Venezuela 2-2 Argentina– CONMEBOL Qualification Stage for FIFA World Cup 2018 (6 September 2016)

The eighth matchday of La Vinotinto’s 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign yielded one point more than anticipated yet two less than many Venezuelans felt attainable at half-time. Here, Hispanospherical.com provides a full match report plus thoughts…

CONMEBOL Qualifying Stage for FIFA World Cup 2018

Tuesday 6 September 2016 – El Estadio Metropolitano de Mérida, Mérida State

Venezuela 2-2 Argentina

Video Highlights of Venezuela 2-2 Argentina, 6 September 2016, CONMEBOL Qualifying Stage for FIFA World Cup 2018 (YouTube)

Mixed Emotions for Both Sides as Juanpi Announces Himself on the International Stage

Match Report

‘Bottom versus top’ could have been mistaken for ‘seventh versus eighth’ as what began as a tepid affair ended as a slugfest with Venezuela being denied a famous victory.

La Vinotinto went into the game with just one point, having just been comfortably dispatched 2-0 by neighbours Colombia, yet really needing to raise the morale of their compatriots in the Andean city of Mérida. Pace-setters Argentina were thus hardly the ideal opponents. However, the hosts were far from overawed in the opening half and with each passing period of play, the pre-game predictions of a pounding proved increasingly preposterous.

Indeed, the first threat they had to contend with – the closest Edgardo Bauza’s men came all half – occurred in the 16th minute. Inter Milan new-boy Éver Banega received a pass centrally, quickly turned and from 25 yards out struck a low drive that went just wide of the far post. Banega often appeared to be one of his side’s likeliest catalysts for a goal as at times he enjoyed plenty of midfield space in which to roam before searching for a key, incisive pass – though this latter, crucial phase largely proved elusive.

Ángel Di María, with his tormenting runs down the wing and balls into the area, was a more noticeable threat in the first period. Just after the 20th minute, he crossed in a fine ball for Lucas Pratto, but the Atlético Mineiro striker – playing in part due to the absences of several more high-profile strikers – stretched but could not make a meaningful connection. He certainly did, however, in the 32nd minute, when he met Di María’s cross but his solid header was a little too close to goalkeeper Dani Hernández, who managed to get his body behind it.

The hosts’ early chances were hardly much more threatening. Rafael Dudamel’s men sometimes resorted to pumping long balls towards star striker Salomón Rondón, but this rarely proved propitious, even if it was a cunning way of bypassing Javier Mascherano. The West Bromwich Albion forward did nevertheless have his country’s first opportunity of note when, after 21 minutes, he received the ball just outside the area. However, although some space opened up for him, it was not enough to warrant the headlines that must have been swirling in his head; he may have shaped up with intent but his tame shot trickled goalwards for goalkeeper Sergio Romero to gratefully collect.

One Venezuelan causing more problems for the Argentine back-line was Rondón’s strike-partner, Josef Martínez. He regularly beat defenders for pace, causing uncertainty as well as winning throws and corners. In the 23rd minute, he was especially of concern when he received a pass in the area and soon hit the deck, but his penalty claim was waved away.

The other leading attacking threat for the hosts in this half was the man who was to break the deadlock. The profile of Juan Pablo ‘Juanpi’ Añor has been rising since he made his Málaga debut two years ago, with last season’s exploits really helping him emerge to prominence in La Liga. Aiding his cause in particular during that campaign were three goals in consecutive weeks (including one against Barcelona) and he is already off the mark for 2016/17. With the experienced Alejandro Guerra and Luis Manuel Seijas not part of this particular squad, he has been provided with opportunities to bolster his claims for a first-team spot in midfield. Overall, he has taken them.

Yet though he is capable of pinpoint accuracy from dead-ball situations, thankfully his largely wayward set-pieces throughout this half are unlikely to be used as arguments against future starts. Indeed, it is more the events in the 35th minute that shall be uppermost in most people’s minds when the line-up for the trip to Uruguay in October is being mulled over.

As befitting a largely listless half, it came almost out of nowhere. Rondón’s low cross in from the right was cut out before being immediately knocked back to the edge of the area, where it fell to the feet of Juanpi. Two players quickly tried to close him down yet somehow he bundled his way through them, before making some space for himself on the right corner of the area. Judging by the reaction of at least one Argentine defender, they did not consider him a serious threat from this position. Big mistake. Before anyone could get near enough to him, he unleashed a phenomenal strike that scorched past Romero and nearly burst the top corner of the net. The crowd erupted and the 22-year-old diminutive Málaga maestro was mobbed by his team-mates, both starters and subs alike. His first international goal, his formal arrival on this stage; aficionados of this balletic young man’s career will have been aware that it bore more than a slight resemblance to his first ever club goal against Levante in January 2015. Now, all Venezuelans know that no matter how bleak their nation’s prospects often seem, there will always be reason to keep an eye on them so long as the likes of Juanpi are in embryo.

Just four minutes later, Dudamel’s men nearly enhanced the euphoria in the ground to unprecedented levels. Rondón helped the ball on to Alexander González on the right inside the area. The Huesca right-back quickly slid the ball into the goalmouth where Josef Martínez was waiting and the goal was a-gaping, yet the Torino striker was narrowly beaten to the ball by Pablo Zabaleta, who managed to clear.

Thus, when the half-time whistle blew, the hosts had to resign themselves to being just 1-0 up against the No. 1 ranked side in the world. In the ever-bewildering and screen-throttling social media world, more than a few were quick to denigrate Venezuela’s lead by pointing out that Lionel Messi was missing and that this was a ‘depleted’ Argentine team. Risible claims, as aside from two attacking players, this was virtually a first-choice Albiceleste XI and, as no Venezuelan was staggered to observe, the hosts had problems of their own. Indeed, they made four changes from the Colombia loss, all of which were forced upon Dudamel: three of the four defenders were out (two due to suspensions, one due to injury) and one of the defensive-midfielders (suspended) was also unavailable. Such absences made their lead and hitherto ability to repel trouble all the more impressive.

Yet when the second half kicked off, the visitors returned with more intent to extricate themselves from the mire that they had slipped in. Much anticipation greeted Banega’s free-kick in the 50th minute, but when he finally took it, the ball sailed comfortably over. The hosts were nevertheless able to withstand such pressure and not long afterwards they broke free up the other end where Rondón nearly fed in Martínez, but the latter had his run abruptly blocked off.

However, shortly afterwards in the 53rd minute, the same combination sent the stands into raptures. The nation’s talisman robbed a hapless defender flailing in the Mérida rain and strode into the area, where he slipped a short pass to his Serie A-based partner who, with the visitors on the back foot, was afforded acres of space. Had he desired to, Martínez would have had time to whip out the day’s paper and read his horoscopes before pulling the trigger; regardless of what it would have said, the Torino man certainly would have felt it was his lucky day when his well-placed shot hit the back of the net. 2-0.

Over the next 20 minutes or so, the hosts celebrated their dizzying lead by going immediately on the defensive as Argentina raised their game and/or Venezuela pondered the ‘2-0 is the most dangerous lead in football’ cliché for a bit too long. Given such a change in approach, it came as little surprise when the visitors halved the deficit in the 58th minute. Here, Erik Lamela was gifted plenty of space to slide the ball through to Pratto in the area. Despite having left-back Mikel Villanueva and centre-back Sema Velázquez seemingly on his case, it seemed a little too easy for him. He nudged the ball forward and it ricocheted off Villanueva back to him in slightly more space and he simply toe-poked it goalwards past the possibly blindsided Hernández. 2-1. Game well and truly on.

Bauza’s men thus went on the hunt for an equaliser. Some more shaky goalkeeping from Hernández from a corner was to follow not long afterwards and the visitors were not too far from catching him out in the 66th minute. Here, Banega, on the inside-left just outside the area, went for a cross-shot which rebounded kindly off a defender, thus necessitating the Tenerife goalkeeper to scramble over to ensure his near post was covered. He got there just in time to block out the resultant shot that Di María fired from an acute angle from inside the area on the left.

One rare reprieve from the pressure came after 74 minutes when the much-touted 19-year-old Adalberto Peñaranda burst forward and gave a rare glimpse of why he made so many headlines at Granada last season. In a characteristically direct run, he passed through a few Argentine shirts before being cynically fouled not far from the area. This bought his nation some time, though the free-kick was duly squandered.

With the clock not ticking fast enough, Dudamel made some changes yet his second, replacing Martínez with Ecuador-based Jacobo Kouffaty, unfortunately did not reap the desired dividends. Indeed, officially he lasted no more than three minutes before succumbing to an injury and being replaced by Yonathan Del Valle in the 81st minute.

Compounding Kouffaty’s misery, as he was walking dejectedly along the sidelines, Di María whipped in a low corner which was clinically struck into the back of the net to level things up. Manchester City’s Nicolás Otamendi beat his centre-back counterpart Velázquez to the ball and restored some pride for his nation. Now, they were favourites to snatch all three points.

Ultimately, although they certainly put the jitters up their hosts, it was in fact Venezuela who came closest to emerging victorious in a five-goal thriller. First, with five minutes remaining, Juanpi curled in a free-kick from the right with his left boot which Romero went to catch but was easily beaten in the air by Rondón – unfortunately for the latter, his header also comfortably cleared the crossbar when it seemed as if with a bit more direction, he could well have won the game.

It was a let-off for the Manchester United goalkeeper and yet with a minute of regulation time left, he somehow had time to emerge relatively unscathed from an even greater howler. This time, Juanpi’s central free-kick from range bounced harmlessly through to the out-of-favour stopper, yet perhaps his rustiness affected him, as he was slow in anticipating the ball’s trajectory. Instead of catching it, the ball caught him by surprise and bounced off his chest and straight to Villanueva. The 23-year-old Atlético Malagueño left-back instinctively struck at the ball in textbook centre-forward fashion; he had Romero well beat but unfortunately his effort cannoned straight back off the near post.

Alas, the final whistle soon blew and it was greeted by both sides with a mixture of emotions. The visitors’ comeback could not mask the fact that they had once again struggled to contend with the absence of Messi and had been displaced from their perch, now finding themselves 3rd in the CONMEBOL standings. For the hosts, while it is a credible point, they will surely feel that they could have added a little more dignity to their campaign by gaining their first victory.

With Peru having beaten Ecuador 1-0, Venezuela now find themselves five points adrift at the bottom on a paltry two points. Although ten games still remain, as Dudamel’s men are 11 points away from the play-off spot (5th), sights are undoubtedly now set on Qatar 2022 and not Russia 2018. Building a new team with the likes of Juanpi at its core will be uppermost in the manager’s thoughts. After all, next month will involve a trip to Uruguay (1st) and a home clash against Brazil (2nd); Rome was indeed not built in a day.

To keep up-to-date with the Venezuelan football world, feel free to follow @DarrenSpherical on Twitter. 

Team Selections

Venezuela (4-4-2): D. Hernández; A. González (V. García, 71′), O. Vizcarrondo, S. Velázquez, M. Villanueva; Juanpi, T. Rincón,  A. Flores, A. Peñaranda; S. Rondón & J. Martínez (J. Kouffaty, 78′) (Y. Del Valle, 81′).

Argentina (4-2-3-1): S. Romero; P. Zabaleta, N. Otamendi, R. Funes Mori, M. Rojo (N. Gaitán, 83′); J. Mascherano, L. Biglia (L. Alario, 71′); E. Lamela (Á. Correa, 67′), É. Banega, Á. Di María; L. Pratto.

Darren Spherical

@DarrenSpherical

Colombia 2-0 Venezuela – CONMEBOL Qualification Stage for FIFA World Cup 2018 (1 September 2016)

Despite the impressive showing at Copa América Centenario, Rafael Dudamel’s first World Cup qualifier in charge of Venezuela yielded a familiar result.  The seventh matchday of La Vinotinto’s 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign thus provided the sixth defeat. Here, Hispanospherical.com offers a match report plus a few words of resignation…

CONMEBOL Qualifying Stage for FIFA World Cup 2018

Thursday 1 September 2016 – El Metro, Barranquilla, Atlántico Department, Colombia

Colombia 2-0 Venezuela

Video Highlights of Colombia 2-0 Venezuela, 1 September 2016, CONMEBOL Qualifying Stage for FIFA World Cup 2018 (YouTube)

The Unthinkable is Unthinkable for a Ruddy Good Reason

Match Report

The proposed Venezuelan qualification fightback has yet to materialise as La Vinotinto were comfortably seen off in Barranquilla. 

Pre-match, Los Cafeteros manager José Pékerman complained about the poor playing surface but any fears were allayed by his own charges, who demonstrated far greater mastery of the conditions than their opponents.

Indeed, from the off, Colombia took the game to their neighbours. Frenziedly urged on by the Estadio Metropolitano crowd, they nearly took the lead within the first minute and, frequently spearheaded by James Rodríguez, were to make virtually all of the forward forays in the opening 20 minutes. Not helping the visitors’ cause in this period, goalkeeper Dani Hernández fumbled on at least a couple of occasions and centre-back Wilker Ángel could quite justifiably have been sent off for what many felt should have been a second yellow card after just 13 minutes.

Málaga youngster Juanpi, given an opportunity to make a regular starting place his own, took Venezuela’s first corner after 21 minutes but this was comfortably dealt with. The hosts soon went back up the other end and restated their dominance, with Rodríguez, Luis Muriel, Carlos Bacca and others frequently linking up in such seamless ways as to suggest that they possess a far greater shared telepathy than their opponents. In the 26th minute, they were not far off the mark when Stefan Medina put in an arcing, testing cross that Bacca could well have hit home were it not for the stretched block of Ángel.

However, despite the flow of the game, Venezuela’s first real chance was also hitherto the closest the game had to an opening goal. Perhaps it was the first-half drinks break to counter the heat that was behind a minor shift in affairs, but Venezuela did gradually come to see a little more of the ball. Juanpi, in particular, made inroads and it was he who won the 33rd-minute free-kick just several yards outside the area. A dead-ball specialist, he then stepped up and curled a fine left-footed effort over the wall; this appeared to be heading for the top corner but was ultimately denied by the tips of David Ospina’s gloves.
Subsequently, following some fine interplay, Colombia were only narrowly thwarted at the final pass stage on at least three more occasions in this half. Yet despite their supremacy, they must have known only too well from the past two Copa Américas that Venezuela do possess a considerable capacity for soaking up pressure before delivering the suckerpunch. On the 41st minute, the visitors nearly provided this. From a central position, Juanpi slyly played through the ball into the area to Josef Martínez who gained some space from his marker and stretched to take aim; Colombians inhaled but, thankfully for them, the shot was parried out by Ospina for a corner.
Barely five minutes later, home fans’ anxieties about the squandering of possession and momentum were permitted to diminish. Indeed, in a route one move, Colombia took the lead. Ospina pumped the ball upfield, where it was headed on towards Bacca, who turned on the edge of the area and teed up Rodríguez; the Real Madrid attacker thus made some room for himself before placing the ball past Hernández.
Venezuela boss Rafael Dudamel thus narrowly missed out on going into the break on level terms and, more so than before, needed to find a way of altering the course of events. Just five minutes into the second half, he acted, removing next-big-thing Adalberto Peñaranda (who, aside from his peroxide blonde hair, had been largely anonymous) for the next next-big-thing, Yeferson Soteldo. In the remaining 40 minutes, the diminutive 19-year-old Zamora attacker provided several examples of the play that have got so many people excited about him; he regularly hustled to get on the ball and get things moving, using his enviable low centre of gravity to evade challenges and maintain possession.
Nevertheless, the hosts still had the better of the half, with the pattern of fast-paced passing moves only narrowly being thwarted at a late stage continuing. On the hour, they nearly went one better as Muriel was found on the edge of the area, but his left-footed strike swished across goal to pass the far post by a few inches.
Shortly before the drinks break in 70th minute, Soteldo managed to win some space 25 yards out and take a strike at goal. Ospina comfortably got down to save this, but it was nevertheless notable for providing a rare whiff of the opposition goal for La Vinotinto.
After the Lucozade-fest, however, it was all Colombia, with Bacca spurning a few chances to double the lead. Indeed, first in the 74th minute, the AC Milan striker was played through, one-on-one with Hernández, but his shot lacked direction and was blocked by the Tenerife goalkeeper.
In the 81st minute, Bacca appeared to redeem himself by winning a penalty, having been brought down by a desperate lunge from Wilker Ángel, who, in turn, received his marching orders. However, despite assuring Rodríguez that he was fine to take the spot-kick, Bacca’s 12-yard strike was comfortably parried out and away by Hernández. Yet, unfortunately for the latter, there was little time to bask in the acclaim of his save as, within a minute, Rodríguez brilliantly slalomed down the right side of the area before shifting feet to rapidly swing in a left-footed cross towards the back post. There, Atlético Nacional’s Macnelly Torres was unmarked and on cue to knock the ball home. 2-0. Any doubts regarding the result were put to bed.
However, that was not the end of the goalmouth action. With four minutes remaining on the clock, Bacca’s replacement Roger Martínez was found by a lofted pass in the area but, somewhat akin to the man whose shoes he had briefly stepped into, he was only able to strike at Hernández. Soon afterwards, Venezuela had a rare sight of goal as again that man Soteldo forced into the area a low ball from the left which caused some uncertainty before being dealt with.
The last act of the game came in the third minute of stoppage time when the visitors conceded another penalty as well as received their second red card. This time, left-back Rolf Feltscher was given his marching orders after he clumsily upended Rodríguez. With Bacca no longer on the pitch, it was to be the former Monaco man who stepped up, yet the outcome was to be the same as Hernández guessed right again and parried out.
Thoughts: What Now? 
Thus, when the final whistle sounded, both sides had reasons to feel disappointed, yet one suspects the most westerly of the two nations will be comforted by the three points. Taking into account results from elsewhere, they have now moved up two places to third, though just one point separates them in both directions from 1st and 6th. By contrast, Venezuela are now even more rooted to the bottom, with their solitary point putting them 11 points off the play-off spot currently occupied by Brazil.
As they are no doubt all-too-aware, there really is no let-up in CONMEBOL qualifying. Next up for La Vinotinto is a home encounter with 1st-placed Argentina and then in October, they will be travelling to Uruguay (currently 2nd), before hosting Brazil (5th). Many (including, implicitly, then-manager Noel Sanvicente) had written off Venezuela’s campaign as soon as they lost their first game at home to Paraguay. With a new manager appointed ahead of June’s Copa América and the impressive showing at that tournament, some were curious to see if a mircaulous turnaround could be in motion. Alas, in light of this performance and the upcoming fixtures, there is surely no-one left who has yet to blow out their own candle of hope.
Though Lionel Messi may be out, Venezuela will be facing Argentina without the suspended Feltscher,  Ángel and defensive-midfielder Arquímedes Figuera (two cumulative yellow cards). Thus, opportunities once again open up within this rather unsettled line-up yet with just one competitive win against their upcoming opponents in their entire history, it is very difficult at this moment to envisage a radical defiance of expectations.
Team Selections
Colombia (4-2-3-1): D. Ospina; S. Medina (E. Cardona, 90′), O. Murillo, J. Murillo, F. Díaz; D. Torres & C. Sánchez; J. Rodríguez, M. Torres, L. Muriel (J. Cuadrado, 70′); C. Bacca (R. Martínez, 83′).
Venezuela (4-4-2): D. Hernández; R. Rosales, W. Ángel, O. Vizcarrondo (S. Velázquez, 82′), R. Feltscher; Juanpi (C. Santos, 67′), T. Rincón, A. Figuera, A. Peñaranda (Y. Soteldo, 50′); S. Rondón & J. Martínez.
Darren Spherical

Venezuela’s CONMEBOL Qualifying Campaign for FIFA World Cup 2018 – September 2016 Preview

The CONMEBOL World Cup 2018 Qualifying Campaign is back but is Venezuela’s magically back on track? With a customary level of ambiguity and obfuscation, @DarrenSpherical is here to provide a preview to Match-days 7 and 8. 

CONMEBOL Qualifiers for FIFA World Cup 2018

Thursday 1 September 2016 – El Metro, Barranquilla, Atlántico Department, Colombia

Colombia vs Venezuela

Tuesday 6 September 2016 – El Estadio Metropolitano de Mérida, Mérida State, Venezuela.

Venezuela vs Argentina

rolffeltscher

Rolf Feltscher – Surprise star of Copa América Centenario (OvacionDeportes)

Dudamel Plotting Qualification Fightback Despite Unfavourable Fixtures

Here we are once more to do it all over again. The CONMEBOL World Cup Qualifying campaign has re-activated and – those in Europe may be surprised to learn – is already one-third of the way down. Yet Venezuela are rock-bottom with just one point from a possible 18, trailing the play-off spot by nine points.  Why then, should they – or, for that matter, you, the intrepid reader/online betting addict – even bother with their remaining 12 games?

Well, anyone who saw their escapades in the Copa América Centenario may have picked up a few clues as to why – indeed, try telling the fans and players that it was little more than a US-led money-making exercise. Certainly, actual qualification is a tall order, but a few scalps and the progressive building of a new team who can be motivated to replicate their club form at international level do not seem unrealistic aims.

It is hard to imagine this change in perceptions being possible without new manager Rafael Dudamel, who took over from Noel Sanvicente in early April. Ahead of June’s tournament, his first four friendly games hardly proclaimed a revolution, but once the competitive action began, a rapid upswing was in motion. Simply beating Jamaica in the opening match would have been enough to defy expectations, but the clean sheet, tactical organisation and defensive solidity gave cause for cautious optimism. Subsequently, the defeat of Uruguay – also with a clean sheet and which effectively sent La Celeste packing – provided a welcome return to the belief that, on their day, Venezuela are a match for any team in their region. Had they managed to hold on to beat Mexico in the final group encounter – rather than concede late on and be resigned to a draw – the erstwhile unthinkable idea that they could make it to the final would have been voiced by more than a few.

Alas, they finished second and, though they narrowly failed to get back into the game on a couple of occasions, were ultimately comfortably seen off 4-1 by Argentina in the Quarter-Final.

Although some of the most abject aspects of the Sanvicente-era Venezuela were also witnessed during this match – at least two suicidal passes led to goals for La Albiceleste – it will take more than one defeat to shake the belief that a positive new era is dawning. Admittedly, it is possible that the USA adventure merely allowed the players some welcome respite and liberation from problems at home as well as the strained relations with the country’s football federation. With the return to relative normality, will they soon revert to their former selves?

In the absence of any existing evidence, optimism is permitted to prevail – at least for the time being. This feeling will certainly be tested by games away to Colombia and home to Argentina – 3rd and 1st respectively in the official FIFA rankings. That said, though La Vinotinto have only defeated the latter once in their history, they should be buoyed by the fact that they are undefeated against Los Cafeteros in their past five competitive games (four wins and a draw).

So then, aside from the usual suspects – captain Tomás Rincón, star striker Salomón Rondón and dependable right-back Roberto Rosales –  which individuals will be leading the comeback for Dudamel? Given his freshness in his role and some of his surprise choices in June, it is difficult to be confident but one can at least have an idea of who is in the manager’s good books.

Firstly, there is Wilker Ángel, the 23-year-old centre-back who was chosen to partner the veteran Oswaldo Vizcarrondo in the USA and who has recently earned a move away from his homeland to the Russian Premier League with Terek Grozny. Then there is Venezuela’s biggest surprise of the tournament, Rolf Feltscher, who was completley overlooked during Sanvicente’s reign but who impressed as the first-choice left-back; he has since transferred from Duisburg in Germany to Getafe in Spain. Also, while he will have a constant battle on his hands to be a regular, Josef Martínez has put himself in a commanding position to start up front with Rondón, as he rewarded the faith placed in him in June by getting the winner against Jamaica and often linking up well with the West Brom striker.

The aforementioned three are probable starters. With slightly less certainty, the same can be said for Dani Hernández and Arquímedes Figuera. The former was given the nod in the USA to regain the number one shirt after a year away from the fray and, for the most part, did admirably well, pulling off some eye-catching saves. He did, however, show shades of his former unreliable self against Argentina and one can not help but feel that this position is going to be under the most scrutiny for the forseeable future. Regarding the latter, though the Deportivo La Guaira midfielder made two catastrophic errors against Argentina, he did otherwise receive a lot of praise during the tournament for his work alongside Rincón. With Luis Manuel Seijas not called up this time – supposedly to make way for youth – Figuera has an opportunity to make this position his own (and perhaps earn himself an overseas move in the process).

Lastly, though there is even less certainty as to where the following three players fit in, it is likely they will feature at some point in the near future. Firstly, there is Juanpi (Málaga), the versatile midfielder whose status has been ascending for the past year in La Liga and who can get goals as well as create them with calculated passes as well as crosses. Similarly, albeit with more directness in his approach, there is Rómulo Otero, who has recently swapped Chile’s Huachipato for Brazil’s Atlético Mineiro and who has long been tipped for a regular role with his country. Both players looked set to start in June, having done so in the pre-tournament friendlies, but were instead surprisingly relegated to brief substitute appearances. Nevertheless, with no Seijas and no Alejandro Guerra (injured), their time may now have arrived. That said, one man (amongst many others) that they will be in contention with is Adalberto Peñaranda, the teenage attacker who turned heads at Granada last season and who has since been sent by the Pozzo Empire to Italy with Udinese, instead of Watford (it was the English side who formally signed him in the January window, though whether he actually ever makes an appearance for them…).

Competition is fierce in most positions and in this new era many players both inside and out of the current squad will feel they have at least a chance of wangling their way into the manager’s plans. Above, many names have been put forward as likely to be key in the upcoming fixtures, yet as with the Centenario tournament, perhaps there will be one or two others players who are given a surprise chance and rise to the fore. With a bumper 28-man squad drawn from a range of disparate leagues, there is every possibility of this.

To find out how Venezuela get on against Colombia and Argentina, make sure to come back to Hispanospherical.com and/or follow @DarrenSpherical on Twitter. 

Venezuela Squad

Goalkeepers

José Contreras (Deportivo Táchira, Venezuela), Wuilker Fariñez (Caracas FC, Venezuela) & Dani Hernández (Tenerife, Spain).

Defenders

Wilker Ángel (Terek Grozny, Russia), Jhon Chancellor (Deportivo La Guaira, Venezuela), Rolf Feltscher (Getafe, Spain), Víctor García (Nacional, on loan from Porto, Portugal), Alexander González (Huesca, Spain), Roberto Rosales (Málaga, Spain), José Manuel ‘Sema’ Velázquez (Arouca, Portugal), Mikel Villanueva (Atlético Malagueño, Spain) & Oswaldo Vizcarrondo (Nantes, France).

Midfielders

Juan Pablo ‘Juanpi’ Añor (Málaga, Spain), Arquímedes Figuera (Deportivo La Guaira, Venezuela), Agnel Flores (Deportivo Táchira), Arles Flores (Deportivo La Guaira), Yangel Herrera (Atlético Venezuela, Venezuela), Jacobo Kouffati (Deportivo Cuenca, Ecuador), Jhon Murillo (Tondela, on loan from Benfica, Portugal), Rómulo Otero (Atlético Mineiro, Brazil), Adalberto Peñaranda (Udinese, Italy, on loan from Watford, England), Tomás Rincón (Genoa, Italy) & Yeferson Soteldo (Zamora, Venezuela). 

Forwards

Yonathan Del Valle (Bursaspor, Turkey on loan from Rio Ave, Portugal), Josef Martínez (Torino, Italy), Andrés Ponce (Lugano, Switzerland, on loan from Sampdoria, Italy) Christian Santos (Alavés, Spain) & Salomón Rondón (West Bromwich Albion, England).

Darren Spherical

@DarrenSpherical

Argentina 4-1 Venezuela – Copa América Centenario Quarter-Final (18 June 2016)

Copa América Centenario Quarter-Final

Saturday 18 June 2016 – Gillette Stadium, Foxborough, Massachusetts, USA

Argentina 4-1 Venezuela

Video Highlights of Argentina 4-1 Venezuela, Copa América Centenario Quarter-Final, 18 June 2016 (YouTube).

La Vinotinto Outshone in the USA but Exit with Spirit of Renewal

Venezuela’s head-turning run in Copa América 2016 was brought to a shuddering halt, as Rafael Dudamel’s men were outclassed in Foxborough.

Tata Martino’s men set out with intent and took the lead with less than eight minutes played. 40 yards out, Lionel Messi picked up the ball on the right and, with his left boot, rapidly arced a sublime ball  over Oswaldo Vizcarrondo’s head which Gonzalo Higuaín exquisitely converted home with a stretched half-volley.

Although La Vinotinto did not sit back following the goal, they nevertheless continued to be largely on the back-foot against their more illustrious counterparts. Amongst several scares, they somehow avoided conceding a penalty in the 19th minute when, upon receiving a pass in the area, Messi looked to be clumsily fouled by Arquímedes Figuera. However, the Mexican referee thought otherwise.

Not that La Albiceleste were to be deterred in the slightest. Nine minutes later, Figuera was to succeed in gifting his opponents a goal as his suicidal back-pass went straight to Higuaín, who rounded goalkeeper Dani Hernández before slotting home for his own and his country’s second.

To his credit, Figuera went some way towards redeeming himself in the 33rd minute, as he robbed Javier Mascherano some 30-odd yards from goal. Salomón Rondón picked up the ball and, benefitting from Josef Martínez’s run that left a defender in two minds, was able to drive into space before striking hard from the edge of the area. Unfortunately for the West Bom marksman, Sergio Romero was alert and his right glove was to thwart as the ball came straight back out, before it was hastily cleared. Six minutes later, Rondón was to come much closer as he used his impressive neck muscles to direct Alejandro Guerra’s corner goalwards past the static Man United goalkeeper, only to be denied by the far post.

Venezuela were to continue their impressive attacking spell. Just two minutes later, a loose ball fell to roaming left-back, Rolf Feltscher who tried his luck from just outside the area, seeing his shot deflect off a defender and nearly loop above and beyond the goalkeeper. However, Romero did well to backtrack and tip over for a corner.

Finally, in the 42nd minute, Venezuela’s pressure paid off as Rondón creeped in a low cross from the right to find his strike-partner Martínez. Romero seemingly undid some of his good work by rashly racing towards the ball and bringing down the Torino forward for a clear penalty.

Yet, Brazil-based Luis Manuel Seijas stepped up and instantly made himself a figure of ridicule on social media the world over. His dinked, Panenka-style penalty went straight down the middle and into the grateful gloves of Romero. The Venezuelan will indeed not be allowed to forget this in a hurry, with one commenter on The Guardian‘s website suggesting that in the future when such audacious efforts go awry, they should be universally known as a ‘Seijas’.

Having spurned this opportunity to get back into the game just before the break, optimism in the Vinotinto ranks must have been on the wane. The match was nearly settled within a minute of the restart following a dangerous low ball that caused many jitters in the box.

It definitely was all done and dusted on the hour-mark. In another instance of poor Venezuelan concentration, Vizcarrondo passed the ball straight to Nicolas Gaitán  some 40 yards out. He rapidly passed it forward to Higuaín, who then laid it off to Messi, with the Barcelona superstar quickly finding Gaitán who had rushed towards the inside-left edge of the area. It was all clinically and stylistically executed, with the Benfica attacker returning the pass to Messi, who poked home with consummate grace.

Dudamel’s men were not go out entirely with a whimper, however. Indeed, in the 70th minute, Guerra cut onto his right on the left and curled in a perfect inswinging cross which Rondón – benefitting from some defenders dreaming of the next round – leaped up high to meet and head home.

The few seriously contemplating whether this meant ‘game on’ were soon stopped mid-thought as Argentina went up the other end to get their fourth. This time, following some more rapid interplay, Messi fed substitute Erik Lamela who hooked a shot goalward that appeared to catch Hernández off-guard as he struggled to stop what should have been a relatively comfortable save. Instead, he added to his country’s goalkeeping woes as the ball trickled past him and Argentina marched into the semi-finals.

Thus ended Venezuela’s otherwise promising 2016 Copa América, a tournament in which they had nevertheless defied all expectations. They came to the USA bottom of their World Cup qualification group and with a new manager who had not won in his opening four matches; in these friendlies, they did not appear to have had enough time to work out the best system and personnel. However, their defensively solid opening day win against Jamaica gave rise to considerable optimism and when they beat Uruguay with a similar approach to virtually seal qualification with a game to spare, a sizeable amount of pride had returned amongst Venezuelan football fans. Subsequently, though they had to settle for a draw, when they led against pre-tournament dark horses Mexico, it was hard not to get a little carried away.

Alas, if some realism did not enter the minds of all Venezuelans after the end of that match, then it certainly has now. This could well turn out to be little more than a brief summer fling with euphoria to be crushed by the slog of the World Cup qualifying campaign – a battle that some feel was lost a long time. However, there was plenty on display in the USA to suggest that Venezuela can go some way to getting back on track and, though making it to Russia seems a tall order, at least rebuilding and nabbing a few more scalps over the next year or so seem entirely plausible aims.

Team Selections

Argentina (4-3-3): S. Romero; G. Mercado, N. Otamendi, R. Funes Mori, M. Rojo; A. Fernández, J. Mascherano, É. Banega (L. Biglia, ’80); L. Messi, G. Higuaín (S. Agüero , ’74), N. Gaitán (E. Lamela, ’67).

Venezuela (4-4-2): D. Hernández; A. González, W. Ángel, O. Vizcarrondo, R. Feltscher; A. Guerra, T. Rincón (S. Velázquez, ’85), A. Figuera, L. Seijas  (Juanpi, ’55); S. Rondón, J. Martínez (Y. Del Valle, ’80).

Darren Spherical

@DarrenSpherical

Mexico 1-1 Venezuela -Copa América Centenario Group C (13 June 2016)

With the group stage complete, Venezuelans are slightly disappointed to have finished 2nd. Who would have thought…?

Copa América Centenario Group C

Monday 13 June 2016 – NRG Stadium, Houston, Texas, USA

Mexico 1-1 Venezuela 

Video Highlights of Mexico 1-1 Venezuela, Copa América Centenario Group C, 13 June 2016 (YouTube).

Corona Thwarts Resilient Venezuela 

Venezuela narrowly missed out on an unprecedented third consecutive Copa América victory, as Jesús Corona’s late strike means Rafael Dudamel’s men finish 2nd in Group C and will most likely face Argentina in the Quarter-Finals.

Up until the 80th minute, it looked as if La Vinotinto were going to defy the odds yet again as they put in a fine defensive performance, soaking up huge amounts of pressure and once more dispelling the myth that Venezuelans lack mental fortitude. The fact that they were facing a Mexico side with nine changes to their previous line-up should do little to undermine their achievement – especially as they themselves had made five, including consigning star man Salomón Rondón to the bench.

In contrast to their other two group games, Dudamel’s charges were quicker off the mark, with the opening goal coming after just 10 minutes. This time, Alejandro Guerra’s free-kick from the left was curled into the area where Christian Santos – making his debut in the tournament – headed the ball back towards centre-back Sema Velázquez. The Portugal-based centre-back, himself fielded instead of Oswaldo Vizcarrondo, was afforded an obscene amount of space to fire home a sensational bicycle kick. This was certainly not what the sea of green in the stands had eagerly paid months in advance of kick-off to see. Yet thrilled though the minority of Venezuelans were at the time, it could not have been long before a few cautious sorts began to contemplate the cliché regarding scoring ‘too early’. Indeed, if they were going to beat El Tri for the first ever time, they knew a lot of defensive work was going to be required.

That said, though Juan Carlos Osorio’s side had more of the ball in the first half, the quality of the chances they created certainly did not reward the voluminous and nerve-jangling support they received. Also, owing to the number of bodies they often committed forward, they were occasionally vulnerable on the break.

Indeed,  in the 22nd minute, a slight fright was provided by one Yonathan Del Valle, who from the left hustled his way into the area and struck a rasping shot which swerved wide of the far post. It was one of a few occasions that the Kasımpaşa attacker was to both remind the hardcore of his abilities as well as introduce himself to thousands, if not millions, of fans who may have missed him first time around. After all, this was a remarkable personal story, as it was the player’s first international appearance for four years, going back to June 2012 when the then-22 year-old was considered a potential star of the future. Yet, just a year ago around the time of his 25th birthday, angered by the subsequent lack of opportunities and being overlooked by then-manager Noel Sanvicente, he resigned from the national team. However, the tables appeared to have turned as while he faces much competition at the top of the field, one suspects that this will not be his final outing in the burgundy shirt.

Returning to the action, though it felt to many Venezuelans that just one error could bring them swiftly back down to earth, Mexico continued to threaten without really making the opposition goalkeeper work too hard. Their opportunities were no more than half-chances, such as in the 34th minute when Jorge Torres crossed in for Jesús Corona whose diving header went straight to Dani Hernández. Or four minutes later when Héctor Herrera’s corner was headed by Héctor Moreno against the arm of defender Wilker Ángel – claims were made, but nothing was given.

When the half-time whistle blew, plenty of Venezuelan fans were left daydreaming about the further kudos from unexpected quarters that three consecutive 1-0 victories would bring their nation.

After the restart, the game continued with Mexico dominating the play and they were to get closer and closer to the target as the final whistle approached. One early notable moment was in the 50th minute when Porto full-back Miguel Layún played a one-two on the left inside the area and slid it along the goalmouth where it looked like it was going to be a tapped in by Oribe Peralta. However, centre-back Ángel once again got himself in the way, this time rather dramatically as his extremely low diving head diverted the ball off for a corner. A fine example of a player putting himself on the line for his country.

There was little respite for Venezuela as in the 57th minute on the inside-right 30 yards out, Corona picked up the ball and struck hard with his left but his shot went several yards wide. Then, just after the hour-mark, Layún from 25 yards out hit a fearsome shot that Hernández simply punched as far away outside of his area as possible.

Three minutes later, a better chance was created as Layún played in a low ball from the left. Rolf Feltscher’s attempted clearance went straight to Jesús Molina who, first-time, instinctively hit the ball and had to watch it trickle agonisingly wide of the far post.

However, just before this moment, Del Valle had managed to get away from his marker to hit a low strike at the goalkeeper and, a few minutes later, his replacement Josef Martínez had a golden opportunity to double his nation’s lead. Indeed, the Torino forward was slid through just inside the area, yet though he had plenty to aim for, he struck far too close to goalkeeper José Corona.

Venezuela were made to rue this miss and were nearly back on level terms in the 75th minute when Herrera’s free-kick in from the right met the head of Diego Reyes. However, Hernández earned plaudits around the globe for his astonishing double-save as he stretched down low to thwart and then, with the goal gaping, also blocked out the rebound whilst on the floor.

Nevertheless, Mexico kept up the onslaught. In the 79th minute Corona embarked upon a fine run on the left, powering through the Venezuelan back-line before striking wide from the left of the area. La Vinotinto survived, though not for long as barely a minute later the tenacious Porto youngster roamed infield from the left before taking the ball directly past four or five players and then blasting home for a sensational equaliser. The Venezuelan rearguard, which up until this point had seemed inpenetrable, was made to look all-too-mortal by this humbling. It was a great moment of relief for the El Tri faithful.

However, though their opponents were on the ropes for the remainder of the game, they did not merely lay down and invite the inevitable. Instead, with just over five minutes left, out of nowhere Martínez chested and teed himself up for an overhead kick, which dipped tantalisingly and had to be parried out for a corner.

Nevertheless, it was generally Mexico who were on the front-foot and with two minutes left, they came close to completing the reversal. This time, a ball was pulled back from the right-hand byline for substitute and fan-favourite Javier Hernández. However, though ‘Chicarito’ had a fair amount of the goal to aim for, Velázquez managed to get in his way and block his shot.

Thus, when the final whistle went, though they no longer had a 100 per cent record in the tournament and had in fact experienced their first draw after 11 consecutive wins, Mexico could console themselves with their first-placed finish. However, if as seems likely, Chile finish 2nd in Group D,  one can not help but wonder if a meeting with last year’s winners is really much of a reward for Mexico emerging victorious from their own group.

For Venezuela, however, just being in the knock-out phase seems like a prize in itself. Also, though they will face some sublime attacking talent, they will have picked up plenty of confidence from the way their players have absorbed so much pressure in the past three games, conceding just one goal.

One can not help but wonder if these strengths will be crucial for La Vinotinto as they enter a stage of the tournament in which, for the quarter- and semi-finals at least, matches level after 90 minutes go straight to penalties.

To find out how Venezuela get on, remember to keep up-to-date with @DarrenSpherical and this website.

Team Selections

Mexico (4-5-1): José Corona; P. Aguilar, D. Reyes, H. Moreno, J. Torres (M. Layún, 46;); H. Lozano, H. Herrera, J. Molina (J. Hernández, 68′), A. Guardado, J. Aquino (Jesús Corona, 18′); O. Peralta.

Venezuela (4-4-2): D. Hernández; A. González, S. Velázquez, W. Ángel, R. Feltscher; A. Guerra (R. Otero, 83′), T. Rincón, L. Seijas, A. Peñaranda; C. Santos (S. Rondón, 78′) & Y. Del Valle (J. Martínez, 65′).

Darren Spherical

@DarrenSpherical

Uruguay 0-1 Venezuela -Copa América Centenario Group C (9 June 2016)

This is just what they do, the Venezuelans. Do keep up…

Copa América Centenario Group C

Thursday 9 June 2016 – Lincoln Financial Field, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA

Uruguay 0-1 Venezuela 

Video Highlights of Uruguay 0-1 Venezuela, Copa América Centenario, 9 June 2016 (YouTube)

Venezuela Book Place in the Knock-Out Phase With a Game to Spare

Thanks to Salomón Rondón’s first-half goal, Venezuela recorded an unanticipated and historic second consecutive win in the Copa América and are already in the draw for the Quarter-final stage.

This disciplined and hard-fought win, coupled with the other result in Group C today, means Rafael Dudamel’s revitalised men will duke it out with Mexico on Monday for top spot as well as, most likely, the opportunity to avoid Argentina.

Though headlines were already being made around the world during the game for Luis Suárez’ anger at not making it onto the pitch as well as Uruguay’s elimination from the tournament, for Vinotinto fans, there was only one story here.

That said, it was far from straightforward and as early as the fifth minute, it looked like it may not be their day. Indeed, La Celeste had edged the early exchanges and then, disaster appeared to have announced itself, as Málaga right-back Roberto Rosales – perhaps, at club level at least, the most reliable of the high-profile players – was fouled by Cristhian Stuani and had to leave the field. Though he came back briefly, he soon went down again and this time it was for good. He was replaced by Alexander González of Spanish second-tier side Huesca, a player with undeniable abilities going forward, but who does not always convince in a defensive role. However, such concerns were to prove unfounded in Philadelphia.

Nevertheless, Venezuela certainly had to defend, particularly in the opening stages as attacks of any consequence were rare. The two Uruguayan full-backs, Gaston Silva and Maxi Pereira, regularly got forward throughout the game and it was the latter who played a role in his side’s first chance of note. This came after 15 minutes when the Porto right-back – who was making a record-breaking 113th appearance for his country – crossed in to the back post. From here, the ball was headed back towards Edinson Cavani but, not for the only time in this match, the Paris St. Germain striker miscued. Five minutes later, another Pereira cross raised pulses, but Stuani could only glance the ball out to the opposite flank.

Venezuela may not have been roaming forward much to begin with, but they did manage to offer a slight fright in the 23rd minute. Left-back Rolf Feltscher crossed with his right and Rondón jumped with centre-back Diego Godín and goalkeeper Fernando Muslera, yet the ball evaded all three of them as well as, only by a few yards, the far post. Five minutes later, the underdogs made another foray into the area as Josef Martínez won the ball and then fed Rondón but the latter’s pass onwards was just about snuffed out at the critical stage.

Despite such moments, when the game reached the half-hour mark, the main talking-point was the number of fouls: roughly one every two minutes, as the game threatened to become an exceedingly ill-tempered affair. However, soon, on-field matters were to take several steps in a more positive footballing direction.

Indeed, Uruguay had two chances to open the scoring within the space of a few minutes. First, a central free-kick some 45 yards out was swerved into the area and Stuani glanced a very faint header onwards that hit the side of the post and went out. Then, in the 34th minute, Pereira put in a low ball from his side that Cavani poked towards goal. Dani Hernández parried and was no doubt relieved to see that the rebound narrowly evaded the onrushing attacker and was cleared.

However, just as Óscar Tabárez’s men appeared to have the upper hand, it happened. A moment that will undoubtedly be repeated in the minds of Venezuelans and on their televisions for some time to come. It came out of nowhere and yet has now taken them to a place that, pre-tournament, seemed unworthy of serious contemplation.

The Venezuelan imagination was expanded exponentionally by the vision of Alejandro Guerra. The Atlético Nacional midfielder won the ball on the right side of midfield and then, apropos of nothing, whacked an incredible strike from just inside the opposition half. To what will be the eternal disappointment of every Vinotinto fan, his shot was actually tipped onto the crossbar by the out-of-sorts Muslera. However, this memory will be sweetened by the on-cue Rondón, who had enough time to compose himself as the ball bounced down just infront of the goal-line before placing his shot into the back of the net. 1-0. Elation for everyone of a burgundy persuasion.

Their sky-blue-clad opponents initially struggled to come to terms with this setback and it was La Vinotinto who had the best chance to score a second goal just before the break. This time, a minute before the half-time whistle,  Guerra won the ball in the centre around 35 yards from goal and with one touch managed to part the sea that was the Uruguayan defence, evading two or three players, before poking a shot goalwards. Unfortunately for him, his posture disadvantaged him and he could only nudge an effort with the outside of his boot too close to Muslera.

Uruguay went into the interval knowing that they had 45 minutes to save their place in a competition in which they have enjoyed phenomenal success for the past century. However, though they saw much of the ball in the early part of the second half, clear chances were rare. Their best moment in the moments before the hour-mark came after 54 minutes when a corner was swung in, knocked out and then Stuani, back-to-goal, swivelled and struck a couple of yards over on the turn.

The sense of urgency from Tabárez’s men was palpable yet their commitments upfield inevitably left them vulnerable to getting exposed at the back – as they indeed did in the 63rd minute. After Cavani was dispossessed in the area, the ball was knocked forward to the halfway line where it was picked up by 19-year-old starlet Adalberto Peñaranda who – somewhat surprisingly, despite his undeniable talents – was making his first ever start for his country. He ran with great speed and intent for 50 yards away from his pursuers, yet when confronted with a one-on-one with Muslera, hit the ball far too close to the Galatasaray goalkeeper, who saved low. Nevertheless, as the game became increasingly stretched, Peñaranda would find himself with more and more space in which to roam.

While Uruguay were still getting forward, raising Venezuelan heart-rates all the time, the attention for many neutrals increasingly turned to the sight of the agitated Suárez on the bench. At the beginning of the half, the injury-hit striker had been highlighted warming up with his team-mates and putting on some reinforcement tape. However, soon after Tabárez made his third and final change in the 80th minute, the Barcelona striker was seen fuming, removing his training bib, expressing his anger towards the coaching staff and then thumping the plexiglass at the side of the bench. Yet, though at the time many assumed he was furious at not being allowed onto the pitch, just as many wise-owls were aware of the fact that, according to the official team lists submitted pre-match, he was named as being unavailable and would not have been able to play no matter how much he protested. Suárez has since claimed that he was fully aware of this, but was training as he felt helpless just sitting inactive and passively with the stiffs. True or not, this was an unnecessary distraction for Uruguayans and, frankly, most Venezuelans could not have given the slightest toss. Try as many generalist football hacks did post-whistle to undermine and marginalise the result by reducing the game mainly to this non-issue, it should not diminish the scale of the achievement of Dudamel’s men.

That said, without any doubt, Tabárez – and any other manager in world football, for that matter – would have preferred if certain opportunities had instead been presented to his all-time top goalscorer. Indeed, though the remaining ten minutes of regulation time were characterised more by tension than chances, one particular gilt-edged opportunity arrived as the clock was about to strike ninety. This came when Nicolás Lodeiro slid the ball to Cavani just inside the area and, with one key touch, the PSG striker took the ball past the defender and opened up clear space to thump the ball goalwards. However, to the shock of himself, as well as the sunken Lodeiro and no doubt millions watching around the world, he whacked his effort hauntingly wide of the post. Though criticisms of the former Palermo man can often be unfair and sometimes reflect more on the high calibre of strike partners he has at international and club level, moments like this do little for his reputation. Barely a minute later, he almost had a chance to rectify this, but was unable to convert a knock-on from a rather direct lofted pass into the area which Hernández gratefully managed to get his body in the way of to halt the ball’s progress.

Despite these late scares, there was still time for Venezuela to have an opportunity to seal their victory. Indeed, in the fourth minute of stoppage-time, Muslera was caught in no-man’s-land after he came up for a corner and the ball was rapidly cleared to substitute Rómulo Otero on the halfway line. The Huachipato playmaker hastily tried to orientate himself in order to do something akin to what Guerra was narrowly thwarted in doing in the first half, yet his low strike from around 40 yards at the open goal went a mere yard wide of the far post.

The diminutive midfielder was understandably disappointed to see his effort swerve off-target but, within a minute, all was forgiven and forgotten after he was aggressively pushed off the ball by an opponent angered by the sound of the final whistle. He was quick to pick himself up and celebrate with his team-mates as the anguish and dejection of Uruguay contrasted with the smiles and euphoria  of Venezuela.

To neutrals who perhaps only pay La Vinotinto attention in tournaments may well view this as another positive stride on their inevitable march of progress, but those who have been observing with more regularity know the ride has not been so smooth. Already through to the knock-out stage, they are in an undeniably impressive and unanticipated position for a team that is bottom in World Cup qualifying, has only had their current manager for two months and who came into the tournament winless in four friendlies. Coach Dudamel has also been bold with his selections, starting with players who barely featured in those pre-tournament warm-up games. While they may have had some fortune in their two wins, things do appear to have fallen into place remarkably quickly and the defence (two straight clean sheets and just four goals conceded in six games) has undeniably improved.

Nevertheless, one does not wish to break the habit of a lifetime by getting too carried away. The group-deciding match against Mexico in front of a packed Houston crowd is likely to be the toughest yet and even a draw would mean a likely Quarter-final tie with Argentina. Euphoria in football can be shortlived, not least during fast-paced tournaments.

Still, enjoy the moment. Always look on the bright side of life. Cheer up son, it might never happen.

Over the upcoming days, the author of this blog shall attempt to put these happy-go-lucky platitudes into action and suggests any fellow sympathisers do as well. There is much to be positive about and build upon for the future and one can not resist the feeling that we may have just witnessed the beginning of something really quite remarkable.*

To keep up-to-date with Venezuela’s prolonged progress in Copa América Centenario, remember to look up @DarrenSpherical on Twitter and/or return to this website in the upcoming days.

Team Selections

Uruguay (4-4-2): F. Muslera; M. Pereira, D. Godín, J. Giménez, G. Silva; C. Sánchez (N. Lodeiro, 78′), E. Arévalo, Á. González (M. Corujo, 80′), G. Ramírez (D. Rolan, 73′); C. Stuani & E. Cavani.

Venezuela (4-4-2): D. Hernández; R. Rosales (A. González, 8′), W. Ángel, O. Vizcarrondo, R. Feltscher; A. Guerra, T. Rincón, A. Figuera (R. Otero, 79′), A. Peñaranda; S. Rondón (L. Seijas, 79′) & J. Martínez.

Darren Spherical

@DarrenSpherical

*Or a complete false dawn. (Couldn’t resist).

Jamaica 0-1 Venezuela – Copa América Centenario Group C (Sunday 5 June 2016)

Another Sunday in June, another Venezuela Copa América Group C opening-day victory by a solitary goal. Hispanospherical.com heartily welcomes this expectation-defying tradition…

Copa América Centenario Group C

Sunday 5 June 2016 – Soldier Field, Chicago, Illinois, USA

Jamaica 0-1 Venezuela 

Video Highlights of Jamaica 0-1 Venezuela, Copa América Centenario Group C, 5 June 2016 (YouTube).

Josef’s the Man as Venezuela Announce Themselves as Group C Contenders

Venezuela turned more than a few heads as they got off to a winning start in Group C, courtesy of Josef Martínez’s well-worked winner.

Despite playing in front of a crowd that was only a fraction of the 60,000-plus capacity, the two sides certainly put on an entertaining spectacle of frequently fast-paced and end-to-end action.

Rafael Dudamel’s first victory as manager of La Vinotinto at the fifth attempt came as a slight surprise not only because of uninspiring recent results, but also due to the fact that he fielded a line-up somewhat different to the anticipated one. Indeed, to the disappointment of many who were hoping to see a brave new era of attacking play, the exciting creative midfielders Rómulo Otero and Juanpi were both consigned to the bench. Also not in the starting line-up were Sema Velázquez, usurped by the more youthful Wilker Ángel, and Mikel Villanueva, who in the last several months seemed to have become the clear frontrunner for the left-back spot but who ultimately lost out to Rolf Feltscher. Drawing fewer raised eyebrows but nevertheless noteworthy was José Contreras being pipped by Dani Hernández as the man between the goalposts, despite the former being handed the no.1 squad number and the latter not being trusted in a competitive game since October 2013.

The Tenerife goalkeeper certainly had to be alert throughout these 90 minutes though, as Jamaica edged the early proceedings in what was a rather energetic, knockabout affair. From the off, they caused some jitters with snapshots of what they are capable of, such as in the fourth minute when a long ball headed on to Clayton Donaldson in space led to the Birmingham City striker being clumsily nudged over in the area by Oswaldo Vizcarrondo. Fortunately for the Nantes centre-back, the offside flag had already been raised.

However, seven minutes later, if they were not already awake to task in front of them, Venezuela received a fresh, wet double-slap of reality from their Caribbean opponents. Firstly, Vizcarrondo was again caught out, as he missed a long ball which was instead headed on to Donaldson, who managed to get away a fine strike from the edge of the area which Hernández tipped over. Then, from the corner that was swung towards the far post, New England Revolution midfielder Je-Vaugh Watson powered a header against the crossbar.

Rattled, Venezuela most certainly were. Thus, while they did get forward themselves in the opening 15 minutes, it was nevertheless somewhat against the run of the play when they took the lead. This goal arrived when Feltscher cut out a lazy forward pass some 35-40 yards out on the inside-left channel and put into motion a very quick-paced passing move. He knocked it short to Luis Manuel Seijas, who helped it on to Salomón Rondón. The West Brom striker gave it to Alejandro Guerra in a more central position and with a deft touch, the Atlético Nacional man set up Torino striker Josef Martínez who slid it under the goalkeeper.

Momentarily at least, the goal appeared to take the wind out of Jamaica’s previously rather powerful sails, as they were to threaten far less in the ten minutes that followed. Then, in the 24th minute, came another sign that it may just be Venezuela’s day after all. Lunging for a loose ball with Tomás Rincón, Brøndby midfielder Rudolph Austin caught the Vinotinto captain from behind and the referee deemed it to be reckless enough for him to immediately brandish a straight red card.

However, despite the man-disadvantage, Jamaica were far from out of it and rallied together to regularly put their opponents ill-at-ease with their ability to create space and stretch play via their direct, powerful moves.

Nevertheless, there were moments in the remainder of the first half when the inequality in numbers was apparent and Venezuela made the most of the situation. For example in the 29th minute, when right-back Roberto Rosales was able to collect the ball in a very advanced position and jink his way infield past a player or two before forcing a low save from his left-footed shot. In the next few minutes his side continued to burst forward and could well have got a second goal in the 33rd minute. Indeed, not for the only time in this game, Jamaica’s marking deserted them, as Guerra’s corner found Ángel in acres of space, but the lofty centre-back badly headed well over, when he had time to get the ball down and possibly get a shot in.

Sensing that his side may effectively be on their way out of the tournament before it had even really started, Jamaica manager Winfried Schäfer appeared to hit the nuclear button. Indeed, with just 40 minutes on the clock, he took off Kemar Lawrence, replacing him with Leicester City captain Wes Morgan – a man he had been hoping to rest after his domestic heroics with the Premier League champions. However, it has since emerged that Lawrence was suffering from a groin injury that will rule him out of the rest of the competition. Nevertheless, with their next two games being against Mexico and Uruguay, Jamaica’s prospects were not looking bright.

For the remainder of the half, the CONCACAF side increased the pressure on the leaders, causing much uncertainty from set-pieces and crosses – albeit without seriously threatening the goal. Just before the half-time whistle, Venezuela midfielder Arquímedes Figuera was booked for a foul not entirely dissimilar to that of the dismissed Austin. When the teams emerged for the second half, coach Schäfer was to be found watching it from the stands as, one suspects, his complaints to the referee over incidents such as this led to him receiving a red card.

Nevertheless, for his own sake, one hopes he had a good view of his side’s considerable efforts to get back into the game after the restart. Indeed, within four minutes, they were nearly level. On the left edge of the area, the ball fell into the path of Michael Hector who curled a fine strike that swerved off the far post. A narrow escape for Dudamel’s men.

While Venezuela could be on the backfoot, they also certainly got forward themselves. On the hour-mark, Martínez and Rondón gave further evidence of their potential as a regular partnership. Two minutes after one move broke down, the West Brom striker had more success, controlling a pass, then sliding it forward to the Torino striker in the area, though just before he pulled the trigger his shot was blocked for a corner.

With around 20 minutes remaining, their best chance to double the lead presented itself. The Jamaican marking from a corner once again was non-existent as Guerra’s set-piece found Angel in the middle who powered a very strong low diving header from which the goalkeeper Andre Blake pulled off a sensational save. The rebound fell slightly unkindly to Rondón, who could only blaze the ball over.

Just a couple of minutes later up the other end, Venezuela were nearly made to rue such moments. Here, from a throw into the area, Rincón’s defensive header only went to Watson, who was afforded enough space for a spine-chilling run-up, yet his strike was blazed well over the crossbar.

The last ten minutes of the game did not have too much in the way of clear chances, with the closest Jamaica came being Adrian Mariappa’s header from a corner that was saved somewhat theatrically by Hernández. Nevertheless, they caused Venezuela some further jitters while also opening themselves up to potential counter-attacks.

Ultimately, however, the boys in burgundy were able to see out the game to record a memorable victory. Having historically being the whipping-boys of South America, they are now unbeaten in their last four opening-day Copa América matches. Last year in Chile, they began their tournament with a euphoric victory against neighbours Colombia, yet despite overcoming this considerable hurdle, lost their next two games against Peru and Brazil and were out. This time around, they know that – on paper at least – with Uruguay and Mexico on the horizon, Jamaica are not likely to have provided the sternest test in this group. Nevertheless, though many fans would take a draw, the fact remains that if, as seems likely, the Reggae Boyz fail to beat El Tri, then a victory against La Celeste would take La Vinotinto through.

Still, while this blog can be rather ponderous at times, it is certainly not one to spend too much time day-dreaming about getting what one’s heart actually desires. Thus, that will be all for now, but if you are not able to watch the Uruguay match – or, conversely, are, but simply enjoy revisiting what you are familiar with – then feel free to check back on this site and/or @DarrenSpherical in the upcoming days. Who knows what terrifyingly upbeat tones and adjectives may await.

Team Selections

Jamaica (4-4-2): A. Blake; J. Watson (M. Binns, 88′), A. Mariappa, J. Taylor, K. Lawrence (W. Morgan, 40′); G. McCleary, R. Austin, M. Hector (L. Williamson, 77′), J. McAnuff; G. Barnes & C. Donaldson.

Venezuela (4-4-2): D. Hernández; R. Rosales, W. Ángel, O. Vizcarrondo, R. Feltscher; A. Guerra (A. González, 90+1′), T. Rincón, A. Figuera, L. Seijas (R. Otero, 86′); S. Rondón & J. Martínez (A. Peñaranda, 77′).

Darren Spherical 

@DarrenSpherical