Jornadas 17 and 18 of the CONMEBOL World Cup 2018 Qualifying Campaign are finally here as the cycle reaches its climax. Whether in the short- or long-term, most nations are competing for something and here @DarrenSpherical previews La Vinotinto‘s renovating squad ahead of their clashes with Uruguay and Paraguay.
CONMEBOL Qualifiers for FIFA World Cup 2018
Thursday 5 October 2017 – Estadio Polideportivo de Pueblo Nuevo, San Cristóbal, Táchira.
Venezuela vs Uruguay
Tuesday 10 October 2017 – Estadio Defensores del Chaco, Asunción.
Paraguay vs Venezuela
Wuilker Fariñez (Caracas FC) and Samuel Sosa (Deportivo Táchira) on opposing teams in the recent Clásico match (Photo: Jean Contreras and Balonazos)
Nine Under-20 World Cup Finalists Selected to Aid Rebuilding Process
Well, it’s been a bloody disaster, hasn’t it? The final two games of World Cup qualifying are upon us and Venezuela are almost certainly going to finish bottom, having never at any point seriously been in contention.
That’s certainly what a cursory glance of the CONMEBOL standings conveys, though it’s not necessarily how it currently feels for the average follower of La Vinotinto. Indeed, long resigned to their nation’s fate within this cycle which began two years ago with Noel Sanvicente at the helm, the hinchas have had little option throughout but to pine for a transformation of fortunes. El Chita was ultimately unable to perform such a resuscitation, being relieved of his duties after six qualifiers and – despite an impressive showing at 2016’s Copa América Centenario – his replacement Rafael Dudamel has struggled to revitalise the side as they dawdle along their self-made CONMEBOL cul-de-sac. That is, perhaps – and it is a very tentative supposition, more evidence definitely being required – until last month’s pair of draws with Colombia and then, historically, away to Argentina. Tellingly, this was the first time in the entire campaign that they had managed to avoid defeat during a CONMEBOL double-header.
Was this the long-awaited turning point? Time may, in fact, be unable to tell. This being because after next Tuesday, the subsequent competitive games will not occur until June 2019’s Copa América. To plug the considerable gap, Dudamel has stated that he has requested “at least five friendlies for 2018“). Plenty of time for further alterations to be made both on and off the pitch, then. Still, though it could very well have come at a better moment, some modicum of momentum appears to be with the manager, particularly as September’s results were achieved with some fresh faces, drawn from an ever-more-youthful pool of players.
Indeed, many experienced and valuable contributors to La Vinotinto‘s 21st century footballing rise have either retired or otherwise departed the picture since Sanvicente’s Venezuela commenced the Russia 2018 preliminaries in October 2015. The legendary Juan Arango handed in his notice the month prior but the list of those who have participated in competitive action yet are no longer on the scene includes the following: Alejandro Guerra, Luis Manuel Seijas, Oswaldo Vizcarrondo, César González, Grenddy Perozo, Gabriel Cichero, Franklin Lucena, Nicolás “Miku” Fedor, Fernando Amorebieta and Ronald Vargas.
It has been noted by more than a few on social media that many of these players were amongst the 15 who signed the notorious letter protesting against the national football federation (FVF) a mere 22 months ago. It is a curious coincidence and in a country in which there exists a general fear of repercussions if authorities are challenged via the media and where the football press tend not to delve particularly deep, such conspiracies will always be nurtured. That said, they do appear to be, for the most part, just that: most of these players are on the wrong side of 30, so even if some of their departures seemed a tad premature, they were not entirely unjustifiable and/or unexpected.
This reasoning, however, is a tad harder to apply to the continued snubbing of the Málaga pair of right-back Roberto Rosales and midfielder Juanpi, both currently regularly featuring in La Liga. The former is one of his nation’s most high-profile players and a mere 28 years of age; the latter is just 23 and had been widely-tipped as a star for the Qatar 2022 cycle. Rosales was one of the infamous 15, whereas Juanpi expressed his sympathy with their grievances. The former has often been very vocal on social media with his opposition to the country’s government; the latter has as well, also appearing at local protests. This is fertile material for full-blown paranoia.
Really though, who knows? No explanation, whether it be be grounded in football, politics or human relations, is without contradictions when applied to other players’ inclusions/exclusions. Thus, with 20 months of uncompetitive international football on the horizon, perhaps it is best to just view this puzzling state of affairs as merely part of the early phase of what is going to be a very drawn-out and experimental reshuffling period. Things can so easily change, as calling up a squad of some 31 players should testify.
The only signatories remaining in this selection are captain Tomás Rincón (Torino, on loan from Juventus, 29 years old), Premier League striker Salomón Rondón (West Bromwich Albion, 28) and MLS goal-machine Josef Martínez (Atlanta United, 24). They have been joined by no less than nine players from Dudamel’s hallowed Under-20 squad which reached the World Cup final in June; it is hoped that as many as possible can be gradually weaved into the senior starting XI. Of these, goalkeeper Wuilker Fariñez (Caracas FC) – who has recently signed a deal with Colombian side Millonarios – has already established himself as the country’s No. 1 choice and central midfielder Yangel Herrera (New York City FC, on loan from Manchester City) as well as right-sided attacker Sergio Córdova (Augsburg) also looked at home in their starts last month.
Although in Wednesday’s press conference Dudamel did not reveal any of his line-up plans, one would expect to see at least two or three of the other Under-20 starlets receive a run-out. Perhaps, with Herrera himself actually being suspended for Thursday’s Uruguay game along with the more experienced Arquímedes Figuera (Universitario), the door may be ajar for Ronaldo Lucena (Atlético Nacional) – Herrera’s midfield partner at youth level who is also the brother of the veteran Franklin, sharing with him some impressive dead-ball capabilities. Further back, though collectively Venezuela defended admirably last month, the two spots on the flanks are still causes for concern and this could open the door to “Los Hernández” (no relation). Indeed, over on the left, Rolf Feltscher – currently without a club after a trial with Birmingham City broke down following Harry Redknapp’s sacking – will also be suspended against Uruguay, so José Hernández (Caracas FC) could be in with a shout. Without Rosales, the right side is seemingly up for grabs with Dudamel appearing to have lost some faith in his initial replacement, Alexander González, who has not even been called up this time around. This month’s likely starter, 23-year-old Víctor García (Vitória Guimarães) looked markedly off the pace against Argentina so if Dudamel wants to try someone fresh, then he knows a lot about what Ronald Hernández (Stabæk) can do. At Under-20 level, he was one of his side’s most impressive performers, shining during both the qualifying tournament as well as the World Cup, rarely giving opponents an inch on his flank and showing a propensity to roam forward. It is tempting to perceive shades of Rosales in his play.
Otherwise, plenty will be enthusiastic to see if jinking dribbler Yeferson Soteldo (Huachipato) can light up the park at any point, whether in San Cristóbal or Asunción. Receiving his first call-up, Samuel Sosa (Deportivo Táchira), the 17-year-old prodigy who has already won a place in the hearts of many with his U20 World Cup semi-final free-kick against Uruguay, is another attacking talent well worth getting excited about.
They, as well as forward Ronaldo Chacón (Caracas FC), may struggle for minutes in the upcoming week, but it feels as if most of this group are on course to receive further call-ups. Remarkable as this inclusion of nine players is, the fact is that over a dozen of the Under-20 heroes can consider themselves in contention for future senior engagements. Indeed, had Adalberto Peñaranda recovered from injury a little sooner than this past weekend – in which he shared the field at Málaga with Rosales and Juanpi – then he would definitely have been included. Furthermore, not one of the three centre-backs who impressed in the U-20 qualifying and/or World Cup – Williams Velásquez, Nahuel Ferraresi and Josua Mejías – have yet received senior call-ups, but given their integral roles, one can not help but feel that their names will never be far from Dudamel’s thoughts in the upcoming year or two. Well, that is, of course, if the manager himself isn’t tempted to flee the cash-strapped FVF…
With all this emphasis on the next generation stars being integrated into a rejuvenated side with a few longstanding and established servants of the cause, it can be easy to forget about those who fall somewhere in between. Several of these individuals, in their early-to-mid-twenties, have been afforded more opportunities of late under Dudamel and the one who seems to have done himself the most favours is Jhon Murillo (Kasımpaşa S.K., Turkey, on loan from Benfica, Portugal). Not only has the 21-year-old driving attacker displayed greater tactical nous but he also scored a well-taken breakaway goal against Argentina and is sure to have earned himself at least one – though probably two – starts in the upcoming week. One other player from this “inbetweener” group worth keeping in mind is attacking-midfielder Yohandry Orozco (Zulia FC), who has not played for the national team in almost three years. Now 26, he was hyped by many after the 2011 Sudamericano Sub-20 tournament as the next big thing, consequently earning himself an ill-fated move to Wolfsburg. Aside from a spell in the American second-tier (NASL), he has spent most of the past four years in Venezuela, where his form this season with Zulia – he leads the league in assists for 2017 – has earned him a recall. It is not known whether he will make it onto the pitch but his presence will bring a smile to many as well as remind all that success at Under-20 level will not guarantee a prosperous senior career – at least, not immediately.
Dudamel has a daunting, though exciting, job on his hands. With two games coming up against qualification-chasing opponents, it is likely that he will set his side up defensively, hoping to cut out balls in the middle of the park, crowd out opponents and counter-attack. This is how almost all of the best competitive results under his reign have been achieved. Given the context, two further draws – which would make it five out of their last six qualifying games – would certainly be commendable, though if they can nab a win, that would really give the faithful reason to believe in the long-term future. It would, after all, be merely their second victory of the entire 18-game campaign.
Both matches could go every conceivable way, though Venezuelans should be inspired by the memory of the Dudamel-led 1-0 win against Uruguay at last year’s Copa América Centenario and take heart from Paraguay having an even worse goalscoring record than their burgundy representatives (17, to La Vinotinto‘s 18).
Whatever happens, for the neutral at least, these final two rounds of games promise to be utterly enthralling. Some dreams are set to be fulfilled and others dashed; Venezuela may have long been eliminated, but they have certainly got a role to play. As they seek to rebuild, there will also be plenty of room for sabotage.
José Contreras (Deportivo Táchira), Wuilker Fariñez (Caracas FC) & Carlos Olses (Deportivo La Guaira).
Wilker Ángel (Terek Grozny, Russia), Pablo Camacho (Deportivo Táchira), Jhon Chancellor (Delfín, Ecuador), Rolf Feltscher (Free agent), Víctor García (Vitória Guimarães, Portugal), José Hernández (Caracas FC), Ronald Hernández (Stabæk, Norway), Rubert Quijada (Al Gharafa, Qatar, on loan from Caracas FC), José Manuel “Sema” Velázquez (Veracruz, Mexico) & Mikel Villanueva (Cádiz, on loan from Málaga, Spain).
Juan Colina (Carabobo FC), Sergio Córdova (Augsburg, Germany), Arquímedes Figuera (Universitario, Peru), Yangel Herrera (New York City FC, USA, on loan from Manchester City, England), Ronaldo Lucena (Atlético Nacional, Colombia) Junior Moreno (Zulia FC), Jhon Murillo (Kasımpaşa S.K., Turkey, on loan from Benfica, Portugal), Yohandry Orozco (Zulia FC), Rómulo Otero (Atlético Mineiro, Brazil), Tomás Rincón (Torino, on loan from Juventus, Italy), Jefferson Savarino (Real Salt Lake, USA, on loan from Zulia FC), Samuel Sosa (Deportivo Táchira) & Yeferson Soteldo (Huachipato, Chile).
Anthony Blondell (Monagas S.C.), Ronaldo Chacón (Caracas FC), Edder Farías (Once Caldas, Colombia), Josef Martínez (Atlanta United, USA) & Salomón Rondón (West Bromwich Albion, England).
Please note: Jefferson Savarino (Real Salt Lake, USA, on loan from Zulia FC) was initially called up to the 31-man squad but has since been ruled out with injury.