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

Jornadas 9 and 10 of the CONMEBOL World Cup 2018 Qualifying Campaign are on the horizon and, with the matches not getting any easier, Venezuela are already thinking about Qatar 2022. Here, @DarrenSpherical attempts to prove that this isn’t all just a futile waste of time…

CONMEBOL Qualifiers for FIFA World Cup 2018

Thursday 6 October 2016 – Estadio Centenario, Montevideo, Uruguay

Uruguay vs Venezuela

Tuesday 11 October 2016 – El Estadio Metropolitano de Mérida, Mérida State, Venezuela.

Venezuela vs Brazil

El Centenariazo: Uruguay 0-3 Venezuela, CONMEBOL World Cup Qualifying,  31 March 2004. Historic first-ever away win for Venezuela against Uruguay.

Venezuela Still Waiting for a Generation’s Bonfire to Begin 

So, this revolution, eh? All set? Just like you were in September? Ah. Still, early days and all that…

Last month, off the back of a decent showing at Copa América Centenario Rafael Dudamel took charge of his first two Russia 2018 qualifiers, seeking to revive La Vinotinto‘s fortunes. Neighbours Colombia and regional heavyweights Argentina provided the rather unpropitious opposition. In boiling Barranquilla, the burgundy boys were comfortably outplayed, finishing with nine men in a 2-0 defeat. At home in the Andean state of Mérida, however, they were in the vertiginous position of being 2-0 up against Argentina with just over half an hour remaining. Alas, the campaign comeback was postponed, with the game ultimately ending in a 2-2 draw, leaving Venezuela to merely double their points tally to an overall total of 2 from a possible 24.

Thus, whilst that is one additional point more than most neutrals predicted, stronger evidence will be required before a clear demarcation line can be drawn between the current regime and that of Noel Sanvicente (July 2014 to April 2016). Still, there were positives to be taken away – Juanpi’s performances, for one – so there is some justification in enquiring if genuine progress in the form of the first victory of the campaign is on the horizon.

‘Unlikely’, would nevertheless appear to be the response of the objective observers (betting websites, online sneerers and other reprobates). After all, awaiting them in the upcoming week are none other than the top two teams in the CONMEBOL group: a trip to the Centenario to face Uruguay (1st) and then a home clash against a rejuvenated Brazil (2nd), who have never lost to La Vinotinto in a competitive match. Dudamel – who, incidentally, recently decked someone good an’ proper and yet has not even been ‘cuffed –  could not really have been provided with a more challenging opening four qualifiers.

Nevertheless, the manager has said that he was encouraged by the performance against Argentina and feels that there is much that can be built upon. He can also take comfort from the fact that in his short reign he has already beaten Uruguay once, when sending La Celeste packing from Copa América Centenario. Regarding the Brazil encounter, if he is of a superstitious persuasion or just has a propensity to clutch at straws then the statistic that Venezuela are undefeated in all five games they have played at Estadio Metropolitano de Mérida will be something to bear in mind. That this includes three draws, including one against Canada, should not be dwelt upon.

As for his squad, Dudamel knows that he has at his disposal a very young, talented collection of individuals that has shown signs of being receptive to his ideas. Although his first-choice starting line-up is far from settled, it is likely that most, if not all, of the seven players who began both games last month will also be fielded for kick-off in Montevideo. These are: goalkeeper Dani Hernández, veteran centre-back Oswaldo Vizcarrondo, central/defensive midfielder and captain Tomás Rincón, promising wingers/attacking midfielders Juanpi and Adalberto Peñaranda and star striker Salomón Rondón and his partner/back-up, Josef Martínez. Dudamel may well opt for different personnel altogether in one or two of these positions and he certainly has a decision to make regarding the returning Copa Libertadores winner Alejandro Guerra. Some speculation suggests that the much-capped ‘Lobo’ may be granted a midfield start, with Martínez or Peñaranda most likely to be sacrificed.

Nevertheless, more concretely, Dudamel definitely has decisions to make in various other spots as he was forced into changes following the Colombia game. Indeed, against Argentina, owing to suspension, Venezuela’s Copa América discovery Rolf Feltscher was replaced at left-back by Mikel Villanueva; having also received a red card, Wilker Ángel‘s centre-back position was taken by Sema Velázquez; injury ruled out the once untouchable Roberto Rosales, whose right-back role fell to the seemingly in-favour Alexander González; lastly, Arquímedes Figuera had accumulated one too many yellow cards and so Arles Flores instead partnered Rincón in defensive-midfield. In the Venezuelan press, it is this last dilemma that appears to be of most interest selection-wise. Otherwise, though Dudamel has many other options in his 28-man squad, none of these have been rumoured to be in with a sniff of starting.

That said, if there any surprises they may come from the bench as he has thus far displayed a consistent propensity to bring on players who are either new to the national set-up or have been largely overlooked during the past few years. Domestic players Yordan Osorio and Aristóteles Romero are the freshest faces in the present crop and can not entirely rule out receiving a second-half summoning. These two men are 22 and 20 respectively and Dudamel, no doubt owing in part to his work with the Under-20s and Under-17s, has repeatedly shown faith in youth. Indeed, he took the youngest squad to the Copa América Centenario and has also shunned a handful of Sanvicente’s favoured elder statesmen – not to mention ignored Luis Manuel Seijas since his excruciatingly poor penalty in June’s quarter-final defeat against Argentina. Furthermore, the head coach has also taken the Under-20 side to Uruguay with him in order to prepare for January’s Sudamericano Sub-20 tournament with two warm-up games (the first, a 3-1 loss against Uruguay, was played on Wednesday and featured three of the first-team squad).

Though it is tempting – particularly when results are not favourable – to regularly update daydreams about who the men of tomorrow will be, there are more than a few players in the current squad who have youth on their side and points to prove. Of these in the attacking midfield positions, creative maestro and set-piece taker Juanpi has thus far done the most to be confident of a regular starting place. Adalberto Peñaranda, touted within the past year as a potential wonderkid due to his exploits with Granada, has earned some starts under Dudamel but will need to show more consistency – as well as earn more match-time at new-club Udinese – if he is to see off his competition. Rómulo Otero, still only 23 but a favourite of many, has somewhat surprisingly not started any competitive games under Dudamel yet could well dislodge Peñaranda in the not-too-distant future. Then there is 19-year-old Yeferson Soteldo, who has been linked with a move away from home club Zamora since his goalscoring exploits in 2015. Unsurprisingly, some of the impatient masses have wanted to see him line-up in a qualifier but it appears that Dudamel, for the time being at least, is instead wisely prepping him to take the Under-20 tournament by storm. After that, he may well have a more serious selection dilemma on his hands.

So, plenty of options in the attacking ranks, but at least two-thirds of the line-up for Thursday’s match at the Centenario seems assured and the remaining four or so starting spots are unlikely to take more than two guesses each. That said, if Uruguay come seeking revenge for June’s humiliation – especially with Luis Suárez back as he had to watch on in frustration from the bench in Philadelphia – perhaps some unexpected names will make it onto the subsequent teamsheet. However, armed with more than a few likely starters who have never set foot on this ground’s turf with the national team, childhood memories of the Centenariazo some 12 years ago could well inspire some more history-making.

Either way, whoever starts, they will always have another chance to make even greater names for themselves in the home game against Brazil. Too much of an ask? Perhaps, but for many, the first win of the campaign can not come soon enough. Undoubtedly, the subsequent three games against Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru provide better opportunities but what could better convince the public that there is substance behind all the talk of ‘planning for Qatar 2022’?

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), Yordan Osorio (Zamora, Venezuela), 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), Arles Flores (Deportivo La Guaira), Alejandro Guerra (Atlético Nacional, Colombia), Yangel Herrera (Atlético Venezuela, Venezuela), 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), Aristóteles Romero (Mineros de Guayana) & 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) & Salomón Rondón (West Bromwich Albion, England).

Darren Spherical

@DarrenSpherical

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