Tuesday 2 February 2016 – Estadio Agustín Tovar, Barinas
Venezuela 1-0 Costa Rica
Video Highlights of Wilker Ángel’s goal in Venezuela 1-0 Costa Rica, International Friendly, 2 February 2016 (YouTube).
Wilker Ángel capitalised on a late goalkeeping howler to give Venezuela their first win for over seven months.
However, though ostensibly this long overdue victory came against World Cup quarter-finalists, little will have changed for under-fire manager Noel Sanvicente in the eyes of La Vinotinto’s frustrated public. Indeed, even before a ball was kicked, there was seemingly little at stake, with both nations’ squads drawn largely from their respective domestic leagues. Thus, Keylor Navas, Bryan Ruiz, Joel Campbell et al. were certainly not amongst the slain in Barinas.
Some of those that were instead selected for Los Ticos went some way towards aiding the home cause as, by the 65th minute, they were down to nine men following two dismissals. Despite this two-man advantage, familiar failings were displayed as the hosts struggled to create clear chances. Ultimately, it was to take further generosity from the visitors – in the form of experienced goalkeeper Marco Madrigal’s cack-handling – to save Sanvicente from media savagings – in the immediate aftermath, at least.
All the same, the game was at least an opportunity to break the winless streak, keep a rare clean sheet and for fringe/young players to demonstrate that they can handle wearing the burgundy shirt, if not put some additional pressure on their more illustrious, rebellious peers. While there were no storming performances, some players nevertheless stood out.
Ángel, for one, helped to keep things solid at the back and chipped in with his second international goal since making his debut in November 2014. Although he does not always convince in his defensive duties, with the first-choice centre-backs porous and, most pertinently, not getting any younger, further opportunities beckon.
With Fernando Amorebieta having resigned from the national set-up, this opens new possibilities at both centre-back and left-back. Indeed, throughout Sanvicente’s reign this spot on the flank has been contested mostly by the ex-Athletic Bilbao man and 31-year-old Gabriel Cichero (32 in April). Here as well, a vacancy is gradually emerging and Málaga youngster Mikel Villanueva did not do his prospects any harm in Barinas.
From an attacking perspective, two men were most prominent. Firstly, the man the majority of the Zamora-supporting crowd were most eager to see: 18-year-old nimble attacker, Yeferson Soltedo, scorer of an impressive 12 goals in 21 games in the local club’s recent championship-winning season. The volume was to rise whenever he picked up the ball. Without really getting a clear sight at goal, over the 90 minutes the fleet-footed forward looked the most likely to weave his way through the defence and either create or score a goal.
The other player of note to stand out was the more experienced Luis González, a 25-year-old dribbler who, particularly in the first half, niftily made space and put in the most testing balls.
Nevertheless, though the likes of González and Soteldo attempted to reward the vocal enthusiasm of the home faithful, the opening exchanges were familiarly tepid. It took 34 minutes until a shot hit the target and this came courtesy of the visitors’ Johan Venegas. Some space opened up for the Montreal Impact midfielder on the centre-right and his strike from 30 yards out troubled – perhaps unnecessarily – goalkeeper José Contreras who parried out. Immediately, Venezuela attempted to urge themselves into action and went straight down the other end, though Soteldo’s shot from outside the area went well wide. Around five minutes later, González created and fired the hosts’ first real attempt on goal, following a stepover with a low strike at the goalkeeper from the left of the area.
While the game was lacking in goal-mouth action, it was nevertheless keenly contested, with robust challenges of varying legality flying in. Just two minutes before half time, tensions got the better of Venegas who, to everyone’s surprise, suddenly received two successive yellow cards and was dismissed, presumably for comments aimed at the referee. As one of the most experienced players and likely threats for the Central Americans, his removal was a welcome boost for the hosts, but could they capitalise after the interval?
They tried, they certainly tried. Yet, lacking on-field familiarity and cohesiveness, most attacks in the opening 20 minutes after the restart were engineered by the likes of Soteldo and González creating space and then firing in balls to team-mates who were not always on the same wavelength. Then, in the 65th minute, even more space was afforded to them to make a crucial connection after another of their opponents’ stand-out players, David Ramírez, received his marching orders for a second yellow card.
Playing against nine men, Sanvicente would have known that nothing less than a win would suffice. Yet though his men did enjoy more of the ball and saw larger expanses of inviting green turf, Soteldo’s jinking runs were not punctuated with a finish and a stalemate seemed inevitable. Out of the blue, Costa Rica nearly thwarted this even this underwhelming narrative when, in the 84th minute, substitute Jordan Smith struck optimistically from 25 yards; his shot deflected, looped upwards and was then tipped over for a corner by Contreras.
Complete embarrassment and ignominy averted, Venezuela resumed their assault on Madrigal’s goal. The breakthrough, when it came with barely a minute left on the clock, came out of nowhere and was a gift that infuriated the Costa Rican coaching staff and match reporters alike. From a free-kick on the left, substitute Ángelo Peña whipped in a routine ball that bounced before Madrigal who, haplessly, was unable to catch it; instead, the ball rebounded off his upper body and was immediately headed past him by the alert Ángel.
Thus, in the short-term at least, a critical mauling was avoided and perceptions were rapidly re-assessed. It was the second time Sanvicente had managed Venezuela in Barinas under Sanvicente and the second time he had emerged victorious. However, both were in games featuring predominantly second- and third-string players and, barring further differences between the seniors and the FVF, hardly any of these are likely to feature in the World Cup qualifiers next month. That is when the real action recommences and Sanvicente knows he needs solutions fast. Ultimately, he can take little from this match into March’s double-header, but he will be hoping he will at least be around long enough to take the likes of Soteldo and Ángel to further international heights.
Venezuela (4-2-3-1): Contreras; Faría, D. Benítez, Ángel, Villanueva; Figuera (Acosta, 78′), A. Flores (J. García, 90+4′); Soteldo, Johan Moreno (Ponce, 54′), L. González (Peña, 79′); Blanco.
Costa Rica (5-4-1): Madrigal; Miranda, Acosta, Mena (Smith, 78′), Waston, Francis; Colindres (Cunningham, 56′), Alvarado (Sánchez, 90+4′), Azofeifa (Valle, 76′), Venegas; Ramírez.