniel Edwards | South American Football Editor
It was the perfect to end what has been, to all intents and purposes, a perfect year both for Eduardo Vargas and Universidad de Chile. The young striker, whose name seems to be in the notebook of every scout and agent from Santiago to St. Petersburg, had already scored the decisive solitary goal in the Copa Sudamericana final opener in the altitude of Quito.
He repeated his feat in the return match against an outclassed Liga de Quito before Gustavo Lorenzetti secured victory; but there was to be one more grand flourish from the 22-year-old phenomenon.
Picking up the ball in the middle of the Liga half, Vargas used his explosive acceleration and flawless control to skip through the middle of the Ecuador defence, before showing his finishing talent by looping the ball delicately over goalkeeper Alexander Dominguez's head. The shot-stopper had prevented the final from becoming a cricket score with save after save, but he could only pick the ball from its resting place in the back of the net as Eduardo was mobbed by his team-mates.
The tie eventually ended 4-0 in favour of the Chileans, a scoreline which, if anything, fails to reflect the dominance Universidad enjoyed over a side with an enviable continental record over the last four years. Liga are a formidable prospect, but over 180 minutes they were played off the park by a team spearheaded by the goals of young Eduardo.
It is this form, this prodigious goalscoring record which saw him rack up 11 strikes in this year's Sudamericana tournament, that has ensured Vargas' progress has not gone unnoticed. Chelsea are confirmed admirers (despite a potential work permit stumbling block as Vargas has only played in 33 per cent of Chile's competitive fixtures in the last two years), as are Inter, Liverpool and countless other big name across the Atlantic.
This leaves the young man with a choice that could make or break him in years to come. Already a father - his daughter accompanied him onto the pitch prior to Wednesday night's clash - Vargas is more than aware that a move to Europe while he is most coveted would assure him and his family for life; a fact reiterated by Universidad president Federico Valdes in a recent interview. There would also be the lure of Champions League football, the chance to play alongside world-class team-mates, and the potential to progress towards one day being considered one of the finest players on the planet.On the other hand, should he decide to stay at Universidad for even one more year, he will have the chance to fight for the Libertadores, and secure legendary status for the club which now have a better claim than almost any for the title of best team in South America.
The most remarkable thing about this Azul Azul unit, marshalled expertly by Argentine Jorge Sampaoli, is that Vargas' virtuoso talents are not the defining feature of the team, rather just one more cog in a finely-tuned machine. Universidad are perhaps the finest disciples of high-pressure, one-touch possession football outside of Catalunya, and while it seemed hyperbolic at first they can now wear with pride the label bestowed on them this year by Brazilian press, 'The Barcelona of South America'.
|"He will receive contract offers that would set him up for life, but we will do everything we can to hold on to him"
- U president Valdes wants to keep Vargas
And just like in Pep Guardiola's outfit, the tactic is used to stunning effect. The U have now gone 32 games unbeaten domestically and internationally, and are yet to suffer defeat either in the Copa or the Chilean Clausura. A fact made even more impressive when considering that a large percentage of local matches have been played with teams made up of reserve and youth players, in order to save the stars' legs for the continental fixtures.
All of which will make Vargas' decision that much harder. The bottom line is that, to make the comparison with fellow young star Neymar, Chile is not Brazil and Universidad are not Santos.
The kind of investment which made it possible for the Peixe to offer their teenage star European-level wages is just a dream in Santiago, and while Brazilian teams are increasingly more able to hold on to youngsters, the opposite is almost true for clubs like the U, Universidad Catolica and Colo Colo. Starved of resources and investment, the sale of young gems remains the most effective way to balance the books, as it is across South America.
As the euphoria of the Sudamericana win - the first continental title in the club's history - fades, attention will once more turn to domestic matters. The chance of an Apertura, Clausura and Sudamericana treble is within reach if they can negotiate a clasico semi-final against Catolica and the final, as is the chance to record an incredible unbeaten season which would mark the class of 2011 as one of the greatest sides in Chilean history.
Once 2012 comes around, however, Vargas and the U will no longer be able to avoid the question which has been hanging over them since he exploded into the public eye. A big-money move to Stamford Bridge would leave both parties in rude financial health; but the temptation remains, the chance to make this remarkable team one which will go down as one of the best South American outfits of the last 30 years.