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

Venezuela Team Preview for Copa América Centenario

As Venezuela get set to kick-off their Copa América Centenario campaign, Hispanospherical.com takes a look at how they may fare in this USA-hosted 16-team competition. Following on from a general overview that lays out the state La Vinotinto currently find themselves in, there are profiles of some of the key players, which also touch upon their team-mates most likely to see action this June.

Venezuela

Copa América Centenario Preview

venezuela23

The official 23-man Venezuela squad for Copa América Centenario (FVF).

(See bottom of page for clearer details on the clubs of the players)

venezuelasgroup

Rock-bottom of CONMEBOL World Cup Qualifying and with a manager barely two months into the job, this is not ideal preparation ahead of a challenging group containing Mexico, Uruguay and Jamaica.

Then again, compared to the norm for Venezuela, can it really be considered bad? Last year, with Noel Sanvicente at the helm, the players had been gradually mentally worn down by a year of lacklustre performances, FIFA/FVF scandals and played no warm-up games, yet still managed to make headlines across the world with a surprise opening day win against Colombia. This time around, they have played an eyebrow-raising four games in the fortnight preceding kick-off and the changes made to the coaching staff are still fresh enough for the players not to have become too jaded. So, swings and roundabouts. While an exit at the group stage seems probable, one can not help but feel that will be far from the full story in the USA.

What is more, while many of the starters will be familiar, only ten players remain from last year’s squad in what is the selección with the youngest average age in the entire tournament (in fact, three of the ten youngest players are Venezuelans). Thus, although inexperience could be a problem, there will also be several high-profile players along with plenty of fresh faces looking to impress and make their mark on a big stage.

Who then, is this new manager who has hitherto been alluded to? Rafael Dudamel’s the name and, for the time being at least, ‘Latino Loco Goalscoring Goalkeeper’ will be how he is caricatured. Indeed, in common with the likes of José Luis Chilavert and Rogério Ceni, the 43-year-old spent his playing career not only thwarting goal attempts but scoring them as well. In total, he scored well over 20 goals at club level in Venezuela and particularly in Colombia, but he also notched a phenomenal free-kick for his country back in a 1996 World Cup qualifier against Argentina. At the moment, his heroics in this department may be of more interest to broadcasters with broad audiences but, make no mistake, this is a man of substance who already has a strong idea of the task he has inherited.

The youthfulness of his squad is no doubt, in part, due to his work in recent years as head of the Under-17 and Under-20 national sides (the latter of whom, he will retain his role with). The nation’s football authorities – who have suggested they would have preferred a foreign manager had they the cash – will nevertheless be hoping Dudamel will be able to unite the seniors in more ways than one. As well as assimilating the newcomers with the well-travelled, they will be hoping he can act as an effective mediator between the federation and the players. Indeed, back in late November, an open letter voicing serious grievances with the FVF that largely concerned poor conditions and a lack of respect was signed by 15 senior players (with several more subsequently offering support). In the immediate aftermath, there was a public war of words and then-boss Sanvicente travelled to meet some of the players but there does not appear to have been a resolution (if one can even be found – this is, after all, partly a clashing of personalities). Problems still linger then and if little cohesion is to be found on the pitch in the USA, rest assured there will also be speculation about the lack of it off-field.

The four recent friendlies will have surely given the new manager some food for thought, although results were not very encouraging and performances were – barring the promising first-half attacking display against Costa Rica – similarly uninspiring. Indeed, unsurprisingly, Venezuela are hardly set to take their group by storm after a 1-1 draw with the largely La Liga-based representatives of Galicia, a dull 0-0 draw with Panama, a mixed-bag of a 2-1 defeat against Costa Rica and a curious 1-1 draw with Guatemala. Given how this rather high number of warm-up games all occurred away from home soil, one can not help but wonder if they will have taken some toll on the players who joined up with the squad at the start of this friendly-frenzy. In Group C, La Vinotinto will be travelling over 3,000 miles to predominantly NFL stadiums in Chicago, Philadelphia and Houston – how many starters against Jamaica will finish the closer (and possible decider) with Mexico?

If it is a low number, then there could well instead be footballing reasons for this as it is unlikely that Dudamel’s first-choice XI is set in stone and fans can expect to see changes throughout the tournament. Nevertheless, his selections in the friendly games certainly gave a few indications as to who will be lining up against Jamaica. For those who last watched Venezuela at the 2015 tournament, expect to see many new faces in midfield and defence – some of which may already be familiar from their club exploits.

Before detailing some of these men, it should first be noted that there will also be a different goalkeeper from last year. Indeed, after some high-profile errors in World Cup Qualifying, Alain Baroja, who received the nod at the last-minute ahead of 2015’s opener with Colombia and subsequently went on to receive acclaim as well as a move to AEK Athens, has surprisingly been left out the squad. Thus, the experienced Tenerife shot-stopper Dani Hernández will compete with José Contreras (Deportivo Táchira) for this position though, as the number one shirt has already been given to the latter, the decision may have already been made. However, Contreras made a glaring error when he played against Costa Rica and it would not be a surprise to see the former (who is also far from innocent in the blunder department) make an appearance at some stage.

Nevertheless, despite the huge importance of this position, whoever plays there can hardly be considered to be one of the leading players for Rafael Dudamel (even if, as a former occupant between the posts, the role must play on his mind a lot). Instead, the new entrenador will be counting more on the individuals listed below to both make their mark and galvanise their compatriots towards an unlikely progression to the knock-out stage.

Thus, what follows is an overview of the most likely stand-out Venezuelan performers, which also touches upon their team-mates who will either take to the field near them or be pushing hard to supplant them should anything go awry.

Key Players in Context

Roberto Rosales (Málaga)

Defence (Right-back)

Over the past two years at Málaga, 27-year-old right-back Rosales has been one of the most consistent players, in terms of both performances as well as appearances. He has been a vital part of the defence that, last season, conceded the joint-fourth fewest goals in La Liga, behind only the big three of Barcelona, Real Madrid and Atlético Madrid. Yet with the Andalusians being very much a selling club that has recently caused even promising manager Javi Gracia to depart, one must wonder if the diminutive bargain-buy from FC Twente will be the next out the door.

An energetic presence on the flank, he likes to get forward and help create chances. While his crossing could be more accurate, he is nevertheless responsible for an above-average number of assists at club level and possesses the tenacity and wherewithal to chase back if caught out of position.

There has, however, been repeated criticisms that his international performances of late have not matched those for his club – an assessment that, in fairness, could apply to most high-profile players in the squad. For the first game at least, he is likely to be joined at the back by left-back Mikel Villanueva, who will know him well as he plays for Málaga’s reserve side, Atlético Malagueño. He is a relative newcomer to the national side, having only debuted earlier this year towards the end of Sanvicente’s reign; his competition for a place will come from the returning Rolf Feltscher (Duisburg). There is also a slight chance that the right-footed Alexander González (Huesca) may be a back-up for this position, but he will primarily be the understudy to Rosales or, perhaps, the right side of midfield.

The very experienced Oswaldo Vizcarrondo (Nantes) cannot be said to have been up to his 2011 vintage (when he was one of the stars of the entire tournament) but he is still a likely starter at centre-back. He will have a different partner from last year; most likely it will be Sema Velázquez, a towering presence who helped Arouca to a 5th-placed finish in the Portuguese top-flight. However, it would be of little surprise if Wilker Ángel (Deportivo Táchira) gets the nod at some point.

Tomás Rincón (Genoa)
Midfield (Defensive Midfielder)

The captain whose leadership, organisational and communication skills will be integral if his nation is to have any success. Venezuela are not renowned goalscorers so the tackling, harrying and interceptions of El General and those around him will be essential to allow the attackers to escape away up the other end. A defensive midfielder, he does not tend to get too far forward himself, preferring instead to limit his forward forays to occasionally driving the ball upfield to feed his more attack-minded team-mates. However, perhaps at the somewhat late age of 28, things may be changing in this area as last season he went some way to compensating for his relative goal-drought in Europe. Indeed, before 2015/16 kicked off, he had not scored once since moving to Hamburg in early 2009. Yet in what was his second season at Italy side Genoa (2014-), he managed to bury three of the beauties in the space of four months. One does not expect him to break his duck for La Vinotinto in what is often cautious tournament football, but with over 70 goalless games to his name, it would be a pleasant surprise.

Joining him in stemming the tide in front of the back four could well be Arquímedes Figuera (Deportivo La Guaira), who has played there in some recent friendlies. However, he faces strong competition from Luis Manuel Seijas, one of the stand-out players at Colombian side Independiente Santa Fe last season who has recently joined Brazilian giants Internacional. An experienced international of 29 who has played in Belgium for Standard Liège, he partnered Rincón last year as well as in many qualifiers. With such pedigree, he will definitely get on the pitch at some point, whether in a protective position of further upfield in an attacking role.

Juan Pablo ‘Juanpi’ Añor (Málaga)
Midfield (Attacking Midfielder – left, right or centre)

Juanpi has been known on occasion to play in front of the back four in a deep-lying playmaker position but will probably be fielded further up the pitch in the line behind the forward(s). Having previously been overlooked during much of Sanvicente’s reign  -presumably due to his inexperience as well as the cautious approach of Chita – the 22-year-old has somewhat belatedly made his way into the senior set-up and has a strong chance of starting. His personal cause was undoubtedly aided by an impressive second season for Málaga, during which he emerged to become a regular in the line-up and scored four league goals along the way. Three of these came in consecutive weeks (with one being against Barcelona), which really raised his profile.

A graceful, creative player who often exudes much confidence and poise on the ball wherever he plays, he was granted a starting position in Sanvicente’s last two qualifiers in March and has continued to be named in line-ups under Dudamel. He is a fine left-footed set-piece taker and offers something different in attacks by playing through-balls from central positions as well as instigating some more intricate passing moves. He has already set up some goals in his brief international career and also possesses the capacity to force himself forward to score. A player of tantalising potential.

Rómulo Otero (Huachipato)
Midfield (Attacking Midfielder – left, right or centre)

Perhaps even more so than Juanpi, attacking midfielder Otero could well be the Venezuelan on most neutrals’ lips after this tournament. Indeed, the 23-year-old has turned many heads in Chile with Huachipato in his debut season outside of his homeland and many of his compatriots feel that, quite frankly, he could do a lot better. Injury ruled him out of last year’s Copa América as well as much of Sanvicente’s reign, but like Juanpi, he did feature in the last two qualifiers (scoring a sensational free-kick against Chile) and has since appeared in some of Dudamel’s friendlies.

While not identical to Juanpi in that he has a propensity to run at defenders more and, so far at least, tends to score more goals, they do both share strong abilities from dead-ball situations and are rather versatile in the attacking midfield positions. Perhaps for more than any other player in the squad, this tournament serves as an opportunity to impress the scouts.

Although both Otero and Juanpi appear likely to start the first game, it is not guaranteed and, as always, there is much competition and inconsistency in the attacking positions. Should Dudamel opt for a 4-4-2 (or 4-4-1-1), they could find themselves on either wing, but both in these formations as well as in a 4-2-3-1, there are plenty of players who are eager to nab their places.

One of these who has already been mentioned is Seijas, who can also play as a left-sided attacker, but there is also the similarly experienced Alejandro Guerra. He was a regular during last year’s tournament and this season for Colombian giants Atlético Nacional has scored at a rate of one in every two games, being a key player in their run to the semi-finals of the Copa Libertadores, where they will meet São Paulo in July.

Another player of note who could well make a mark in these positions is one of the youngest in the tournament and who has already made quite a name for himself: Adalberto Peñaranda. The then-18-year-old burst onto the La Liga scene with Granada last season and immediately grabbed headlines and broke records, both setting up and scoring goals that ultimately aided his club’s survival. Despite speculation that some of Europe’s biggest clubs would snap him up, he eventually signed a deal with ‘sister’ club Watford, who loaned him back to Andalusia where he finished the season.

However, though he has had a meteoric rise in the European game, at international level he only has three recent substitute appearances to his name and this is where he is likely to start the tournament. Nevertheless, given his abilities, at some point he will surely receive an opportunity from the bench to run at defenders and cause havoc.

There are some other players who could potentially play in attacking midfield/supplementary forward roles, but these are mentioned in the following profile.

Salomón Rondón (West Bromwich Albion)
Attack (Striker)

The most famous current Venezuela international, Rondón will be integral to his nation’s chances of progressing and will undoubtedly start up front. It has been a big year for this talismanic figure, as he swapped Champions League football at Zenit St. Petersburg for a more stressful – if, potentially, career-enhancing – life at West Bromwich Albion. While many feel that, owing to his stature and attributes, he was born and bred to play in the Premier League, a more glamorous move had been desired and throughout his debut campaign quite a few of his compatriots have criticised how he has been used by manager Tony Pulis – a man who, incidentally, seems unaware that he was signing a South American international given that his complaints are as predictable as clockwork whenever his top-scorer is called up.

On the other hand, in his early outings in particular, many West Brom and Premier League followers felt he could be wasteful – something he has since accepted himself – but as the season progressed, he grew in importance to his team. When all was said and done, he had scored ten goals in all competitions, including the winning goal in five different matches, including the 1-0 win away to Everton and, most notably, the 1-0 home victory against Manchester United. Many doubters were won over.

While he may not take all his chances, he certainly works hard and comes deep to join in with some of the build-up play, although his primary strength is probably as a target man, to knock down and head in balls.

There is a chance that he may have a partner in attack. If so, the most likely candidate is Josef Martínez (Torino), who has played alongside him both under Dudamel and Sanvicente – albeit, usually in friendly encounters. Perhaps more so than any other player not granted the honour of an individual profile in this article, he could well emerge as one of the leading Venezuelan players in this tournament. What prevents one from confidently stating his importance to the team is that, despite his undeniable talents, he often gets overlooked as a starter, instead often being used in competitive games as an impact substitute.

Nevertheless, when given opportunities, he often displays a promising understanding with Rondón and is good at running at defenders as well as playing a key role in more direct attacks. He could also be used in an attacking midfield role though what, in the long run, could enhance his national team prospects is a move away from Torino, where he has also been used primarily as a substitute.

Otherwise, Christian Santos could be given a chance in a similar manner to that suggested for Martínez – albeit utilising different characteristics. Indeed, while he can also play as a striker, he has frequently been used at club level in a deeper role and possesses considerable abilities in the air. A late-bloomer at 28, who only decided to play for the country of his birth last year, he has been a phenomenal goalscorer for NEC Nijmegen over the past two years, scoring, on average, well above one in every two games. A move to La Liga has been strongly rumoured – perhaps this tournament will determine where precisely he ends up.

Venezuela’s tournament may well hinge on the very first game on 5 June against Jamaica – stern opponents but on paper, their weakest in Group C. For the sake of this niche blog – if not the author’s social and profressional life when the games from the USA are being played concurrently with those from Euro 2016 – one hopes that they can prolong the guessing game somewhat longer. To keep up-to-date with La Vinotinto’s progress, please follow @DarrenSpherical on Twitter and check back on this website for match reports, highlights and who knows what else. 

Venezuela’s 23-man squad for Copa América Centenario

Goalkeepers

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

Defenders

Wilker Ángel (Deportivo Táchira, Venezuela), Rolf Feltscher (Duisburg, Germany), 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), Alejandro Guerra (Atlético Nacional, Colombia), Yangel Herrera (Atlético Venezuela, Venezuela), Rómulo Otero (Huachipato, Chile), Adalberto Peñaranda (Granada, Spain on loan from Watford, England), Tomás Rincón (Genoa, Italy), Luis Manuel Seijas (Internacional, Brazil) & Carlos Suárez (Carabobo, Venezuela).

Forwards

Yonathan Del Valle (Kasımpaşa, Turkey on loan from Rio Ave, Portugal), Josef Martínez (Torino, Italy), Christian Santos (NEC Nijmegen, Netherlands) & Salomón Rondón (West Bromwich Albion, England).

Darren Spherical

@DarrenSpherical

Guatemala 1-1 Venezuela – International Friendly (1 June 2016)

International Friendly

Wednesday 1 June 2016 – Lockhart Stadium, Fort Lauderdale, Florida, USA

Guatemala 1-1 Venezuela

Highlights of Guatemala 1-1 Venezuela, International Friendly, 1 June 2016 (YouTube – quality of video suspiciously superior to what was available during the match)

‘Where Were You For Guatemala ’16?’ 

Although Salomón Rondón’s second goal in consecutive games earned Venezuela a draw, many fans will be disappointed that Rafael Dudamel was unable to gain his first win as manager. 

Indeed, he now heads into Sunday’s  Copa América opener with Jamaica with a record that reads: Played 4, Won 0, Drew 3, Lost 1. Furthermore, whilst the concession of four goals does hint at some improvement, scoring just three does little to raise expectations even if Venezuela are historically low-scorers.

However, the main thing most fans will take from this game was the viewing experience itself. With no official live transmission on either television or any online outlet (betting sites and the like), many will have assumed there was no way of watching and thus opted to sit it out or, perhaps, listen to the radio and/or follow text updates. Yet, those au fait with certain social media sites were to stumble across at least a couple of curious live feeds from the stadium, seemingly transmitted from fans’ state-of-the-art mobile devices.

Thus, to begin with, at least a couple of thousand clicked to squint at events from deepest darkest Fort Lauderdale which, initially, were provided by an individual whose vantage point rendered him/her unable to actually fit either goal-net into his frame. Still, beggars can’t be choosers. As there was little sound, many fans also opted to supplement the pictures with commentary from Internet radio, which was not in sync. Although some rather high-end everyday modern technology was in use here, the experience was somewhat of a throwback, akin to watching a bootleg film recorded on a shaky old video-camera, with someone on hand to explain any of the action one may have missed.

However, just when this rogue reporter was all set to go down in Vinotinto folklore as the Periscope Pirate, their operations were stopped by security in the 13th minute and they were told to put their phone away. Disaster. The fans were to be thwarted after all.

Or so it seemed for about five minutes, anyway. Following some frantic social media searches, those who were so inclined gradually cottoned on to the existence of another hand-held hero who had in fact also been broadcasting since the beginning of the game and was to do so until the very end. This feed was coming from a slightly higher position in the centre of the stands, yet somehow nobody in security picked up on this. Needless to say, the audience rapidly ascended and reached a peak of nearly 5,000 in the second half.

Nevertheless, though those responsible for the footage can rightly bask in the acclaim that their services to national morale merits, the viewing figures hardly suggest a football-mad nation. Thus, one can not help but feel that this match has served, in part, as a test of commitment and those who saw it live will trade on it for decades to come, as some kind of perverse badge of honour. Indeed, perhaps one day when La Vinotinto are at least threatening to qualify for a World Cup, there will be a somewhat chippy subculture of fans who, whether they actually saw the game or not, will become notorious for sniffily asking the Jhonny-Come-Latelys they encounter, ‘Where were you for Guatemala ’16?’

Lord knows what those who actually attended the game in person will say.

For now though, let us return to the present day. What, at long last, follows is a relatively succinct match report that is compiled from a mixture of watching the live feeds, listening to the radio and reading text updates.

In the early stages, Guatemala had the upper hand, pressing forward, winning free-kicks and shooting from range. Dani Hernández, playing his first Venezuela game between the goalposts for over a year, certainly had to be alert upon his return. Nevertheless, Venezuela were still a presence, with Guerra striking wide, Rondón hitting an attempt a little too close to the goalkeeper and Juanpi having a free-kick deflected wide. Although Seijas also managed a couple of shots, as the halfway point of the first half approached, the consensus was that Guatemala had enjoyed the better of the play.

Still, Venezuela had a good opportunity to take the lead just before the half-hour mark. Juanpi, who again was offering his country some more direct, central attacking options, found Rondón with a through-ball, but the West Brom forward struck too close to the goalkeeper.

However, if the first half was edged by Guatemala, Venezuela certainly stepped up a gear at the beginning of the second. The half was less than five minutes old when Juanpi curled a graceful free-kick just wide of the post, which on first viewing looked as if it hit the woodwork. Later on, just before the 70th minute, Rondón controlled a long diagonal ball ten or so yards from the right edge of the area then, after taking a stride or two, struck low and hard at goalkeeper Ricardo Jérez, who blocked and then gathered the ball.

Yet, despite these attempts, it was actually La Azul y Blanco who took the lead and when they did, it took many Vinotinto fans by surprise. The goal came following a long diagonal ball that bounced into the path of Gerson Tinoco who, with some space separating him and the two defenders, hit it first time from the edge of the area across the goal and past the despairing Hernández.

Venezuela, facing a very disappointing loss taking them into a major tournament, responded with some urgency, forcing a couple moments of uncertainty in the opposition area before the equaliser eventually arrived. Indeed, when it came, it certainly was not pretty nor, for that matter, is it particularly worth tracking down if you were in the overwhelming majority who missed the game. Nevertheless, they all count and we just about have the video footage to prove. The goal came from a corner that was flicked along into the middle where Rondón, with a little too much space for the most high-profile player in the team, hooked it in.

1-1 it ended. Underwhelming, it certainly was and hardly likely to provide much concern to their opening-day opponents Jamaica who, in marked contrast, beat holders Chile 2-1 in their last warm-up game. Nevertheless, at least Dudamel has had four matches to run the rule over his charges. Last year, Noel Sanvicente had zero in the weeks preceding the tournament yet still managed to pull off a surprise 1-0 win against the much-fancied Colombia. With fairly fresh facts still at the forefront of the minds of the fans, one can not help but still wonder, what awaits La Vinotinto this time around?

Team Selections

Guatemala (4-3-3): R. Jérez; L. Cardona, H. López, C. Jiménez, G. Arias; R. Saravia, M. Hernández, J. Contreras (J. Priego, 73′); L. Martínez, G. Tinoco (J. Pinto Samayoa, 82′), C. Ruíz (M. Castellanos, 90+3′).

Venezuela (4-2-3-1): D. Hernández; R. Rosales (A. González, 75′), W. Ángel, O. Vizcarrondo, M. Villanueva; A. Figuera (R. Otero, 63′), T. Rincón; A. Guerra (A. Peñaranda, 85′), L. Seijas, Juanpi (J. Martínez, 71′); S. Rondón.

Darren Spherical

@DarrenSpherical