Category Archives: Venezuelans Abroad

Jeffrén: Venezuela’s Wildcard on the Wing

With Venezuela set to host Honduras and Panama in their last warm-up games before the qualifying campaign for the 2018 World Cup begins, Hispanospherical.com shines a light on a certain 27-year-old whose likely debut has divided opinion in the country of his birth…

Jeffrén: Venezuela’s Wildcard on the Wing

The Pinnacle

29 November 2010, just coming up to 10:45pm local time, Camp Nou. A feast was in full swing…

Metronomic maestro Xavi, who initiated proceedings just over an hour-and-a-half prior, walked towards the touchline to receive a rapturous reception from the stands, before being replaced by Malian international Seydou Kéita. Hot on his heels was the man who had continued the festivities shortly after the first blow to the eternal enemy had been struck: Number 17, the 23-year-old already simply known as Pedro, who had become a regular fixture on the Blaugrana flanks during the preceding victorious campaign. Taking his place was another product of the envy-inducing La Masia academy also affectionately known, as is common in Spanish-speaking football cultures, by just his forename. Bearing the number 11 shirt formerly worn in his first few seasons at the club by Brazilian magician Rivaldo, 22-year-old Jeffrén (Suárez) had at this point barely made a handful of official appearances for the first team. Venezuelan-born but raised in the Canary Islands since the age of one, he was nevertheless a familiar face to much of the faithful due in part to his feats at youth and reserve level and enthusiastically ran on to experience his brief share of this memorable triumph. Little did he know just how much he would soon be contributing to both local folklore as well as his own personal myth.

Just four minutes later the game had entered stoppage-time and the ball was suddenly nudged by Andrés Iniesta forward on the right to another home-grown star-in-waiting also more commonly known by his first name. Bojan ran into space towards the edge of the area and crossed in a low ball that narrowly evaded the stretch of the incoming 2010 World Cup final goalscorer. However, having already sensed a potential opportunity, dashing in from his designated left side of the field was Jeffrén, instantly reaching what Iniesta could not and beating Iker Casillas at his near post. If the person in charge of the electronic scoreboard was neglecting their duties in the immediate aftermath it would have been understandable, for when they came to their senses it was to read: Barcelona 5-0 Real Madrid. Jeffrén rapidly reeled away and immediately darted over to Pep Guardiola and the Barcelona bench where he was mobbed by Lionel Messi, Sergio Busquets and all the other men absorbed in the methods that had made this the greatest team of the 21st century.

As Sid Lowe, an historian of El Clásico wrote: ‘Jeffrén Suárez’s late goal made little difference and yet it made all the difference: the fifth goal turned victory into something more historic, more emblematic: a manita, a goal for every finger.’

When Gerard Piqué detached himself from the throng, he raised five fingers to the crowd who needed no encouragement in obliging with similar gleeful celebrations of their own. When the final whistle was blown a couple of minutes later, it is unlikely that Sergio Ramos’ dismissal and subsequent petulant assaults on his La Roja team-mates Carles Puyol and Xavi immediately after the goal celebrations had fully registered with Jeffrén. He was on cloud nine and had every reason to believe that the good days would keep on coming.

The Substance

Indeed, in 2006, he had featured regularly in Spain’s victorious Under-19 European Championship side. He played in Poland alongside the likes of Juan Mata, Mario Suárez, Gerard Piqué, Javi García, Antonio Barragán, Gorka Elustondo and Esteban Granero, chipping in with the first goal that got the ball rolling in a 5-0 semi-final thrashing against Austria. He also came on as a substitute in the final in Poznań a few days later, helping to see out a 2-1 win over Scotland, courtesy of two goals by recent Porto signing Alberto Bueno.

Thus, while in 2010/11 there was congestion in the attacking berths from, most notably, Messi, Pedro, Bojan and David Villa,  Jeffrén nevertheless possessed the pedigree to strongly suggest that he was capable of remaining at a respectable top-flight level for some time yet. He was to play eight league games in total that season and went some way to further cement his credentials when he once again represented the country that had reared him at the 2011 Under-21 European Championships held in Denmark.

Born on 20 January 1988, had the then 23-year-old been born just 20 days earlier, he would not have have been eligible to participate, which is just as well for Spain as it could be argued that their eventual triumph never would have occurred without one of his contributions. Indeed, with Jeffrén having come on to replace Athletic Bilbao’s Iker Muniain with 20 minutes remaining, La Rojita were trailing Belarus 1-0 in the semi-final and this was still the score with little more than a single regulation minute left on the clock. However, following some characteristically patient and pinpoint passing play involving, amongst others, Mata, Bojan and Thiago Alcântara, Jeffrén received the ball on the right and, stretching, instantly played in a low cross that the alert Adrián reached first to knock into the back of the net. 1-1 and another much-fancied generation of Spaniards were suddenly back on track.

Extra-time therefore followed, during which the same striker (who would soon after transfer to Atlético Madrid and has since recently moved on loan to Villarreal from Porto), headed his side in front with his second of the game in the 105th minute. Just under ten minutes later, Jeffrén was once again on hand to provide the icing on the cake, cutting onto his left foot and rifling in a sensational left-footed golazo from over 20 yards. 3-1, game over. Three says later, the side also containing David de Gea, Ander Herrera, Javi Martínez and César Azpilicueta thus marched into the final in Aarhus, where they defeated Switzerland 2-0, with Jeffrén appearing as a late substitute.

spainu21

Jeffrén and his Spain team-mates winning the 2011 Under 21 European Championship (WAATP)

The Disillusion

So, maybe sometimes a bridesmaid rather than the bride, but a rather attractive one all the same. In search of regular first-team minutes, he was to depart from Catalonia just over a month later for Portuguese giants Sporting, though a testament to how highly Guardiola and his colleagues still thought of him was the buy-back clause they ensured was inserted into his contract as part of the deal.

However, despite evidently still being thought of as a potential high-level talent, his time in Lisbon was to be a huge disappointment to all, as he struggled with injuries, form and, ultimately, starting opportunities. He played in fewer than 25 league games in his two-and-a-half years there, before moving back to La Liga with Real Valladolid in February 2014. Here, the misery was to continue as a few months later the team was relegated. Subsequently, despite playing the closest he ever has to a full season, as only 19 of his 35 second-tier league appearances for 2014/15 were as a starter (of which he was substituted 12 times) and his combined number of goals and assists could be counted on one mano, this could hardly be considered a year of rejuvenation.

Thus, following their failure to regain their top-flight status after they were eliminated in the play-off semi-finals, Valladolid released Jeffrén. In the past month or so, while old rumours of a move to the English Premier League were no longer doing the rounds, there had been some speculation that he may return to the Canary Islands to join Tenerife, the side at which he had a brief association as a teenager. A far cry from where ex-colleagues Pedro and Bojan currently reside but perhaps the kind of morale boost he needs. Instead, in the past week, in what on the surface at least may appear to inaugurate the latest chapter of his downward spiral, he has signed a three-year contract with Belgian second-tier club KAS Eupen.

The Rebirth? JEFFRENidentitycard

Jeffrén posing in Venezuela colours with his new national identity card (GradaDigital)

Or is it? Eupen only narrowly missed out on promotion last season and, as of 4 September 2015, currently top their league. Moreover, a certain Christian Santos finished a two-year spell at the club a couple of seasons ago, during which he regularly found himself on the scoresheet and, excluding the injury-plagued year that followed, has since seen his career flourish. Last season, for someone often fielded on the flank he was banging in the goals at a heroic rate (23 in 34 league games), helping NEC Nijmegen steamroll their way into the Dutch top-flight. It is not yet known as to whether Jeffrén sought Santos’ advice, but given the parallels in the lives of these two men, it is certainly possible. Thus, the dual adventures that the ex-Barça man is about to embark on could well prove beneficial to providing the incentives to get him back on track.

Indeed, for as well as finding a new club, he has also found a new country. Like Santos, he was born in the Venezuelan state of Bolívar but grew up from a very young age in Europe (Germany, in the case of the NEC attacker). Within the past year, both men have acquired the necessary documentation and status in order to represent the country of their birth, with Santos having already made his international debut in March. Given Jeffrén’s impressive progress through the youth ranks of the Spanish national set-up and his La Liga appearances, playing in senior international games with Xavi, Iniesta and co. must have long seemed an attainable dream that could not be easily relinquished. Thus, in the past, he has either batted away or outright rejected calls to instead play for La Vinotinto, much to the chagrin of many from his birthland. Indeed, as a teenager he reportedly turned down calls from then-manager Richard Páez to play at the historic 2007 Venezuela-hosted Copa América. Then, three years later when César Farías was at the helm, with words that would come back to haunt and for which he has since apologised, he declared: ‘I don’t want to hear anything more about Venezuela.’

A trawl through social media sites and the Venezuelan press reveals that there are plenty currently unwilling to forgive him for these comments and the issue has certainly sparked some debate in the days leading up to his likely debut. It has, after all, only been in the last two years or so that he has publicly expressed more openness to switching allegiances. As this has coincided with his club career sliding downhill and his chances of representing La Roja evaporating, most Venezuelans do not kid themselves that they are anything but his international back-up option.

The Team-mates

However, albeit with less public rejection to apply selective amnesia to, the national side’s devotees have most certainly been in similar situations before. Most famously, it was only four years ago that defender Fernando Amorebieta – Venezuela-born but to Basque parents – gave up on his ambitions to represent Spain, having previously been part of the Under-19 European Championship-winning side of 2004 and, latterly, even receiving a call-up to Vicente Del Bosque’s senior squad for a 2008 friendly. He made his Vinotinto debut in 2011 and went a significant way to emerging victorious in the PR battle with the belligerents in October of that year by scoring the history-making winner against Argentina – Venezuela’s first-ever competitive win against their illustrious opponents.

One commentator on ForoVinotinto stated his belief that such goals aid the cause of convincing the hostile and the fence-sitters of a player’s commitment to the nation, referencing another one scored the following month as further proof. Indeed, in November 2011, Swiss-born Frank Feltscher, who spent some of his childhood in Venezuela and is a nationalised citizen, scored a late equaliser away to neighbours Colombia, gaining another vital point for what was an impressive start to the 2014 World Cup qualifying campaign. Curiously, while Feltscher may not be in the current squad, he is not completely out of the loop and if he receives one in the future at the same time as Jeffrén, the pair can reminisce about their experiences of the 2011 Under-21 European Championship final, when Feltscher had to endure Jeffrén and co. lifting the trophy from the Swiss bench.*

These are just two examples of many, as complex identities are nothing new for Venezuelans to have to contend with when cheering on their representatives. Indeed, in a country where baseball has traditionally held the greatest sway over the affections of sports fans, football has instead often received much innovation and development from those with what some may perceive as divided loyalities. Many of the domestic clubs were originally formed by immigrant communities, from whom plenty of the nation’s leading players have also been derived, most famously Juan Arango, the Venezuela-born son of a Colombian couple. Thus, though Jeffrén carries with him some additional self-inflicted baggage, he can take some heart from the experiences of many of his forebears. If, as seems likely, he makes it onto the field against Honduras and/or Panama for his debut, should there be any vocal hostility, he can cling to the belief that so long as he gives his all, his hard work should ultimately be appreciated. That said, a goal in a big game wouldn’t hurt either.

The Challenge

Alas, as this site’s detailed preview relates, his new international side is not short of pacy wide men, so one can not be confident of his future after these two games are over. Despite having a disproportionate number of potential providers to call upon to both assist and take some of the burden off lead man Salomón Rondón, the attackers have nevertheless struggled to combine and gel effectively. Collectively, since manager Noel Sanvicente’s arrival in July 2014, Venezuela have scored a mere 14 goals (12 officially) in 11 games. Work amongst those in the two front lines evidently needs to improve. Given that Sanvicente himself concedes that Jeffrén is not currently in the best of form, there is certainly some scepticism as to whether the player can come out of the blue to force his way into the coach’s burgundy plans.

Nevertheless, the Masia graduate’s international debut is something that many have been anticipating for years; so much so that, irrespective of the outcome of this experiment, it almost feels necessary for it to occur. Will it be the end to a protracted saga? Or perhaps the launchpad for a bright new phase in what could well be the peak years of his career? Only time will tell.

Expected to appear against at least one of the upcoming Central Americans opponents at the Estadio Cachamay in Puerto Ordaz, the boy whose family uprooted from nearby San Félix 26 years ago may feel less out-of-place than some anticipate. Indeed, in the build-up to his Vinotinto bow, he has spoken of his excitement at playing in the state where relatives of his still live. Aptly poetic or false sentimentality? With Venezuela’s latest bid to finally qualify for a World Cup starting next month, one suspects that for his detractors, his on-field actions will speak considerably louder than any of his words.

Darren Spherical

@DarrenSpherical

Article originally published on 4 September 2015.

*Author’s Indulgence: Over a decade ago at his English secondary school, your faithful Venezuelan football enthusiast regularly sat in German lessons next to a boy who is largely remembered for having once asked the teacher who had summoned him to the desk, if she was “‘avin’ a giraffe’. Somehow this Mockney qualified to represent Scotland and played in the final of the 2006 Under-19 European Championships, where he came up against none other than Venezuelan newboy Jeffrén – then, of course, wearing the colours of the victorious Spain. As noted in the article, the then-Barcelona man would later go on to help La Rojita lift 2011’s Under-21 European Championship trophy while his new compatriot Frank Feltscher – then donning the tracksuit of Switzerland – watched on with his defeated team-mates from the sidelines. Identities, eh…?

UPDATE: Jeffrén did not feature against Honduras (4 September 2015). As Venezuela slipped behind in the second half and ultimately lost 3-0, it was probably for the best that he was not introduced at any point on what was a fairly dismal evening. That said, the sparse crowd that did attend nevertheless maintained fairly good spirits until the final whistle so if, as is predicted, he makes it onto the pitch against Panama on Tuesday, it seems like he can expect a good reception in the state where he was born.

UPDATE 2: As Juan Arango made what he later announced to be his last ever Venezuela appearance, Jeffrén made his debut. One out, one in, some might say. He played the final 30 minutes in the rather dismal 1-1 draw against Panama. Click here to read about how he got on.

Andrés Túñez: El Gladiador

(This article was originally written in English. If you would prefer to read it in English, click here.) britain1 usaflag

Con una de las exportaciones de Venezuela más aventureras y sin embargo menos observadas logrando recientemente un importante trofeo tras haber cortado lazos con el conjunto al que sirvió por más de una década, Hispanospherical.com hace un repaso en profundidad de su papel en una campaña memorable en una nación lejos del radar de muchos fans del fútbol.

buriramtunez2

Buriram United (Andrés Túñez en el centro): 2014 Ganadores de la Liga Premier de Tailandia, 2 de noviembre de 2014. (Fanpage de Facebook del Buriram United)

El domingo 2 de noviembre de 2014, mientras muchas ligas en Europa tomaban impulso, la carrera por la Premier League se asentaba finalmente en Tailandia, con el Buriram United manteniendo su corona tras una victoria de 2-1 sobre el Police United.

Aunque en retrospectiva el fracaso del rival más cercano, el Chonburi, a la hora de derrotar al TOT SC hizo irrelevante este resultado, más de 25.000 fans en el New I-Mobile Stadium – o, como prefieren llamarlo los locales, el Thunder Castle – recibieron con entusiasmo los simbólicos goles marcados por el anteriormente delantero del Sporting de Gijón Carmelo González y el canterano del Deportivo de La Coruña David Rochela.

Importaciones como estas, junto con el máximo goleador filipino-español Javier Patiño, han ayudado a este ambicioso club a disfrutar del periodo más exitoso de toda su historia (puesto que lleva existiendo de distintas maneras desde 1970), consiguiendo sus cuatro títulos de liga en las últimas siete temporadas. Sin embargo, no se puede decir que todas las adquisiciones internacionales hayan tenido una gran relación calidad-precio para el equipo, con el anterior delantero del Arsenal y el Hull City Jay Simpson sirviendo recientemente como advertencia contra el exceso. Había sido atraído al club en 2013 con un contrato que según se dijo batía records y aún así volvió a Inglaterra este verano tras menos de un año en su aventura tailandesa para jugar con el Leyton Orient.

No obstante, un hombre que, tras menos de cinco meses de apariciones, ha dejado una marca imborrable en el club y que podría seguramente dejar el equipo mañana y seguir siendo tenido en alta estima durante años, es otro de los fichajes del Buriram desde España: el internacional venezolano y anterior defensa central del Celta de Vigo, Andrés Túñez.

Nacido en Caracas, criado en Balaídos:
La carrera de Túñez en el Celta de Vigo

Túñez nació en Caracas de unos padres gallegos que volvieron, con su hijo de siete años en brazos, a la conocidamente lluviosa región noroeste de España donde en su adolescencia firmó con uno de los dos clubs locales más venerados, el Celta de Vigo. Fue una relación que duraría más de diez años, con Túñez apareciendo por primera vez para el equipo B principalmente en su posición preferida a la izquierda de la pareja de defensa central en la temporada 2006/07 y finalmente consiguiendo su oportunidad con el equipo senior en la primera mitad de la campaña de 2009/10 a los 22 años. Ganó protagonismo en un equipo que, a pesar de languidecer en la mitad de la tabla en Segunda División, llegó a cuartos de final de la Copa del Rey – igualando su mejor actuación en conjunto desde que quedaron subcampeones tras el Real Zaragoza en 2000/01 – y fue recompensado con un contrato de cuatro años.

A pesar de jugar en la mayoría de los partidos de liga que quedaban en esa temporada, su carrera dio un paso atrás temporal en la siguiente ya que, tras la llegada del nuevo entrenador Paco Herrera ese verano, apareció en menos de un quinto de los partidos de su equipo. Sin embargo, la temporada 2011/12 sería crucial, aportándole un inmenso orgullo personal y profesional, puesto que Túñez no sólo debutó internacionalmente con su país de nacimiento contra Argentina, si no que también fue el beneficiario de un cambio de opinión por parte de Herrera y se convirtió en un titular regular en el que seria un año de ascenso.

Subir a Primera División trajo consigo la inherente calidad superior de los oponentes pero, mientras el Celta se debatía en cuanto a resultados, cuando no estaba apartado por lesión o suspensión Túñez era una constante en el equipo. Un partido destacable de esta temporada fue de nuevo en la Copa del Rey, cuando un Real Madrid que empezó con, entre otros, Ronaldo, Di María, Benzema, Alonso y Modrić (sin mencionar a Callejón, Özil y Kaká todos saliendo del banquillo) fue vencido 2-1, aunque Los Merengues progresarían tras un aplastante 4-0 en el partido de vuelta.

Sin embargo tristemente esta temporada fue más una batalla que sobrevivir, una causa que Túñez sintió de forma visceral, diciendo a principios de mayo de 2013 que si el Celta perdía los dos partidos siguientes que eran vitales contra el Atlético de Madrid y el Real Bétis entonces “toda la temporada se irá al infierno”. El conjunto fue efectivamente vencido en los dos partidos, dejándolos cuatro puntos por detrás pero sin llegar al apocalipsis puesto que, extraordinariamente, el Celta tuvo éxito a la hora de preservar su estatus a través de las victorias en los últimos dos partidos contra el Real Valladolid y el Espanyol.

Entonces llegó Luis Enrique.

Apenas una semana después de que Túñez se tirara al suelo tras escuchar el pitido final y ser arrollado por sus similarmente aliviados seguidores en ese dramático último día, Lucho se incorporaba como nuevo entrenador, reemplazando a Abel Resino, que a su vez había tomado el relevo de Paco Herrera en Febrero. La leyenda del Barcelona se trajo consigo a varios jugadores y aunque siendo optimista en un principio, Túñez se dio cuenta pronto de que él no sería parte de esta audaz nueva era. Aunque no podría haberlo sabido entonces, la emocional victoria contra el Espanyol había sido su último partido competitivo en los colores de Os Celestes.

Posteriormente, en parte para reforzar las posibilidades de ayudar a Venezuela en su intento de clasificarse en el Mundial de 2014, el hombre que había pasado toda su carrera jugando en la región de su juventud presentaba síntomas de amante desdeñado deseando irse lejos, acordando unirse finalmente al equipo israelí Beitar Jerusalén como préstamo en septiembre de 2013. Aunque Túñez ha dicho que disfrutó de esta estancia, al final desembocó en una decepción profesional con el Beitar terminando 9º entre 14 equipos en la temporada normal y por consiguiente sufriendo el escarnio de jugar en los play-offs entre los 8 equipos del final. De todas formas Túñez ya se había ido en marzo justo antes de que los play-offs hubieran empezado y al final del siguiente mes finalizó su contrato con el Celta (dos años antes de expirar), embarcándose en su lugar en un nuevo desafío con los campeones Tailandeses del Buriram United.

tunezcelta

Andrés Túñez en los colores del Celta de Vigo, tocando la bola para alejarla de Lionel Messi en el Camp Nou, 3 de noviembre de 2012. (David Ramos/Getty Images Europe)

El Buriram forcejea, Túñez se asienta:
Los primeros días en Tailandia

Efectivamente, este no fue un movimiento convencional para un jugador con experiencia en la que podría denominarse la mejor liga del mundo y quien, a los 27, estaba entrando en lo mejor de su carrera. No obstante, debido al número de jugadores con conexiones españolas asociados con el club no era tanto aventurarse a lo desconocido como se podría pensar, y mucho menos caer en una espiral descendiente en el abismo futbolístico. En efecto, no sólo le fue dada la bienvenida al club por los considerables talentos de Javier Patiño y Carmelo González (que ahora tienen más de 70 goles en liga entre los dos durante las dos últimas temporadas), junto con el defensa David Rochela, si no que también entre el equipo técnico se encontró con el preparador físico y analista de tácticas Arnau Navarro. Tuñez ha declarado en una entrevista con Los Otros 18 que pidió consejo a Navarro y otros antes de cambiarse, aunque hubo un hombre con el que no llegó a encontrarse por los pelos a su llegada con el cual podría haber compartido alguna que otra historia del Balaídos.

Alejandro Menéndez, que había sido entrenador de Túñez entre 2007 y 2009 en el conjunto B del Celta de Vigo, fue eximido de sus deberes como entrenador del Buriram dos semanas antes de firmar el internacional venezolano. A pesar de haber ganado casi cualquier honor local concebible en 2013, Menéndez fue víctima de un impulso insaciable de éxito instantáneo con el lamentable comienzo del Buriram en la temporada del 2014, que les vio conseguir tan sólo 10 puntos de 8 juegos, dejándolos en el puesto 12 en la liga y prácticamente fuera de la Liga de Campeones de la AFC en la fase de grupos.

Consecuentemente, el serbio Božidar Bandović fue convocado como interino hasta principios de junio y tuvo el placer de revitalizar al conjunto, que ganó 20 de los 27 puntos disponibles en los 9 partidos de liga que él entrenó. Túñez no participó en esta primera etapa de resurgimiento del club, puesto que se encontraba aclimatándose a su nuevo entorno, aunque en su debut el 11 de junio en el siguiente partido – el primero supervisado por el nuevo entrenador brasileño Alexandre Gama – ocurrió algo que tendría un efecto inesperado en su temporada.

El Buriram Asciende, El Gladiador Emerge:
Andrés el Incalculable

Lo que para sus compañeros de equipo era una victoria rutinaria de 3-1 en la Copa de la Liga de Tailandia contra el secundario TTM Customs finalizó abruptamente para Túñez tras recibir un duro codazo en la nariz, rompiéndola y obligándole a llevar una máscara protectora durante los siguientes dos meses. Como será referido, lo que estaba destinado a ejercer una simple labor práctica – aunque estilizada – de ayuda a la rehabilitación que le permitiese jugar, iba a convertirse en el signo de identidad de un jugador que, cuando volvió a la acción dos semanas después, se congració rápidamente con los fans del Buriram con espectaculares jugadas que le valieron victorias.

Así, con su equipo ahora 3º hizo su primera aparición en liga el 25 de junio contra el Songkhla United, teniendo un papel crucial en el resultado. Quedando sólo 15 minutos de reloj, el Buriram había desperdiciado una ventaja de dos goles y se encontraban al mismo nivel que el humilde bando contrario cuando Túñez recogió un tiro libre que rebotó fortuitamente en el larguero y volvió hacia el. Inmediatamente mandó la bola de un cabezazo a su izquierda, encontrando a Patiño que instintivamente la encajó con una tijera para dar a su equipo una victoria de 3-2.

Túñez se convertiría en una parte integral del equipo, y aunque le habían escogido principalmente para evitar goles, pronto se encontró marcándolos en el otro lado el campo, haciendo conocidas sus ventajas físicas entre los defensas de todo el país. El primero para el club llegó el día 16 de julio en el partido en casa de la semifinal de la Copa de la Liga cuando su altísimo cabezazo, de espaldas a la portería desde el tiro libre elevado de Theeraton Bunmathan, demostró ser el ganador contra Ratchaburi. Una quincena después, en su partido como visitantes el coloso Caraqueño marcó un gol casi idéntico pasando al mismo portero varado mientras el Buriram se reservaba su plaza en la final de octubre con una victoria 2-1 esa noche (un 3-1 global). Entre estos dos partidos en los que puso su nombre en el marcador, también abrió su cuenta en la liga el 23 de julio con un gol de inauguración – otro cabezazo, tres en cinco partidos en este periodo – en una categórica paliza de 5-0 a Chiangrai.

Este éxito propulsó al Buriram al primer puesto por primera vez en la campaña y, junto con el papel de Tuñez a la hora de conseguirle un lugar en la final de la Copa de la Liga a su equipo, no era sorprendente saber que los fans le habían tomado cariño, aunque si lo era la forma que tenían de expresar su admiración. Así, a principios de agosto el diario deportivo español Marca, interesado por las hazañas tailandesas de Túñez, publicó un artículo proclamándolo una sensación local a quien le había sido concedido el afectuoso apodo de “El Gladiador”, llegando a 5.233 ventas entre sus seguidores de máscaras similares a la que él llevaba. Los medios deportivos venezolanos, que siguen la trayectoria de sus internacionales fuera del país con varios niveles de empeño dependiendo del jugador, alegremente publicaron esta historia y consecuentemente esta percepción de Túñez en la distancia continuaría mucho tiempo después de haber sido desenmascarado. Comprensible quizás, al menos entre los seguidores venezolanos, dado que el acceso a los partidos en directo desde fuera de Tailandia es muy limitado y la mayoría de los partidos de fin de semana del jugador empezaban cuando muchos de sus compatriotas aun estarían durmiendo.

BuriramTunez

Un enmascarado Andrés Túñez, imagen promocional que aún sigue en la página del equipo en la web oficial del Buriram United. (Buriram United)

Para muchos con ésta idea de Túñez como una especie de  guerrero omnipotente que hacía el trabajo en los dos extremos teniendo el poder sobre todos y todo, fue una forma de poner los pies en la tierra cuando, sólo 11 días después de que el artículo fuera publicado, los rivales de título más cercanos, el Chonburi, acabaron con la racha de 19 partidos (nueve desde la llegada de Túñez) seguidos sin perder del Buriram. Sutthinan Pukhom propició un ataque psicológico potencialmente letal recortando con un gol en el último minuto la distancia entre ambos bandos a sólo un punto. Incluso después de que el Chonburi perdiera dos puntos en el siguiente partido, permitiendo que el Buriram aumentase su liderazgo por tres tras una victoria 2-0 sobre los modestos Air Force Central, los campeones parecían estar contra las cuerdas y se enfrentaban a una potencial batalla por el título a tres bandas.

Esto ocurría porque el siguiente juego del Buriram era un encuentro auténticamente épico  en casa  del Muangthong United, el equipo que ganó la liga en las tres ocasiones en los 6 años previos en que los Thunder Castles habían fracasado en este empeño. Si otra derrota pudiera ser infligida al Buriram, se encontrarían con los mismos puntos que el Chonburi, con el Muangthong United al acecho con un solitario punto de desventaja.

Aquellos que adscribían propiedades apotropaicas a la máscara de Túñez estaban sin duda temiéndose lo peor y buscando cobijo en sus refugios, puesto que había dejado de llevarla. Un revés más tangible que sucedió en el Buriram en este periodo fue la prolongada suspensión padecida por Carmelo González, que inicialmente se había visto vetado de forma indefinida desde finales de julio hasta el final de la temporada, pero que fue exitosamente apelada para permitirle volver a mediados de octubre. La tremenda doble infracción de Carmelo fue su respuesta a que el codazo que había recibido en la barbilla quedase sin castigo: primero le dio disgustado una patada a una botella que pasó más cerca de lo debido de un colegiado, y después, al serle otorgada una segunda tarjeta amarilla a causa de esta reacción, despejó el balón fuera del campo con rabia diciéndole a los colegiados que podían ir a buscarla. Así, sin Carmelo, que tampoco había jugado en el partido en el que fueron derrotados por el Chonburi, y el tenue brillo del aura de Túñez amenazando con desvanecerse, el Buriram de Alexandre Gama fue a este partido siendo profundamente consciente de los efectos en la moral del equipo que una segunda derrota contra el rival podría suponer.

Sin embargo este partido, que se puede clasificar como el más destacado de Túñez de la campaña, resultó ser donde realmente asentó su lugar en los corazones de los fieles del Buriram, marcando el gol ganador con un sensacional ostentación de capa y espada, a la altura de cualquier proyección idealizada de sí mismo mientras lo hacía. Fue a los 34 minutos de la primera mitad siguiendo un saque de esquina que el ex-Celta estaba defendiendo atrás en su propia área. Cuando la bola fue tocada con un cabezazo limpio pudo ver que el Muangthong se había comprometido en exceso y, oliéndose la oportunidad, avanzó hacia el centro del campo siguiendo el ritmo de la carrera de Jakkraphan Kaewprom por el flanco derecho. Con un solo defensa entre ellos, la pelota le fue cuadrada a través del área para que el paciente Túñez marcara con un patadón izquierdo que, aparte de los debidos gritos de asombro, dejó muda a las gradas locales. El hecho de que el venezolano estuviese en una posición tan avanzada era menos sorprendente que verle marcar con los pies, algo que nunca había conseguido antes en el nivel senior (exceptuando un golazo perfectamente legítimo en uno de los partidos de su lucha contra el descenso del Celta, que fue incorrectamente anulado y que llevó a que el juez de linea fuera vetado en su siguiente partido).

El resto del partido estaba lejos de ser una inevitable marcha hacia la victoria para el Buriram, puesto que concedieron un penalti poco después del gol, que fue evitado gratificantemente por Siwarak Tedsungnoen y tuvieron que jugar los últimos 30 minutos con diez hombres tras la expulsión de Theeraton Bunmathan. Después llovieron los tiros a la portería de Tedsungnoen pero Túñez y sus compañeros en la defensa los aguantaron, consiguiendo una eufórica victoria de considerable significado que noqueó de forma efectiva a sus anfitriones fuera de la carrera por el título.

Momentos destacados del Muangthong United 0-1 Buriram United, Liga Premier Tailandesa, 20 de agosto de 2014 (Youtube)

Desafortunadamente para los amantes de las narrativas simples, los Thunder Castles no podían dejar que sus seguidores respiraran tranquilos por mucho tiempo y siguiendo el ejemplo del Chonburi, tras su gran resultado empataron a uno contra la oposición de mitad de tabla, en este caso Army United. Esto dejó al Chonburi rezagado por un solo punto al final de agosto, en el momento en que todos los equipos de la Liga Premier Tailandesa se preparaban para dejar paso a los Juegos Asiáticos, pasando el rato las siguientes siete semanas con algunos amistosos hasta que los últimos seis partidos volvieran a comenzar a mediados de octubre.

Buriram Cuatro, Túñez Uno:
La Carrera por el Campeonato

Tres días antes de que el Buriram pudiera continuar con su carrera por la liga, una especie de doblete doméstico seguía estando a la vista, puesto que participaron en la final de la Copa de la Liga el 12 de octubre con el BEC Tero Sasana, quien en ese momento había reemplazado al Muangthong en el tercer puesto. Dado su papel de liderazgo en ambos partidos de semifinal, Túñez podría haber sido perdonado si se hubiera permitido tener un buen presentimiento sobre este partido. Sin embargo, en lo que fue un encuentro muy monótono de escasas oportunidades y que incluyó Mexicanos haciendo demasiadas olas (una), fue por el contrario el conjunto con un vociferante Avram Grant en la banda – en su papel de director deportivo – el que quedó como ganador sorpresa de un 2-0 con dos goles tardíos.

Así, un trofeo se había escapado mansamente del alcance del Buriram, pero ¿podrían hacerlo dos? La pérdida de la copa no pareció ser más que un desliz momentáneo cuando los Thunder Castles volvieron a la campaña de liga con una victoria contra el Sisaket que, al coincidir con una derrota del Chonburi, les dio cuatro puntos limpios quedando sólo cinco partidos. Aun así, los fatalistas sintieron que tenían razón después de todo cuando el Buriram consiguió un solo punto de los siguientes dos juegos y el Chonburi finalmente los desalojó del primer puesto por primera vez desde julio. El Buriram parecía haberlo echado todo a perder. 

Sin embargo, tras haber igualado sus resultados en la siguiente jornada, el Chonburi dio el fatal y decisivo paso en falso, empatando con el Chainhat Hornbill en la penultima etapa, en un partido inundado por una inmensa controversia y que dio pie a prolongados suspensos tanto para el árbitro como para el juez de línea. Consecuentemente, justamente o no, esto permitió al Buriram tener el control sobre su propio destino consiguiendo llegar como líderes por un punto al último día de la temporada.

Cuando llegó el domingo 2 de noviembre de 2014, las escasas esperanzas del Chonburi se desvanecieron rápidamente después de diez minutos cuando Carmelo puso al Buriram 1-0 contra un  Police United amenazado por el descenso y Rochela haría el 2-0 desde el punto de lanzamiento de penalti cuando quedaban 25 minutos. Aunque sus oponentes – ahora jugando con diez hombres – se las apañaron para conseguir recuperar un gol unos minutos después, los Thunder Castles despidieron cómodamente la victoria, con el Chonburi fracasando en tan siquiera  cumplir adecuadamente su tarea como potencial azote del día, empatando a uno con el TOT SC.

El Buriram United era nuevamente campeon por cuarta vez en su historia y, por primera vez en su carrera profesional, Andrés Túñez obtuvo una medalla de ganador de liga. Como se puede observar en los videos oficiales del club del partido y las celebraciones posteriores (los goles con banda sonora, como siempre, de una cuestionable interpretación del ‘Go West’ de los Village People), así como un pequeño baile de los jugadores en el podio, no cabe duda de que este logro fue sentido de todo corazón por El Gladiador.

tunezchampion

Andrés Túñez con el trofeo de la Liga Premier de Tailandia, 2 de noviembre de 2014. (Cuenta de Twitter de Andrés Túñez)

Un Héroe de Culto para Unos, un Valorado Compañero de Equipo para Otros y un Campeón para Todos:
Andrés Túñez

burirampositions

La posición en liga del Buriram United en las 38 jornadas en la temporada de la Liga Premier de Tailandia de 2014. (Fanpage de Facebook del Buriram United)

Así terminó una inusual pero estimulante campaña para una persona revitalizada que capturó los corazones e imaginación de miles de fans, no sólo de su propio equipo, si no en toda Tailandia y más allá. Mientras que una lectura fría del gráfico superior podría debilitar la percibida contribución de Tuñez al éxito del campeonato, poco puede hacer para disminuir su estatus icónico y su papel como uno de los jugadores más valiosos de su equipo. Es de cualquier manera útil considerar brevemente los datos en cuestión para por lo menos conseguir una fotografía ligeramente más amplia de la temporada del Buriram que lo que ha sido relatado en otros sitios, sin desmerecer el papel de Túñez.

Teniendo en cuenta la resurrección de la campaña del Buriram tras su flojo comienzo, aunque el influyente artículo del Marca manifestó correctamente que el club estaba a mitad de la tabla cuando Tuñez fue fichado a finales de abril (que sería la 10ª jornada, cuando iban en el puesto 12), casualmente exageró su papel en el giro de su suerte. Efectivamente, a pesar de incluir las estadísticas de aparición en los partidos que deberían haber dado pie a mayor reflexión, el artículo omitió mencionar que él no hizo su  debut en la liga hasta la 20ª jornada de la temporada, para cuando el Buriram ya iba 3º. Así, como el club ya estaba en una trayectoria ascendente se le deben reconocer grandes méritos, primero al entrenador interino Božidar Bandović y también a  su repuesto permanente Alexandre Gama, quien continuó el trabajo de su predecesor de motivar a los indudablemente talentosos jugadores a alcanzar su potencial colectivo.

Eso no significa que Túñez fuera un jugador menor en la subida a la cumbre inicial de su equipo al final de julio (25ª jornada) – poco antes de que el artículo fuera escrito – puesto que incuestionablemente, a través de sus primeras intervenciones en las que se ganaron partidos él fue todo menos irrelevante. Como también ha sido retransmitido, él habría continuado jugando un papel crucial a la hora de mantener (aunque con uno o dos pequeños deslices) la posición del equipo hasta el final de la campaña pero, junto con las contribuciones de algunos de sus compañeros mencionados antes, el papel de Gama también debería ser enfatizado.

En efecto, de cara al futuro, Túñez debe de haber estado encantado de escuchar que el entrenador brasileño ha firmado recientemente un nuevo contrato, puesto que el venezolano dijo que inicialmente le atraía el Buriram porque tienden a clasificarse en la Liga de Campeones de la AFC –  una competición en la cual su jefe tiene algún pedigrí. En el 2007, Gama se las arregló para llevar al Al-Wahda de los Emiratos Árabes Unidos a las semifinales de la competición – la mejor actuación del grupo hasta ahora – y probablemente disfrutará la oportunidad del año que viene de mejorar la floja actuación del Buriram de Menéndez anteriormente esta temporada.

Aunque la reciente noticia de que Carmelo González va a dejar el club debería invitar a la reflexión, es probable que Túñez siga estando cerca para jugar en esta competición continental, puesto que inicialmente firmó un acuerdo de tres años y ha indicado que su intención es la de quedarse con el Buriram.

Por último de cualquier forma, pase lo que pase en su futuro y donde sea que se encuentre jugando después, siempre recordará afectuosamente, y será recordado afectuosamente por ella, esta campaña de ligas ganadas con el Buriram United. Muchos jugadores han visto sus carreras disolverse hasta volverse insignificantes tras habérseles dicho que son un sobrante para los requisitos del único club profesional que han conocido, pero la respuesta de este gallego ha sido ejemplar. De forma contraria, muchos jugadores han dejado el club de su juventud para ir a ganar títulos, a veces en ligas más prestigiosas. Sin embargo, pocos pueden presumir de haber tenido una temporada tan reveladora como la que disfrutó Túñez y de haberse convertido en un héroe de culto para fans del fútbol en al menos tres continentes en el camino. Así que, así estén aclamando a El Gladiador en Tailandia, Venezuela, España o puede que incluso Israel, y sin importar cuantas imágenes de partidos hayan podido ver, aquellos que de algún modo estaban al tanto de esta historia saben que merecía la pena ser contada.

Darren Spherical

@DarrenSpherical

Traducido por:

Susana Spherical 

Andrés Túñez: Venezuela’s Thai Champion

(Si prefieres leer este artículo en español, haz click aquí) venezuelaflag Spain

With one of Venezuela’s most adventurous yet least-observed exports recently picking up silverware after severing ties with the side he served for over a decade, Hispanospherical.com looks in depth at his role in a memorable campaign outside of the footballing mainstream 

buriramtunez2

Buriram United (Andrés Túñez in the centre): 2014 Thai Premier League winners, 2 November 2014. (Buriram United’s Facebook Fanpage)

On Sunday 2 November 2014, as many leagues in Europe were just gaining momentum, the Premier League chase was finally settled in Thailand as Buriram United retained their crown following a 2-1 victory over Police United.

Although in hindsight the failure of nearest rival Chonburi to beat TOT SC rendered this result irrelevant, over 25,000 fans at the New I-Mobile Stadium – or, as the locals prefer, Thunder Castle – rapturously received the symbolically significant goals scored by erstwhile Sporting Gijón forward Carmelo González and Deportivo La Coruña youth graduate David Rochela.

Imports such as these, as well as Spanish-Filipino top-scorer Javier Patiño, have helped this ambitious club enjoy the most successful period in its history (it has existed in several guises since 1970), with all four of its league titles coming in the past seven seasons. Not all overseas acquisitions can be said to have provided the club with value-for-money, however, with former Arsenal and Hull City forward Jay Simpson serving as a recent warning against excess. He had been lured to the club in 2013 on a reportedly record-breaking contract yet returned to England this summer after less than a year into his Thai adventure to play for Leyton Orient.

However, one man who, with fewer than five months’ worth of appearances to his name, has left an indelible mark on the club and who could surely leave tomorrow and still be regarded with affection for years to come, is another of Buriram’s recruits from Spain: Venezuela international and former Celta Vigo centre-back, Andrés Túñez.

Caracas-conceived, Balaídos-bred:
Túnez’s Celta Vigo Career

Túñez was born in Caracas to Galician parents who returned, with seven-year-old son in tow, to Spain’s notoriously rain-sodden north-west region where in his teenage years he signed forms with one of the two most revered local clubs, Celta Vigo. It was a relationship that would last over ten years, with Túñez first appearing for the B team primarily in his favoured position on the left side of a centre-back pairing in the 2006/07 season and eventually getting his chance with the seniors in the first half of the 2009/10 campaign at the age of 22. He rose to prominence in a side that, despite languishing in mid-table of the Segunda División, reached the Quarter-finals of the Copa Del Rey – equalling their joint-best performance since they were runners-up to Real Zaragoza in 2000/01 – and was rewarded with a four-year contract.

Despite playing in the majority of the remaining league games that season, his career took a temporary step backwards the following campaign, as with the arrival of new manager Paco Herrera in the summer, he featured in fewer than one-fifth of his side’s matches. However, the 2011/12 season was to prove pivotal, bringing immense personal and professional pride, as not only did Túñez make his international debut for the country of his birth against Argentina, but he was also the beneficiary of a change of heart on the part of Herrera and became a first-team regular in what was to be a promotion-winning year.

Moving up to the Primera División brought with it the concomitant higher quality of opponents but while Celta struggled in terms of results, when not sidelined by injury or suspension Túñez was an ever-present in the team. One game in particular that stands out from this season again came in the Copa Del Rey when a Real Madrid side that started with, amongst others, Ronaldo, Di María, Benzema, Alonso and Modrić (not to mention Callejón, Özil and Kaká all coming off the bench) were defeated 2-1, though Los Merengues were to progress following a 4-0 hiding in the return leg.

Alas, this season was more about the battle to survive, a cause Túñez felt viscerally as he stated in early May 2013 that if Celta lost two vital upcoming games against Atlético Madrid and Real Betis then ‘the whole season goes to hell’. His side were indeed defeated in both matches leaving them four points adrift yet no apocalypse came as, remarkably, Celta were ultimately successful in preserving their top-flight status via wins in the final two matches against Real Valladolid and Espanyol.

Then along came Luis Enrique.

Barely a week after Túñez fell to the ground upon hearing the final whistle and was mauled by similarly relieved fans on the dramatic last day, Lucho was installed as the new manager, replacing Abel Resino who had, in turn, taken over from Paco Herrera in February. The Barcelona legend brought in several players of his own and while initially optimistic, Túñez soon came to realise that he was not going to be part of this bold new era. Though he could not have known it at the time, the emotional victory over Espanyol was to be his final competitive game in the colours of Os Celestes. 

Subsequently, partly to bolster his chances of helping Venezuela’s attempt to qualify for World Cup 2014, the man who had spent all of his career playing in the region of his youth exhibited some symptoms of a spurned lover as he looked to move far away, eventually agreeing to join Israeli side Beitar Jerusalem on loan in September 2013. While Túñez has said that he enjoyed this sojourn, it did end in professional disappointment as Beitar finished 9th out of 14 teams in the regular season and thus suffered the indignity of playing in the play-offs contested by the bottom eight sides. Túñez, however, had left in March just before the play-offs had begun and at the end of the following month he terminated his contract with Celta (two years before it expired), instead embarking on a fresh challenge with the reigning Thai champions Buriram United.

tunezcelta

Andrés Túñez in Celta Vigo colours, poking the ball away from Lionel Messi at Camp Nou, 3 November 2012. (David Ramos/Getty Images Europe)

Buriram Struggle, Túñez Settles:
Early Days in Thailand

This was certainly not a conventional move for a player with experience of arguably the best league in the world and who, at 27, was entering the prime of his career. However, due to the number of players with Spanish links associated with the club it was perhaps less of a venture into the unknown than may be assumed, never mind a downward spiral into a footballing abyss. Indeed, not only was he greeted at the club by the considerable talents of Javier Patiño and Carmelo González (who now have over 70 league goals between them for the past two seasons), as well as defender David Rochela, but amongst the backroom staff he would have found the Strength and Conditioning Coach/Performance Analyst, Arnau Navarro. Túñez has stated in an interview with Los Otros 18 that he sought the advice of Navarro and others before moving, though there was one man he narrowly missed upon his arrival with whom he could have shared a Balaídos story or two.

Alejandro Menéndez, who coached Túñez between 2007-09 in Celta Vigo’s B side, was relieved of his duties as Buriram manager two weeks prior to the signing of the Venezuela international. Despite having won virtually every conceivable domestic honour in 2013, Menéndez was the victim of an insatiable drive for instant success as Buriram’s woeful start to the 2014 campaign saw them take just 10 points from 8 games, leaving them 12th in the league and virtually out of the AFC Champions League at the group stage.

Consequently, the Serbian Božidar Bandović was brought in on an interim basis until early June and he had much joy revitalising the squad as they gained 20 of the 27 available points in the nine league games that he managed. Túñez took no part in this early stage of the club’s revival as he was acclimatising to his new surroundings, though in his debut on 11 June in the very next game – the first overseen by the new Brazilian manager Alexandre Gama –  an event occurred that was to have an unforeseen effect on his season.

Buriram Ascend, El Gladiador Emerges:
Andrés the Invaluable

What for his team-mates was a routine 3-1 away win in the Toyota League Cup against second-tier TTM Customs was curtailed abruptly for Túñez after he received a sharp elbow to the nose, breaking it and obliging him to wear a protective mask for the next two months. As shall be related, what was intended as a mere functional – if somewhat stylised – rehabilitation aid allowing him to play, was to become the defining identifying feature of a player who, when he did return to action two weeks later, rapidly ingratiated himself with the Buriram fans with some outstanding, match-winning displays.

Indeed, with his side now 3rd he made his first league start on 25 June away to Songkhla United, playing a crucial role in the outcome. With 15 minutes left on the clock, Buriram had squandered a two-goal lead and found themselves on level terms with the lowly outfit when Túñez came forward for a set-piece that rebounded fortuitously off the bar and into his path. Immediately nodding the ball to his left, he found Patiño who instinctively hooked it in with a scissor-kick to give his team a 3-2 victory.

Túñez was to become an integral part of the team, yet while he was brought in primarily to keep out goals, he soon found himself knocking them in at the other end as he made his physical advantages known to defences up and down the country. His first for the club came on 16 July in the home leg of the League Cup semi-final as his towering header, back-to-goal from Theeraton Bunmathan’s lofted free-kick, proved to be the winner against Ratchaburi. A fortnight later in the away leg, the Caraqueño colossus scored a near-identical goal past the same stranded goalkeeper as Buriram booked their place in October’s final with a 2-1 win on the night (3-1 on aggregate). Between getting his name on the scoresheet in these two games, he also opened his account in the league on 23 July with the opening goal – another header, three in five games for this period – in an emphatic 5-0 thrashing of Chiangrai.

This win propelled Buriram to top spot for the first time in the campaign and, coupled with Túñez’s role in earning his side a place in the League Cup final, it was not surprising to learn that the fans had taken to him, though the manner in which they expressed their admiration certainly was. Indeed, in early August the Spanish sports daily Marca, curious of Túñez’s Thai deeds, published an article proclaiming him to be a local sensation who had been bestowed the affectionate moniker ‘El Gladiador‘, with sales to fans of replica masks similar to the one he was then wearing numbering 5,233. The Venezuelan sports media, who track the progress of their overseas internationals with varying degrees of commitment depending on the player, gleefully reprinted this story and consequently this perception of Túñez was to live on from afar long after he had been unmasked. Understandable perhaps, at least amongst Venezuelan fans, given that live access to games outside of Thailand is very limited and the majority of the player’s weekend matches kicked off when most of his compatriots would have still been in bed.

BuriramTunez

A masked Andrés Túñez, promotional image still displayed on the squad page of Buriram United’s official website (as of 6 November 2014). (Buriram United)

For many with this idea of Túñez as some kind of omnipotent warrior who did the business at both ends while lording it over all and sundry, it was something of a reality check when, just 11 days after the article was published, nearest title rivals Chonburi ended Buriram’s 19-game (nine since Túñez’s arrival) undefeated streak in the league. A potentially lethal psychological blow was struck by Sutthinan Pukhom whose last-minute goal cut the gap between the two sides to just one point. Even after Chonburi dropped two points in their next game, thus allowing Buriram to increase their lead to three following a 2-0 win over minnows Air Force Central, the champions appeared to be on the ropes and were now facing a potential three-way battle for the title.

This was because Buriram’s next game was an authentically epic encounter away to Muangthong United, the side who won the league on the three occasions in the previous six years that the Thunder Castles failed to. If another defeat could be inflicted on Buriram, they would find themselves level on points with Chonburi, with Muangthong United lurking just a solitary point behind the pair.

Those who ascribed apotropaic qualities to Túñez’s mask were no doubt fearing the worst and scrambling for cover in their bunkers, as he was now no longer wearing it. A more tangible setback that befell Buriram in this period was the lengthy suspension served by Carmelo González that initially saw him banned indefinitely from late-July until the end of the season, but which was later successfully appealed to allow him to return in mid-October. Carmelo’s heinous double-offence was his response to seeing an elbow he received to his chin go unpunished: he first kicked a bottle in disgust that trickled too close to a match official for comfort and then, upon being awarded a second yellow card for his reaction, punted the ball upfield with all his pent-up rage, effectively telling the officials to go fetch. Thus, with no Carmelo, who had also been ruled out of the Chonburi loss, and the soft glow of Túñez’s aura threatening to diminish, Alexandre Gama’s Buriram went into this game acutely aware of the effects on team morale a second defeat against a rival could have.

As it transpired, however, this match, which must rank as Túñez’s personal highlight of the campaign, is where he really cemented his place in the hearts of the Buriram faithful, scoring the winning goal with sensational, swashbuckling swagger, living up to every idealised projection of himself as he did so. It came 34 minutes into the first half following a corner that the ex-Celta man was back defending in his own six-yard box. As the ball was headed clear he could see that Muangthong had over-committed and, scenting an opportunity, he strode forward up the centre of the pitch, keeping pace with Jakkraphan Kaewprom’s run up the right flank. With just one defender between them, the ball was squared across the area for the patient Túñez to calmly slot home with a left-footed strike that, aside from some mandatory squeals, silenced the home crowd. That the Venezuelan was in such an advanced position was less of a surprise than witnessing him score with his feet, something he had never previously achieved at senior level (barring a perfectly legitimate golazo in Celta’s relegation run-in that was incorrectly ruled out and which led to the linesman being banned for his following game).

The rest of the match was far from an inevitable march towards victory for Buriram as they conceded a penalty shortly after the goal that was gratefully saved by Siwarak Tedsungnoen and then had to play the final 30 minutes with ten men following Theeraton Bunmathan’s dismissal. Shots subsequently rained down on Tedsungnoen’s goal but Túñez and his defensive colleagues held on, achieving a euphoric victory of considerable significance that effectively knocked their hosts out of the title race.

Highlights of Muangthong United 0-1 Buriram United 1, Thai Premier League, 20 August 2014. (YouTube)

Unfortunately for fans of simple narratives, the Thunder Castles were unable to allow their supporters to breathe easily for too long, taking a leaf out of Chonburi’s book by following up their big result with a 1-1 draw against mid-table opposition, in this case Army United. This left Chonburi trailing by a mere point at the end of August, at which time all of the sides in the Thai Premier League packed up to make way for the Asian Games, whiling away the subsequent seven weeks with some friendlies until the final six games re-commenced in mid-October.

Buriram Four, Túñez One:
The Championship Run-in

Three days before Buriram could continue their league pursuit, a domestic double of sorts was still very much in the offing as they contested the Toyota League Cup final on 12 October with BEC Tero Sasana, who at this point had replaced Muangthong in 3rd. Given his leading role in both legs of the semi-final, Túñez could have been forgiven if he allowed himself to feel a sense of destiny about this match. However, in what was a very drab encounter low on opportunities and which featured a Mexican wave too many (one), it was instead the side with a barking Avram Grant on the touchline – serving his role as technical director – that ran out surprise 2-0 winners with two late goals.

Thus, one trophy meekly slipped from Buriram’s grasp, but could two? The cup loss seemed no more than a momentary blip when the Thunder Castles resumed their league campaign with a victory against Sisaket that, as it coincided with a Chonburi defeat, put them four points clear with just five games left. However, the fatalists felt they were onto something after all when Buriram took just one point from their subsequent two games and Chonburi finally dislodged them from top spot for the first time since July. Buriram appeared to have blown it.

However, after matching each others’ results in the next round of games, Chonburi committed the fatal, decisive misstep, drawing at the penultimate stage with Chainhat Hornbill in a game marred by immense controversy and which led to lengthy bans for the referee and one of the linesmen. Consequently, justly or otherwise, this allowed Buriram to be in control of their own destiny as they took a one-point lead into the last day of the season.

When Sunday 2 November 2014 arrived, Chonburi’s slim hopes were quickly dashed after just ten minutes when Carmelo put Buriram 1-0 up against relegation-threatened Police United and Rochela was to make it 2-0 from the penalty spot with 25 minutes remaining. Although their opponents – now playing with ten men – managed to get a goal back a few minutes later, the Thunder Castles comfortably saw out the win, with Chonburi failing to even adequately fulfil their duty as the day’s potential scourge, drawing 1-1 with TOT SC.

Buriram United were once again champions for the fourth time in their history and, for the first time in his professional career, Andrés Túñez had a league-winner’s medal. As can be observed from the official club videos of the game and the post-game celebrations (the goals soundtracked, as always, to a questionable rendition of the Village People’s ‘Go West’) as well as a players’ dance-off on the podium, there can be no doubt that this achievement was felt wholeheartedly by El Gladiador.

tunezchampion

Andrés Túñez with the Thai Premier League Trophy, 2 November 2014. (Andrés Túñez’s Twitter account)

A Cult Hero to Some, a Valued Team-mate to Others & a Champion to All:
Andrés Túñez

burirampositions

Buriram United’s league position over the 38 rounds of games in the 2014 Thai Premier League season. (Buriram United’s Facebook Fanpage)

Thus ended an unconventional yet exhilarating campaign for a revitalised individual who captured the hearts and imaginations of thousands of fans, not just of his own side, but throughout Thailand and beyond. While a cold reading of the above graph could pull Túñez’s perceived contribution to the championship success down a peg or two, it should do little to diminish his iconic status and role as one of his team’s most valuable players. It is nevertheless helpful to briefly consider the data in question to at least gain a slightly broader picture of Buriram’s season than has been reported elsewhere, without detracting from the part played by Túñez.

Regarding the resurrection of Buriram’s campaign following their poor start, though the influential Marca article correctly stated that the club were in mid-table when Túñez was signed in late April (which would have been round 10, when they were 12th), it casually overstated his role in the reversal of their fortunes. Indeed, despite providing his appearance statistics which should have given more pause for thought, the article neglected to mention that he did not make his debut in the league until round 20 of the season, by which time Buriram had climbed to 3rd. Thus, as the club were already on an upward trajectory huge credit is due, first to the interim coach Božidar Bandović and also to his permanent replacement Alexandre Gama, who continued his predecessor’s work of motivating the undoubtedly talented players to reach their collective potential.

That is not to imply that Túñez was a minor player in his side’s initial rise to the summit in late July (round 25) – shortly before the article was written – as unquestionably, throughout his early match-winning performances, he was anything but. As has also been relayed, he would go on to play a crucial role in maintaining (albeit with a minor slip or two) their position until the end of the campaign but, along with the contributions of some of his team-mates noted earlier, Gama’s role should also be emphasised.

Indeed, looking to the future, Túñez must have been delighted to hear that the Brazilian coach has recently signed a new contract, as the Venezuelan said he was initially attracted to Buriram as they tend to qualify for the AFC Champions League – a competition in which his boss has some pedigree. Back in 2007, Gama managed to take Al-Wahda of the United Arab Emirates to the semi-finals of the competition – the club’s best ever performance – and will surely relish next year’s opportunity to improve upon Buriram’s limp showing under Menéndez earlier this season.

Although the recent news that Carmelo González will be leaving the club must cause some pause for thought, it is likely that Túñez will still be around to play in this continental competition as he initially signed on a three-year deal and has indicated that his mind is very much on staying with Buriram.

Ultimately however, whatever happens in his future and wherever he next finds himself playing, he will always fondly recall, and be fondly recalled for, this league-winning campaign with Buriram United. Many players have seen their careers dissolve into insignificance after being told they are surplus to requirements at the only professional club they have known but this Galician’s response has been exemplary. Conversely, many players have left the club of their youth and gone on to win titles, often in more prestigious leagues. However, very few can claim to have had the revelatory season enjoyed by Túñez and become a cult hero to football fans in at least three continents in the process. So, whether they were cheering on El Gladiador in Thailand, Venezuela, Spain or possibly even Israel and regardless of how much match footage they managed to see, those who were in any way privy to this story know that it was one well worth telling.

Darren Spherical

@DarrenSpherical

Venezuelans Abroad in Spain – Recap of Round 4 in the Primera División

Spain

Spain

Saturday 20 September 2014

Primera División

Athletic Bilbao 0-1 Granada

Match Summary

Athletic Bilbao suffered a Champions League hangover as their much-changed side slumped to their third defeat in four league games following an appalling defensive lapse that allowed the young Colombian Jhon Córdoba to score the winner after 39 minutes.

Córdoba’s first goal for Granada came after he seized upon Ander Iturraspe’s complacent nonchalance on the ball forty yards from the Bilbao goal to drive towards goal and nutmeg Gorka Iraizoz.

Córdoba’s first start of the campaign alongside the young Success Isaac in attack was Granada’s fourth different strike-partnership in as many games. One man who was sidelined by this latest experiment was Darwin Machís who, despite starting in the opening game of the season and being a half-time substitute last week, was demoted back to the B side to play in their 1-1 away draw against Cádiz. Granada’s reserve side compete in Segunda B’s Group 4 (of 4), so to call this the Spanish third-tier is debatable given the variance in quality from the top of each group to the bottom.

Nevertheless, as he did not play, one hopes to be forgiven for not giving a more comprehensive report of the first-team’s match, though should you to wish to read one, please click here.

Saturday 20 September 2014

Primera División

Espanyol 2-2 Málaga

Match Summary 

After his petulant opening-day dismissal, Portuguese veteran Duda redeemed himself by coming off the bench to score a wonderful equalising free-kick with the last kick of the game, providing Málaga with a slightly fortuitous point

Espanyol will feel hard done by as they would have fancied their chances against the last side they managed to beat in the league (albeit all the way back in March) and they did edge the number of chances, particularly within the first half.

Indeed, the less radical of Catalonia’s two top-flight sides looked sharper and in the early stages took advantage of what is becoming worryingly characteristic slack tracking and disorganisation from Málaga’s back line. After just six minutes, Espanyol captain Sergio García pressed at pace to take advantage of poor passing between Sergi Darder and Roberto Rosales – who started, with his compatriot Juan Pablo Añor not in the squad – in their own defensive third. Under duress, Rosales hesitantly nudged it short to Málaga captain Weligton on the edge of the area but his desperate recovery-slide merely fell to Víctor Sánchez who forced his way into the area before shooting low at Carlos Kameni.

Málaga did not heed warnings such as this and on 16 minutes were punished, with García again causing problems – this time being the architect of the opening goal. He ran infield with the ball from the right of the area, played a quick one-two with Madrid-loanee Lucas Vázquez and, from a central position just outside the area, found a gap to play through Ecuadorian Felipe Caicedo, playing against his former side, whose deft footwork grounded Kameni, leaving a vacant goal to tap into.

Right-back Rosales was one of a few defenders who did not seem entirely sure where he should be during that attack as he ran out to a central position, though credit must be given to García for such defence-bamboozling movement. Rosales, though to not to the same degree as he did against Levante, offered more going forward and ten minutes after the goal received a dinked ball from Darder on the right of the area which he fired across the goalmouth. This caused problems for goalkeeper Kiko Casilla, whose parry outwards fortunately did not fall to an attacker.

Despite this rare glimpse of hope for the away side, Espanyol nearly got a second after 36 minutes, following a corner from Vázquez. His cross swung to the back post with both Kameni and Rosales missing the ball and García, who anticipated it a mile off, headed it just wide – though had he stepped back a yard or so he may well have been in a better position to profit from this goalkeeping error. Kameni also received some criticism in certain quarters for supposedly going to ground too early for the goal so it will be interesting to see if he keeps his place in the line-up in upcoming weeks, as Guillermo Ochoa is always waiting in the wings.

In the opening stages of the second half, not a great deal had changed but irrespective of what level a team is playing at and who their opposition are, there is always hope from a set-piece. Indeed, out of nowhere, Los Boquerones got themselves back into the game in the 53rd minute when Luis Alberto’s corner was nodded into the back of the net by the unmarked Igancio Camacho.

Espanyol attempted to prove this was just a temporary blip in the natural order of things and just eight minutes later came close to regaining the lead following a corner won after Vázquez’s free shot on goal was parried out by Kameni. From the resulting cross, half-time substitute, the Uruguayan forward Christian Stuani, headed onto the bar. As the ball came back out, Salva Sevilla (who had been brought on two minutes prior) and García may have got in each other’s way as it fell further away from goal towards the inside-edge of the area. However, the drama was not over as Diego Colotto, back-to-goal, attempted to hook the ball over his head into the danger zone but it was blocked by the high arm of Rosales. The former FC Twente man knew exactly where the ball was, having his eyes on it as he leaped, thus bolstering any claims that it should have been a penalty, though apologists will surely claim that his turn away at the last moment proves his innocence and that it was accidental as he was possibly fearful of Colotto’s right boot connecting with him.

As the game wore on, things did become more tense for the visitors as they picked up five yellow cards in the final 30 minutes and watched Espanyol have more chances to regain the lead. Indeed, Stuani was played through by García in the 79th minute, though Kameni was out to block the forward’s nudged attempt with his legs and then, just a minute later, the Cameroonian goalkeeper was to save comfortably from a header from Salva Sevilla following a corner.

However, there was nothing Kameni could do about Stuani’s header with two minutes to go. The Uruguayan may have long played fourth or fifth fiddle on the international stage to his nation’s other impressive attacking options, but he must have been elated to score here what felt like the headline-grabbing goal, nodding in from a free-kick on the right, having lost his marker Sergio Sánchez. 

Ultimately though, it was not to be as Espanyol were to be denied their first league victory in six months as 67th-minute substitute Duda curled a textbook free-kick into the top right-hand corner in the fourth and final minute of stoppage time.

Venezuelan Abroad in Russia – Recap of Round 8

Russia

russia

Saturday 20 September 2014

Russian Premier League

FK Rostov 0-5 Zenit St. Petersburg

Match Summary

A hapless defence enabled Zenit to ease to a comprehensive thrashing, with two of the goals coming from Rostov players at the wrong end and the other three from the feet of Salomón Rondón.

The Venezuelan forward needed to get back to scoring ways after a relative drought of five games (three for Zenit, two for the national side) without a goal and was always likely to find opportunities against opponents who have already been victims of 7-3 and 6-0 hidings.

The first goal came after 11 minutes as Danny’s corner was glanced on by Javi García and Rondón managed to gain some space to slide home the ball past Croatian World Cup goalkeeper Stipe Pletikosa.

The second was a farce that could be featured on any Own Goals and Gaffes video (you can watch it here in isolation, should you so wish). Danny powered forward up the inside-left from the halfway line up to the edge of the area, where he passed centrally to Oleg Shatov and, with nobody tracking his run, received a rapidly dispatched through-ball to put him one-on-one with Pletikosa. The Croatian managed to get something on the Portuguese’s shot which slowed down the ball’s pace as it headed goalwards yet, despite having time on his side to make a clearance, South African defender Siyanda Xulu instead sliced the ball into the back of his own net. The onrushing Rondón could not help but emit a cheeky smile as with 37 minutes gone, it was 2-0 to the visitors and a familiar story was emerging for both the hosts and the visitors.

Just before the hour mark, Rondón’s second and Zenit’s third came, following good work by Viktor Fayzulin. Indeed, the Russian international ran up the left, passed a short ball to Domenico Criscito whose clever back-flick played him into space to put in a good ball from near the byline. Fayzulin’s cross was poorly dealt with by two defenders whose poor communication led to the ball falling kindly to Rondón who, from a central position 11 yards out, confidently side-footed the ball home with his left peg.

Five minutes later, Zenit’s creative captain Danny was substituted off, though it is unknown whether the injury he allegedly picked up is anything serious. Nevertheless, with Andrey Arshavin on in his place, the league-leaders continued their rout and benefited from another comical, if unfortunate, own goal after 71 minutes. This time Hulk, on the right near the corner flag, swung in a free-kick with his left foot that bounced in the centre before being headed back by Ezequiel Garay straight towards the head of defender Vitaliy Djakov. In the nano-seconds that he had to react to this incoming ball, he twisted his forehead slightly to his right, thus glancing the ball goalwards past the unsuspecting Pletikosa.

The final goal that completed Rondón’s hat-trick and the 5-0 pounding came just two minutes later, once again showcasing some swift attacking, amateurish tracking and clinical finishing. Shatov ran onto a cutting through-ball on the right, waltzing into the area before cutting back the ball into the area – leaving an outstretched defender stranded en-route – where the unmarked Venezuelan had time to compose himself and then hit a strong right-foot strike into the corner from 10 yards out.

Overall, Zenit made light work of very weak opposition, maintaining their 6-point lead at the top of the table and extending their winning streak to eight wins in eight matches which, if European games are included, comes to a phenomenal 12 consecutive wins. While it is starting to seem difficult to see where Zenit could possibly slip up, one may wish to restrain oneself with the superlatives until they are immersed in their Champions League games and then we will see what, if any, effect this has on their domestic campaign.

Venezuelans Abroad in Spain – Recap of Round 3 in the Primera División

Spain

Spain

Saturday 13 September 2014

Primera División

Málaga 0-0 Levante

Match Summary

Los Boquerones were left frustrated and aggrieved after they were denied a victory, despite racking up a hatful of chances and having a goal from Juanmi incorrectly disallowed for the second week in a row.

It seems somewhat futile to list all their chances in this one-sided encounter and readers would be much better advised to just watch the embedded highlights above, though if they are unable in your region, here follows a brief summary.

Portuguese left-back Antunes had an early left-footed cross-shot that nearly caught out Jesús Fernández at the near post, but was just about parried out for a corner. Luis Alberto picked up a ball in the final third and drove a low right-footed strike from 25 yards out that was palmed wide by Fernández’s outstretched gloves. Roberto Rosales was played into the area on the right by Ricardo Horta and gained some considerable space by turning a defender and then having a close-range shot from a narrow angle with his less-favoured left foot that Fernández did well to get a hand on.

This game was the best since arriving at Málaga for Rosales to demonstrate his attacking abilities, though his compatriot Juan Pablo Añor was left on the bench after making his debut last week.

Continuing with the attempts, Luis Alberto received a short pass from Roque Santa Cruz just inside the area in a central position and crashed the top of the crossbar with a thunderous strike. Soon after, Ricardo Horta turned on the right just outside the area and hit a low left-footed attempt that was again palmed wide. Luis Alberto had yet another attempt before the end of the first half, cutting inside on the other angle of the penalty area, and hitting a testing right-footed shot that Fernández again made a low outstretched dive to palm wide.

The second half saw more of the same, with Ignacio Camacho and later Roque Santa Cruz having good headed chances. The former was a free-header that went straight at the goalkeeper and the latter came from a knock-back 10 yards out that the Paraguayan will feel he should have at least got on target rather than heading a yard wide of the post.

Other chances were missed, but it was Juanmi’s second disallowed goal in two games that will certainly be the memory most fans come away with. He received a strongly hit low cross from Rosales just inside the area on the right and rapidly turned to fire home yet, despite replays showing he was being played on, this goal was ruled offside.

Sunday 14 September 2014

Primera División

Granada 0-0 Villarreal

Match Summary

It was not until the 58th minute that both teams managed to register an attempt on target and though this encounter came gradually more to life as the final half-hour ticked down, ultimately neither side was able to make the breakthrough.

Granada, missing Youssef El-Arabi up front, partnered last week’s promising debutant Success Isaac with summer-signing Alfredo Ortuño but, in the first half at least, were content to defend deep and soak up their opponents’ pressure – a common approach of sides managed by the experienced Joaquín Caparrós.

Despite El Submarino Amarillo having nearly two-thirds of first-half possession, it was the home side who had the best opportunity and, rare for them, the source of this was not a cross or set-piece from Fran Rico. Indeed, the former Real Madrid reserve was to swing in many testing balls but this particular chance was a cross from captain Piti after less than three minutes that the young Isaac should have made a firmer connection with, but he instead saw his header go meekly wide of the far post.

This miss may have contributed to Isaac’s slightly surprising half-time substitution, as he was replaced by Venezuela’s very own Darwin Machís who was to gradually come more into the game and contributed to some decent chances for his side.

The second half’s comparative chance-fest began on 53 minutes when Villarreal’s Brazilian defender Gabriel Paulista got his side’s first effort on target, heading powerfully from the penalty spot to cause a spectacular, if comfortable, tip over the bar from Roberto.

Granada evened up the chances column five minutes later after the French-born Cameroonian Allan Nyom – who was to grow more into the game, putting in a few notable crosses – curled a ball just inside the area that Ortuño sneaked a head onto, though his position made it difficult for it to be anything other than a comfortable save for Asenjo.

This seemed to galvanise Granada’s confidence when going forwards as a couple of minutes later, Machís ran up the left towards the area, though as Rubén Rochina’s poor movement failed to provide an option for him, the Venezuelan ran into trouble. Attempting to win the ball back, he committed a rash foul on Mateo Musaccio that could well have resulted in a red card on another day, though mercifully the colour of the card the referee brandished here was yellow. Just a minute later, Machís dusted himself off and nearly got onto the end of another dipping Nyom cross from the right. The former Mineros man attempted to strike this on the the volley from the edge of the area, but unfortunately was unable to make a genuine connection with the ball.

Despite Granada enjoying greater possession in the final third, they nearly gifted Villarreal a goal on 71 minutes when Jean-Sylvain Babin passed back to goalkeeper Roberto who made a complete hash of his clearance, scuffing it up into the air rendering him unaware of where it was heading as it spiralled back down. Substitute Denis Cheryshev nearly profited from this error, charging forwards to pounce though his stabbed challenge/shot narrowly missed the target and caused Roberto to attempted to cover his embarrassment by fuming at the Russian for the manner in which he attempted to gain an advantage.

Five minutes later, Machís had his best moment of the game, taking on Mario Gaspar on the left and running past him into the area where he put in a testing low cross that Asenjo could not get two hands on. Consequently, the ball bobbled in the goalmouth area and the 17 year-old debutant Adrián Marín just about managed to come over from his position on the left of defence to clear before any onrushing attackers could nudge the ball home.

In the last five minutes, though the Villarreal threat was still always there, the home side managed to get a few more decent chances on goal. Firstly, on 85 minutes, Colombian forward Jhon Córdoba – who had only just come on to make his debut and whose goal record and reputation does suggest there is something of the Emile Heskey about him – did well to gain some space from Paulista in the area to fire a hard shot from an angle that was parried for a corner. Soon after, Fran Rico – possibly tired of team-mates not getting on the end of his balls, possibly mishitting the cross – dipped a set-piece on the left 40 yards out with his right foot that curled high and nearly caught out Asenjo who had no choice but to tip it over. Subsequently, and finally, Rico then trotted over to the corner spot and crossed in an outswinger that Colombian defender Jeison Murillo, in space just eight yards out, headed powerfully but much too close to Asenjo, who gratefully caught it as the game ended goalless.

Venezuelans Abroad in Italy – Recap of Round 2 in Serie A

Italy

Italy

Goals certainly went in last weekend in Serie A but sadly only one of these was to be found in a game featuring a Venezuelan. Furthermore, collectively the three representatives of La Vinotinto did not see as much game-time as would normally be expected, which is largely believed to be due to them having travelled such long distances to, in and from Asia for their international matches the previous week.

Saturday 13 September 2014 

Serie A

Empoli 0-1 Roma

For Video Highlights, click here.

Match Summary

The newly promoted hosts were forced to resort to shots from distance as their opponents, with an eye on their midweek Champions League clash, were able to rest several players including Francesco Totti and Gervinho and still pick up a narrow victory courtesy of an own goal that many wiill prefer to see credited to the impressive Belgian international, Radja Nainggolan.

Not long before the goal, Nainggolan also played a driving role in sponsor-less Roma’s other most notable attack, which occurred in the 41st minute. After winning a crunching tackle in midfield, he came forward and crossed a well-weighted ball in from the right that Alessandro Florenzi headed diagonally across the goalmouth that Maicon ran onto but somehow hooked against the back post when the goal was gaping. From the rebound, the ball fell to the onrushing Miralem Pjanić who blasted a shot that was blocked by a desperate-yet-determined combination of Lorenzo Tonelli and Vincent Laurini; the Bosnian international claimed that he was fouled in the ensuing skirmish but Empoli were to remain on level terms for at least several minutes longer.

That was until first-half stoppage-time when Pjanić played a short cross-field pass to Nainggolan 25 yards out and he struck a low drive that came off the foot of the post, only to hit the back of goalkeeper Luigi Sepe’s head and rebound into the net. 1-0 to the capital’s leading club and, considered alongside his goal and assist on the opening day against Fiorentina, a great start to Nainggolan’s season following the formalisation of his summer move from Cagliari.

Empoli’s optimistic long-range efforts came mainly from Francesco Tavano in a game which Franco Signorelli observed from the bench. The Venezuelan was doubtless on a high following his recent international debut, though travel may well have taken its toll. He will be more likely to feature this coming weekend when his side will feel they have a good chance to get off the bottom of the table when they travel to fellow recent arrivals, Cesena.

Sunday 14 September 2014 

Serie A

Sampdoria 2-0 Torino

For Video Highlights, click here.

Image Source: StopAndGoal

Match Summary

Two impressive goals, one coming in each half from Italians Manolo Gabbiadini and Stefano Okaka, ensured Siniša Mihajlović’s Sampdoria got off to a winning start at the Stadio Luigi Ferraris. This no doubt pleased their visionary movie producer-president Massimo Ferrero, whose deal with a film distribution company led to Sin City 3D being promoted on his team’s shirts.

Gabbiadini’s goal came on 34 minutes from a free-kick that was curled from the dee around the wall low into the bottom left-hand corner and later on in the match he was to smash the crossbar with another powerfully hit set-piece.

Though second-best, Torino were nevertheless in the game with Fabio Quagliarella and Marcelo Larrondo leading the attack, yet when they made an attacking substitution just after the hour, it was the Brazil-born recipient of a solitary Italian cap, Amauri, who was first brought on to make his debut, with Larrondo coming off. The 34 year-old former Juventus man was signed just before the transfer window closed, though given his age Josef Martínez should try not to be too concerned and instead see this as an opportunity to learn from an experienced pro in a league that not so long ago was notorious for frustrating strikers.

Martínez patiently waited his turn and was later substituted on for Quagliarella in the 77th to make his Serie A debut, yet any dreams of becoming an instant hero were soon dashed when Sampdoria scored their second two minutes later. Indeed, Okaka turned into space on the right-flank and easily took the ball past Polish defender Kamil Glik – who may well have been struggling to mentally re-adjust himself after playing in a 7-0 thrashing of Gibraltar in midweek – and then fired home from an angled position to seal the 2-0 victory. 

Sunday 14 September 2014 

Serie A

Fiorentina 0-0 Genoa

For Video Highlights, click here.

Match Summary

With 8 shots on target (from a total of 18) to their opponents’ 1 (from 5), Fiorentina had the bulk of the opportunities but were unable to make the breakthrough, as Genoa managed to hold on and get a point when defeat often seemed a formality. That it remained goalless was all the more surprising when one takes into account the 3-3 draw that occurred in this fixture last season, not to mention the 5-2 Fiorentina victory enjoyed at Genoa’s ground nearly a year ago.

Alberto Aquilani, Borja Valero, Khouma Babacar and especially Juan Cuadrado were all a frequent menace to the Genoa defensive lines, regularly running directly through the midfield with ease and creating numerous chances throughout the game. Their best of the first half came after 15 minutes when Aquilani – who, incidentally, was the only Italian in the home side’s line-up – put in a graceful cross from the right that dipped kindly six yards out for Mario Gómez. However, the injury-hit German was unable to make meaningful contact with the ball as it instead hit a combination of his chin and chest before going tamely wide.

Little was seen of Genoa as an attacking threat in the opening half as they were preoccuppied with repelling attacks. Due to being frequently overrun in midfield, manager Gian Piero Gasperini took off the yellow-carded Andre Bertolacci at half-time and replaced him with ‘Gattuso 2.0’, Tomás Rincón, who was most likely omitted from the line-up due to the travel involved with the preceding week’s international duty. However, though the visitors did get a little more into the game, the onslaught, if anything, increased with Cuadrado continuing to shine as goalkeeper Mattero Perin was required to put in a man of the match performance to thwart the Viola. Rincón, like Bertolacci, was to find himself regularly on the back foot struggling to halt Cuadrado’s trickery, unpredictable runs and movements, as he picked up a booking in the 78th minute for tripping the Colombian on the turn just outside the area. Just over five minutes prior, another South American, Rincón’s team-mate, the Argentine defender Facundo Roncaglia, also had great difficulties dealing with Cuadrado. He was penalised for holding him back near the halfway line, thus receiving his second yellow card and walking off to a smattering of applause from fans of the home team who actually hold his registration.

Despite Fiorentina’s dominance, Gasperini’s men did nearly score after 64 minutes when Edenilson robbed Cuadrado and Valero in his own half and ran down the right side, playing a one-two before crossing in for Mauricio Pinilla whose acrobatic scissor-kick bounced before going narrowly over the crossbar. The Chilean forward can be praised for this effort but was to spend the majority of this match in isolation, disappointed by the dearth of service from the flanks, which was in marked contrast to the season’s opener against Napoli.

Ultimately though, despite these frustrations, Genoa will be more than pleased with the point they earned and it was largely Perin who they have to thank for this. Indeed, his heroics were especially required in stoppage time when, in quick succession from two corners, he tipped over Gonzalo Rodriguez’s rasping shot from the edge of the area and, subsequently, gratefully clung on to a header from debutant Filippo Bernardeschi that was powerful yet lacking in direction. Thus, Genoa travel back north with a point some will feel they did not deserve and will continue their difficult start to the season with a home game this weekend against Lazio.