This year’s Chilean Primera Division has been everything but normal. Forced to abandon the usual Apertura/Clausura tournament type this year due to scheduling problems caused by February’s earthquake, a “European-style” long competition was held. It did not disappoint. After much drama and effort, it was Universidad Católica who emerged triumphant for the tenth time in history.
Tough at the top
Universidad de Chile were initially the main title contenders, with an emphatic 5-1 win over Cobresal in the first fixture propelling them to first place, a position they held until matchday 13. Despite performing brilliantly in Copa Libertadores and, undefeated, ending top of a group that included the mighty Flamengo, they were unable to replicate their success in the matches that mattered most as far as the league went: El superclásico and el clásico universitario. La U lost both in quick succession against, respectively, Colo-Colo and Universidad Católica, and their chances of being champion came crashing down.
From then on, Colo-Colo took the reins under new manager Diego Cagna, and initially did quite well, even putting five past both Cobresal and Unión San Felipe. The team eventually started running out of steam though, and humiliating exits from Copa Chile and Copa Sudamericana undermined morale. Even so, they remained top of the league and looked set to retain their title when they defeated second placed Universidad Católica 3-2 on October 17th. To clinch the league they needed just 12 points from their next 7 matches, one of them el superclásico against Universidad de Chile and the rest against humble opposition.
Universidad Católica was left wounded after losing against Colo-Colo. Seven points behind the leaders and with seven fixtures to go, the squad managed by ex-Barça player Juan Antonio Pizzi vowed to win all of their remaining matches, one of which was against Universidad de Chile: el clásico universitario, the university derby.
The finale was dramatic as it was emotional. Colo-Colo put a definitive end to U. de Chile’s title aspirations after drawing 2-2 under the rain in an exciting match, but gave up a precious two points in the process. Católica, in the meantime, closed the gap relentlessly by grabbing three points wherever they went. As Colo-Colo struggled to beat Cobresal 1-0, Los Cruzados further buried U. de Chile with a 4-2 win over their arch-rivals.
Two matches from the end of the tournament, the two contenders were tied on everything: points, goal difference and goals scored. It didn’t go to a tiebreaker though, because the whites of Colo-Colo lost to humble outfit O’Higgins while their rivals overcame Cobreloa with a free-kick goal in the closing minutes. The final matchday was a party at San Carlos de Apoquindo stadium, as Universidad Católica pounded Everton 5-0 to win their tenth league title.
The scramble for Copa Libertadores
Three Chileans teams will be going to next year’s Copa Libertadores: the champions (Universidad Católica), the first-place team at the end of matchday 17 (Colo-Colo) and the winner of a four-team play-off tournament.
The four teams that played this mini-tournament were the four teams ranked from third to sixth place: Audax Italiano, Universidad de Chile, Unión Española and Huachipato. Being one of those four was no easy task, and Audax Italiano in particular deserve an honourable mention for being by far the most attractive team of the tournament. After a disastrous start to the league, they brought in Argentine coach Omar Labruna, who led them to third place and who could’ve easily challenged for the title had he been there from the start.
In any case, Audax Italiano beat Huachipato 3-2 on aggregate while Unión Española booked itself a place in the final after comprehensively defeating la U 4-1 on aggregate. In an intense pair of matches it was Unión Española who came on top 3-2 on aggregate, thanks in large part to attacking pair Leonardo Monje and Gustavo Canales.
The fight to avoid relegation
Every year two teams must descend from Primera División to Primera B, and two more teams must play against clubs from Primera B to determine who deserves to be in the top tier. The business of relegation is always an unpleasant affair, and this year was not an exception.
San Luis are a team from the town of Quillota, close to the more famous Valparaíso. After more than twenty years wallowing in the second and third tiers they made their return to Primera División only to fall straight back down, ten points clear of the next team and with only five matches won in the entire year.
Following them will be Everton from Viña del Mar, four-time champions and one of the oldest and most traditional teams of the country. Following their mid-season trip to Europe to face their English counterpart they suffered from dreadful irregularity and ended up being relegated. Their places next season will be taken by Unión La Calera and Municipal Iquique, who incidentally won the Cup (Copa Chile) and will be competing in the 2011 Copa Sudamericana.
The relegation play-offs were Santiago Morning – Antofagasta and Universidad de Concepción – Curicó Unido, with the top-tier teams (Morning and U. de Conce) prevailing.
It was definitely a year of change and unexpected happenings in Chile, and next season looks to be as exciting as ever as the tournament returns to the familiar Apertura/Clausura format. Colo-Colo and Universidad de Chile will be looking to pick themselves up while other teams such as Audax Italiano and Unión Española will certainly push for the title. It’s also worth looking forward to what the newly-promoted teams bring to the table, following their great campaigns in Primera B.