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

With Venezuela having lost their opening four World Cup Qualifying fixtures, Hispanospherical.com looks at the state of a somewhat unfamiliar squad ahead of the latest round of qualifiers.

CONMEBOL Qualifiers for FIFA World Cup 2018

Thursday 24 March 2016 – Estadio Nacional de Lima, Lima

Peru vs Venezuela

Tuesday 29 March 2016 – Estadio Agustín Tovar, Barinas

Venezuela vs Chile

romulootero

Chile-based Rómulo Otero is one of several Venezuelans looking to make their mark.

Familiar Issues Surround a Squad with Some Unfamiliar Faces

Suprise Omissions Open Some Doors in Attack

While there does not appear to have been a mass culling of stars – or, conversely, a boycott – familiar issues nevertheless abound for Venezuela boss Noel Sanvicente, who is set to field some unfamiliar faces in his nation’s latest round of Russia 2018 qualifiers.

Indeed, although only seven of the 15 signatories of November’s bombshell letter criticising the country’s football association (FVF) (and, to a lesser extent, the national team set-up) have been called up, most of the omissions can be justified without recourse to conspiracy theorising.

Most, that is, but – in the minds of many Vinotinto fans – perhaps not all. While the exclusion of stalwarts such as Grenddy Perozo, Gabriel Cichero and César González can be explained away via a combination of their age, lack of recent success with the national team and/or little match-time at club level, there are two notable exceptions.

One, Christian Santos, has been amongst the most prominent Venezuelans abroad over the past eighteen months, first firing NEC Nijmegen to promotion to the Dutch Eredivisie where, more recently, he has continued his impressive goalscoring exploits (15 goals in 26 league games). During this period, he also made his long-awaited international debut – scoring against Brazil in October along the way – and many have envisaged him being a key player for the foreseeable future. Unsurprisingly then, his absence has not gone down well in several quarters; national sports daily Líder En Deportes reflected this sentiment, in one article emphasing his exclusion above all others. However, his relatively new status and presumed lack of authority within the squad surely precludes him from having been a ringleader in the uprising.

Another similarly fan-infuriating omission is that of Ronald Vargas. Since rejuvenating his injury-hit career last year in Turkey, the 29-year-old attacker has gone from strength to strength this season at current club AEK Athens. In Greece he has garnered many effusive headlines and back/front-page splashes, scoring nine league goals, including in each of his side’s 1-0 wins against close-rivals Olympiakos, Panathinaikos and PAOK. He too seems an unlikely rebel, having enjoyed his most consistent spell in the national side under Sanvicente since he first burst onto the scene just under a decade ago.

Instead, no matter how baffling it may appear to many, it seems that the two players have been left out for footballing reasons. Sanvicente has said as much, commenting that he wishes to experiment with other players further up the field. Given his side’s lack of success in this area despite a seemingly disproportionate amount of talent in these positions, he may well prove to be vindicated. However, as changes in the attacking personnel have already frequently been made and selection controversies seem to surround every convocatoria, many fans have long ago reached the conclusion that the problem lies more with the boss than the men at his disposal.

Nevertheless, where there is frustration there is perhaps also the future, as Sanvicente has instead called up some of the nation’s most promising prospects. 18-year-old Adalberto Peñaranda has forced himself into the international scene much earlier than anticipated, owing to some impressive performances and goals for Granada. In a breathtakingly short space of time, he has earned a first-team place, broken a goalscoring record once held by Lionel Messi and has become one of the most famous Venezuelan legionarios. Despite reported interest from many leading European sides, he has already been snapped up by Granada’s sister club Watford, though will remain in Andalusia for the time being. This will be his first ever international call-up.

He is joined in the squad by Juanpi, another impressive La Liga starlet who, particularly in the past few months, has shone and participated in many goals for a rejuvenated Málaga. This has been his ‘breakthrough season’ and his performances coupled with his regular first-team appearances have seemingly made it impossible for Sanvicente to continue to frustrate fans by overlooking him.

Incidentally, 2015/16 has been a memorable year for Venezuelans in La Liga; along with these two individuals, Roberto Rosales has been an ever-present for Málaga and Miku impressively broke a scoring record for Rayo Vallecano (5 goals in 5 consecutive top-flight games). The latter man is only absent from the current squad due to an injury occurring at the most inauspicious of times.

Another attacker seeking a starting place is perhaps the most likeliest of the three to do so. Rómulo Otero, who over the past year has struggled with injuries at inopportune moments, has many admirers who see him as the leading creative catalyst of a new era; a mean free-kick taker, he has recently spoken to the local press about the possibility of taking over set-piece duties from the retired maestro Juan Arango. Plying his trade at Huachipato, he will be a familiar face to many Chile fans when La Roja travel to Barinas for the 29 March clash.

A Far Less Experienced Rearguard

Overall, owing to the suspensions of Luis Manuel Seijas, ‘Sema’ Velázquez and Roberto Rosales for the first game against Peru, Sanvicente has called up a bumper 26-man squad for this double-header. The absences of these latter two defenders, plus the relatively recent international retirement of Fernando Amorebieta and the omissions of Andrés Túñez and Gabriel Cichero have opened many doors – and perhaps even more holes – in the Venezuelan rearguard. Indeed, the one remaining regular, Oswaldo Vizcarrondo, is likely to be in a defensive unit with three men who have barely a dozen caps between them.

Last month’s inclusion in the 1-0 win against Costa Rica (both fielded understrength sides) has no doubt bolstered the starting prospects of domestic league players such as centre-backs Wilker Ángel (Deportivo Tachira) and Daniel Benítez (Deportivo La Guaira), as well as right-back Ángel Faría (Zamora FC). Mikel Villanueva, who plays for Málaga’s reserve side Atlético Malagueño, also impressed last month and could well start at left-back. His main competition comes from Caracas FC’s Rubert Quijada, a man who has contributed to a miserly club defence but who has largely been overlooked at international level. Lastly, another defender receiving a rare call-up is Víctor García, a 21-year-old who primarily plays at right-back for Porto’s B team but who has also featured on the bench of the first team a couple of times this season. Though few Venezuelans have seen much of him in recent times, owing to his club affiliation as much as the desperation for improvement at the back, many are optimistic of this young man’s future.

Not entirely dissimilar issues concern the defensive midfield berths as a few domestic league players who rarely make competitive international starts have received call-ups. With regular first-team member Seijas out of the Peru game and late concerns being raised on the fitness of captain Tomás Rincón, it is possible that a very inexperienced and unfamiliar Venezuela takes to the field in Lima.

Change Needed, but What Kind?

Ultimately, with Sanvicente still in his post despite having overseen largely disappointing performances and results that currently place Venezuela bottom of CONMEBOL qualifying without a point, it may be a stretch to call these games ‘must-win’. Indeed, supposed crisis talks were held after the last round of losses with the media and fan consensus concluding that even if the FVF wanted change they simply could not afford it. Thus, although another two defeats will undoubtedly raise the calls for his head to unprecedented levels, Sanvicente has not really given off the impression that his future rests upon these two games.

Nevertheless, even if – as many people feel – Venezuela are already out of realistic contention for a Russia 2018 place, as well as playing for pride and progression, there is also this June’s Copa América  tournament to  consider. Their opponents will surely bring back memories of last year’s competition, with Chile having emerged victors on home soil and Peru playing a significant role in the eventual exit of Sanvicente & co. Indeed, had Amorebieta not been sent off in the second group game against Los Incas, many Venezuelan fans are keen to believe that they ultimately would not have fallen to a late 1-0 defeat and instead secured at least a point that would have been enough to make the knock-out stages.

Although not considered one of the region’s heavyweights, as Peru finished third in that competition, they certainly present a stern challenge, especially in Lima. If only to improve public relations, Sanvicente and his charges know they could well do with a good result or two from these two encounters, though it is difficult to say which game presents the better opportunity to do so. While he will be missing some well-known and much-capped individuals – particularly in the opening game – this nevertheless opens the door for new approaches and players. Given that a lack of stability, continuity and cohesion have been hallmarks of his 20-month reign, these are not things that fans can easily feel optimistic about. However, for very similar reasons, nor can they dismiss them outright as evidently there are problems that, for the sake of a rather promising generation of Venezuelan footballers, urgently need to be solved.

Venezuela Squad

Goalkeepers: Alain Baroja (AEK Athens), José David Contreras (Deportivo Táchira), Wuilker Fariñéz (Caracas FC).

Defenders: Wilker Ángel (Deportivo Tachira), Daniel Benítez (Deportivo La Guaira),  Ángel Faría (Zamora FC), Víctor García (Porto), Rubert Quijada (Caracas FC), Roberto Rosales (Málaga), José Manuel ‘Sema’ Velázquez (Arouca), Mikel Villanueva (Atlético Malagueño), Oswaldo Vizcarrondo (Nantes).

Midfielders: Juan Pablo ‘Juanpi’ Añor (Málaga), Carlos Cermeño (Deportivo Táchira), Arquímedes Figuera (Deportivo La Guaira), Arles Flores (Zamora FC), Alejandro Guerra (Atlético Nacional), Jhon Murillo (CD Tondela, on loan from Benfica), Rómulo Otero (CD Huachipato, on loan from Caracas FC), Tomás Rincón (Genoa), Luis Manuel Seijas (Independiente Santa Fe),  Yeferson Soteldo (Zamora FC).

Forwards: Richard Blanco (Mineros de Guayana), Josef Martínez (Torino), Adalberto Peñaranda (Granada, on loan from Watford), Salomón Rondón (West Bromwich Albion).

Darren Spherical

@DarrenSpherical

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