With Alexis Sanchez misfiring and Arturo Vidal absent in spirit since the group stages, Chile coach Jorge Sampaoli could again depend on an old reliable to ensure their progress to the Copa America final continued unimpeded. Goals against Ecuador, to put the opening game to bed, Mexico, to haul his side back into the game, and two here against Peru in the semi-final confirm Vargas’s talent and importance to his side.
A young striker who made his name under Sampaoli for Universidad de Chile during their Copa Sudamericana triumph in 2011, Vargas earned a big-money transfer to Napoli at the back end of 2011. It seems, however, that Vargas is never more productive than working for Sampaoli.
It is something of an anomaly that Vargas simply cannot get going in Europe. The transfer to Napoli and loan spells at Valencia and Queens Park Rangers have all ended in disappointment including relegation from the English Premier League this year. Sampaoli remains the only man to extract the maximum value of the striker’s talent.
That is because Vargas typifies this Sampaoli system. In injury time here, as Jefferson Farfan launched a break forward, it was Vargas who chased the Schalke forward all the way back to midfield to clear the ball and kill the move.
He is the goalscoring hero of this Chile team at the Copa America but he does not play as though he is a superstar. His second-half goal, however, which followed quickly in the wake of the Peru equaliser, bore all the hallmarks of a superstar’s strike.
A Paolo Guerrero-led Peru move broke down and Gary Medel moved the ball into the path of Vargas in midfield. He moved forward, took a look, and smashed a dipping drive into Pedro Gallese’s top corner. The sight of the ball bulging the net brought as much relief as joy because at that stage Peru were inching their way back into the encounter despite Carlos Zambrano’s red card.
The Eintracht Frankfurt defender was ordered off early in the piece for raking his studs along the back of Charles Aranguiz. That made Peru’s task all the more difficult but did not in essence change too much about their play. The plan was to defend resolutely and hit on the break.
It had been a fractious start with Zambrano lurking on the radar from the get-go. He was involved at the corner flag in a scrap with Arturo Vidal which saw them both warned. Moments later he was booked following a challenge on Sanchez. That failed to calm him. Until his sending-off, Peru had the better chances with Farfan hitting the post and Carlos Loboton firing narrowly wide. They were capable of sticking to the plan even when a man light. Chile had plenty of the play but could not find a breakthrough.
That was until Vargas popped up. Alexis curled a lovely ball into the box which was missed by Aranguiz and kissed the post. There was Vargas in the right place at the right time to bundle his side into the lead. There is much to admire about the manner in which his Chile side seek openings against deep defences but it would all be worthless without a man like Vargas to stick the ball into the net.
It was Vargas who had a wonderful chance when supplied by Mauricio Isla. He met a cross at the back post but was denied by a wonderful piece of defending by Luis Advincula, who later provoked the own goal for Medel.
It could have been three or even four goals on the night for the former Gremio man; not long after half-time he took a lofted through ball from substitute David Pizarro and beat Gallese with a brilliant technical volley. He was, unfortunately, offside.
It is Vargas, not Alexis, who is defining the key moments of this Copa. He now has 22 goals in 47 Chile caps, only five fewer than the Arsenal man who has played almost twice as many games. Vargas is the first Chilean to score at least four goals in a Copa America since Ivan Zamorano managed five on home soil in 1991. That Chile team finished third; they had not been further since then until this year.
He is scheduled to return to Napoli following the tournament and on this showing there should be plenty of coaches around the continent who might fancy getting the 25-year-old going again. If this Copa has proven anything it is that when Alexis and Vidal are not standing out, it has been left to Eduardo Vargas to upstage them and carry Chile’s fight forward.