The Copa Sudamericana hero picked San Paolo over Stamford Bridge, and the Italians' vibrant, attacking football should suit him perfectly as he looks to make his name in Europe
By Daniel Edwards | South American Football Editor
Out of the eight encounters that will constitute the first knockout round of the Uefa Champions League, perhaps the most enticing is Napoli's clash with the bottomless pockets of English Premier League side Chelsea. Walter Mazzarri has moulded an exciting young side in Campania, but they will be put to the test against a team which, despite mediocre league form, topped their section in the group stages and boast talent across the pitch.
In one way, however, the Italians have won the first battle of their last-16 tie. Chelsea may be able to call on the billions of Russian owner Roman Abramovich, but it counted for nothing when Universidad de Chile phenomenon Eduardo Vargas opted for a move to San Paolo in 2012.
The switch was the latest snub to the English game from one of South America's top prospects. Ricky Alvarez was heavily linked to an Arsenal transfer in August, but finally decided Inter was the best choice. Before that Neymar appeared on the verge of moving to Chelsea, before transfer links to Real Madrid or Barcelona followed by the decision to stay in Santos put the Blues' aspirations on hold.
Looking at Vargas, as well as Mazzarri's team in Naples, it is not hard to see why the Chilean turned down a move to London. Of course, the €13 million paid out by the club to land their man barely makes them the paupers to Chelsea's princes; but hearing Vargas speak after the move was confirmed, it was clear that he was making a decision based on where he believes his football will shine brightest.
|A NEAPOLITAN TRIO TO FEAR|
Scintillating in Universidad's fluid, passing game which preaches non-stop pressing and movement from all 11 players, the 22-year-old would have had to adapt to the more prosaic football which typifies Andres Villas-Boas' outfit. The passing is more direct and physical strength often takes precedence over ability on the ball, which could have left Vargas dangerously exposed against some of the Premier League's more uncompromising defenders.
In Napoli, on the other hand, he has the chance to slot straight into a team which will look uncannily familiar to the Copa Sudamericana winning club he is preparing to leave behind.
A three-man attack comprising the Chilean, Uruguayan star Edinson Cavani and Argentine Ezequiel Lavezzi is the most likely scenario, and Vargas could thrive alongside these two rapid, intelligent men. Just like in Universidad there would not be a single centre forward; the trident could switch roles at will, all equally capable of playing out wide as through the middle, and combined with creative talents such as Marek Hamsik, Mazzarri's new signing could be the final piece of a terrifying frontline.
Having watched Vargas closely throughout 2011, and allowing for the jump in quality that Serie A represents, one must conclude that the youngster has everything it takes to fill this role for Napoli. He has the rare combination of excellent physical, technical and above all mental abilities; for the U as many of his goals were due to his talent in exploiting the spaces between defenders and moving off the ball, as were products of his electric pace and flair with the ball at feet. His finishing is still not exemplary, and squandered close-range chances are far from unheard of, but Eduardo's movement and positioning means the next opportunity is rarely far away.
|THE STORY SO FAR
Uni. de Chile
He is also much more than a mere goalscorer. Witness Universidad's first goal of the Sudamericana home leg; Vargas was involved in every single step of the move, laying back, spreading the game to the wings before finally making space in the box, so that when the ball did arrive he was blissfully free of attention and able to open the scoring in Santiago.
The striker did not set the world on fire in his first season at Universidad, after moving from Corbreloa in 2010 for a $700,000 fee which is fast looking the deal of the century. The arrival of coach Jorge Sampaoli, however, and his ideas borrowed from mentor Marcelo Bielsa of exciting, no-holds-barred football, turned out to be the best thing that could have happened to him.
The 2011 Apertura was won at a canter, and Vargas notched three of the four goals that led Universidad to a crushing 4-0 victory over Liga de Quito over two legs of the Sudamericana final. The highlight was his third, and his record 11th of the tournament; receiving the ball in the middle of the Liga half, Eduardo left three beleaguered markers for dead before chipping the ball over Alexander Dominguez, a special goal to mark a special night for the Chileans.
Of course, it would be rather over-optimistic of Napoli to expect the same of their €13m signing when they meet Chelsea in February. It will take time for the young star to adapt to life across the Atlantic Ocean, but if he can hit the ground running with Cavani and Lavezzi and find his feet, the Chilean has the ability to make the English club sorely regret letting this talent slip through their fingers to Italy.