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Venezuela – Copa América 2015 Player Profiles

What follows is a detailed guide to all 23 players in Venezuela’s 2015 Copa América squad, their manager Noel Sanvicente and how he is likely to set up his team. This is intended both as a reference guide if any of the players catch the eye of viewers during the tournament and also as a complementary article to the main team preview. As the other piece provides context for much of what follows below, including details on how the team’s warm-up games have gone over the past year, it is recommended that readers first have a browse of that before delving into this one.

Copa América 2015 Profiles of All 23 Venezuela Squad Players & the Coach

Possible opening day line-up (1)

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Possible line-up for Venezuela’s opening Copa América game against Colombia on Sunday 14 June 2015 (Reported on 8 June 2015; Image courtesy of @MisterVinotinto).

Please note: this starting XI is not confirmed and is based on media reports of how the side has been lining up in training in the week or so before the start of the tournament. While it may not be entirely accurate in terms of personnel and/or positioning, it does nevertheless serve as a useful way to help structure the information below. Although many individuals are capable of playing in more than one role, the profiles have largely been organised according to where the players appear to be most likely to play. Hispanospherical.com has enormous, possibly misplaced, faith in the abilities of its readers to engage their brains when confronted with information that comes to conflict with how reality pans out.

Possible opening day line-up (2) – UPDATE: Official line-up vs Colombia

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Another possible line-up for Venezuela’s opening Copa América game against Colombia on Sunday 14 June 2015 (Reported on 13 June 2015; Image courtesy of @MisterVinotinto).

Update (13 June 2015): According to the slightly altered line-up above, which is based on new reports from the training ground on the eve of the opening game, there may be two personnel changes to the XI initially observed. These are noted in updates in the sections on the three positions affected: Goalkeepers, Deep-Lying Playmakers and Left-sided Attacking Midfielders. Further updates will appear here as the line-ups for each game are announced. Update (14 June 2015): This is the official line-up vs Colombia, albeit with Guerra and Arango switching positions.

Venezuela’s Friendly Results in the Sanvicente Era 

As noted, the team preview article contains details on the side’s preparations coming into this tournament and, consequently, what their likely aims will be. While it is highly recommended readers at least have a browse at how La Vinotinto have fared in warm-up games since new boss Noel Sanvicente took over in July 2014, a brief listing of their results nevertheless follows below (click on the links if you wish to read match reports and/or watch video highlights).

September 2014

South Korea 3-1 Venezuela

Japan 3-0 Venezuela

(Note: this match actually finished 2-2 but due to the fielding of an ineligible player, FIFA later credited this as a 3-0 Japan win by forfeit. See here for details)

November 2014

Chile 5-0 Venezuela

Bolivia 3-2 Venezuela

February 2015

Honduras 2-3 Venezuela

Venezuela 2-1 Honduras

(Note: only home-based players from Venezuela were called up for this double-header)

March 2015

Jamaica 2-1 Venezuela

Peru 0-1 Venezuela

(Note: the Peru game was played in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, USA)

The Manager

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Venezuela manager Noel Sanvicente (Image courtesy of Foto Prensa FVF)

A former Venezuelan international in his playing days and a seven-time championship winner in his homeland as a manager, 50-year-old Noel ‘Chita’ Sanvicente was a popular choice upon his appointment in July 2014. His achievements were – and still are – very much fresh in the minds of all domestic football followers, having at the time just been crowned champion with Zamora – the second time in consecutive years and the only two title wins in the history of this modest club from Barinas. Before this, while he had a short spell with Real Esppor (now Deportivo La Guaira), it was his eight-year association with Caracas FC (2002-10) where he made his name on the touchline. Here, he not only won the league five times but also enjoyed some impressive scalps in the Copa Libertadores, most notably two group stage wins against River Plate in 2007 and then negotiating his side’s progress to the Quarter-Finals of 2009’s competition. Consequently, not only is he a proven winner and accustomed to relatively high-pressure situations, but he has also long been personally familiar with approximately half of the players in the current squad, having managed them at club level.

Thus, though the first eleven months of his reign have been somewhat lacklustre, there is plenty of belief amongst the players, fans and the FVF (Federación Venezolana de Fútbol) that eventually, things will fall into place. He has been working towards altering the collective mindset and approach of the team, attempting to transplant his predecessor César Farías’ rather successful counter-attacking set-up with more forward-orientated, high-pressing tactics. Unfortunately, on his watch, not only has the team shipped an abundance of goals but the attacking players have often looked like strangers, struggling to combine effectively and failing to replicate their club form for their country. Unless by some mysterious alchemy Sanvicente has managed to integrate everyone into his desired system in the past few weeks – despite not playing a single official warm-up game in the lead-up and, due to club commitments, rarely having his full squad to work with – it is difficult to see how Venezuela will make much of an impression this month. Indeed, drawn in Group C with Colombia, Peru and Brazil, it seems the result of the second match against Los Incas, as well as the points tallies of the third-placed teams in the other two groups, will determine their chances of progressing. Sanvicente has recently commented that he sees his job more to qualify for the World Cup rather than to win Copa América – no doubt true, but possibly also an admission that his team is not entirely ready just yet to emulate the history-making achievements of the past decade.

The Formation

While at times in a few games of Sanvicente’s reign a transient 4-4-2 has seemingly formed, with Mario Rondón typically linking up with his namesake Salomón, as the former has surprisingly been excluded from the final squad, a more standard 4-2-3-1 is likely to be consistently employed. Given the flexibility of this formation and the calibre of opponents, it can be expected that this arrangement may look more like a 4-5-1 when, as may frequently be the case, Venezuela are on the back foot. Nevertheless, the only real question about this system is whether, instead of two defence-minded players in front of the back four, a partnership combining a roaming battle-hardened tough-tackler with a more graceful deep-lying playmaker may be preferred. The former has generally been the norm in friendlies over the past year but in the days leading up to the tournament, it has been reported that the latter has been regularly experimented with in training.

Official 23-man Venezuela Squad for the 2015 Copa América

The Players

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The official 23-man Venezuela squad for the 2015 Copa América

(This image as well as all the subsequent ones are courtesy of Copa América)

Goalkeepers

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Dani Hernández (29 years old), the joint-second tallest player in this competition (1.97m), inspires much respect for his career trajectory, having worked his way up from the third and fourth tiers in Spain, before managing to experience a season in the top-flight with Real Valladolid back in 2012-13. As 2014-15 began in the Segunda, he soon found himself playing second fiddle to the new arrival Javi Varas and so made a January switch to Tenerife where, though he only narrowly avoided relegation, he achieved impressive statistics for a goalkeeper mired in such a plight (19 goals conceded in 20 games). Internationally, he has been the first choice for his country over the past year, having played all but one of the internationals under Sanvicente that have been open to overseas players. However, given that he has just 20 caps to his name and has a propensity to spread uncertainty with not only his positioning but also his often erratic scrambling for crosses and his frequent tendency to parry shots straight back into the danger zone, a long-term occupation between the sticks can not be guaranteed.

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Indeed, while in the lead-up to the tournament Hernández has maintained his position in training, Chita appears to be keeping fans second-guessing his intentions as he has allocated rival Alain Baroja the number one shirt. The Caracas goalkeeper has had a sublime domestic season, making a string of sensational, acrobatic saves which, given his team-mates’ goal-shy displays, were crucial to his side coming hauntingly close to winning the Torneo Clausura in May. Internationally, while it may be a mere coincidence and the standard of opposition has to be taken into account, all three wins of the Sanvicente era have come with the Caraqueño in goal. At just 25 years of age, a move abroad seems almost a matter-of-course and, despite only making his international debut back in February, establishing himself as his country’s number one in the foreseeable future is very much within his grasp – time will tell if this occurs this month.

Update (13 June 2015): Sanvicente is indeed maintaining the intrigue until the very last moment before the Colombia game, as in a slightly altered line-up tried in training and reported on the eve of the match, it is Baroja and not Hernández who is allegedly starting. Big tournament for the Caracas man if so. 

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Lastly, Baroja’s club team-mate Wuilker Fariñez is undoubtedly third in line as well as the biggest – if, most likely, inconsequential in the short-term – surprise in the squad. At just 17 years of age and with little more than a Copa Venezuela appearance as well as four displays in March’s Sudamericano Sub-17 tournament on his CV, he is the youngest player in the whole tournament. In overlooking several more established shot-stoppers, Sanvicente is evidently not anticipating simultaneous spells on the sidelines for Hernández and Baroja. Instead, he has stated that he views Fariñez’s inclusion as a long-term investment with the experience gained hopefully standing him in good stead for future international engagements.

Defenders

Left-backs

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Having started his professional career in Uruguay with Montevideo Wanderers back in 2003, Gabriel Cichero (31) has managed to intersperse three spells in his homeland with stints of varying success in Italy, Bulgaria, USA, Argentina, France and Switzerland, never staying anywhere for more than two years. In the past year at international level, he has played seven of Sanvicente’s eight games at left-back, only missing the Peru game in March due to injury. Now officially registered with Swiss side Sion but on loan at Mineros de Guayana in the season just gone, Cichero was a frequent target of scorn from fans following the first four friendly matches of the nera era. Though he was not alone in this respect, age appeared to be catching up with this 2011 regular, with the 5-0 thumping meted out by Chile, during which he struggled to keep pace with the opposition’s dynamic wing-play, the definite nadir. However, since the turn of the year, while his club continued to underperform, from an attacking perspective at least, he has shown a marked improvement, scoring four goals in the league as well as a golazo for the national side against Jamaica. While not likely to take on an opposition winger down the flank, he likes to come forward, often taking a strike from range and/or making his presence felt at set-pieces.

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Nevertheless, if the way La Vinotinto have lined up in training recently is anything to go by, Cichero may surprisingly lose his starting place to the man who stood in for him against Peru, Fernando Amorebieta (30). The Fulham defender began the last campaign at club level out of favour in west London and ended it sitting on the bench at Wembley on loan at Middlesbrough in the Teessiders’ ultimately unsuccessful Championship play-off final match. In between, he did little to restore his declining reputation back to his Athletic Bilbao heyday, rarely being at full fitness in an injury-hit season and, most pertinently, looking woefully out of position when he did appear – usually on the left. Indeed, not a man blessed with pace, he looked clumsy and had great difficulties keeping track with jinking wingers craftily cutting inside. Not entirely dissimilar to Cichero, he had a little more joy going forward, putting in crosses from the wing and being a threat from set-pieces. However, his favoured position is at centre-back so if he does get the nod on the flank, it would not be a surprise to see him later moved across or, if Colombia’s Juan Cuadrado gives him a particularly tortuous time in the opening game, unceremoniously excluded altogether.

Centre-backs

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Although Nantes stalwart Oswaldo Vizcarrondo (31) can be assured of a starting place, having played in all six Sanvicente-era games as well as performing regularly and consistently at the highest club level of anyone in this position, his partner is less clear. There are four other options in this department and, given the noted issues at the back, it could very well transpire that Vizca ends the tournament having played alongside more than one of them. Thus, the leadership, organisational and renowned communication skills of this imposing, committed individual will be vital to the entire team’s chances.

A towering presence in the air at both ends of the pitch, though he is far from alone amongst the back line in lacking in speed, he can nevertheless be a beacon of solidity and persistent marking – just some of the traits which saw him placed in many Best XI features after the 2011 Copa América. That he is performing so well in Europe and even regularly captaining his Ligue 1 side is all the more impressive when it is noted that it was not until 2013 at the age of 29 that he made the leap over to the Old Continent. Indeed, previously he had racked up a colourfully respectable list of Latin American clubs: Caracas (Venezuela, two spells), Rosario Central (Argentina), Olimpia (Paraguay), Once Caldas (Colombia), Deportivo Anzoátegui (Venezuela), Olimpo (Argentina), América (Mexico) and Lanús (Argentina).

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Regarding Vizcarrondo’s most likely fellow-starter, Fernando Amorebieta had seemed like the leading candidate, having resumed his old 2011-13 partnership with Vizcarrondo against Jamaica in late March following an international absence of 17 months. However, if the latest training ground reports are anything to go by, it would appear that Sanvicente is more swayed by the defensive line-up that played four days later against Peru that secured his first clean sheet, favouring Amorebieta on the left and Andrés Túñez (28) instead in the centre. This has been the only international appearance in the present era for the Buriram United man who, having left his boyhood club Celta Vigo in 2014, won the championship in his first season in Thailand, becoming a masked cult hero along the way.

While he is another who would not stand a chance in the 100m sprint, he is nevertheless a mobile, aerial presence who often emits a calm demeanour. Perhaps crucially in his bid to get the nod, having played well recently in the AFC Champions League, he possesses current fitness levels that Amorebieta has rarely displayed this year at club level. If, however, neither of these men start, Sanvicente has two further options.

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In contrast to all of the players discussed so far, the first of the additional back-ups is the somewhat diminutive and comparatively pacy Grenddy Perozo (29), who was Vizcarrondo’s partner throughout the 2011 tournament. However, though he was named in the early – and defensively woeful – line-ups chosen by Sanvicente, his international career appears to have regressed somewhat. Indeed, he was not called up to the March squad and coupled with his underwhelming form at club level – Ajaccio, relegated in 2013-14 to France’s Ligue 2 only narrowly avoided a consecutive relegation in 2014-15 by a mere point – a return to favour does not appear to be on the horizon any time soon.

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A man seemingly with a brighter future than Perozo and perhaps more likely to stand in if a bit of youth is required, is Deportivo Táchira’s Wilker Ángel (22). It is unclear whether, over a month on, the smile has been wiped from his face following his final-day header in the fourth minute of stoppage-time that breathtakingly snatched away the Clausura title from Caracas, devastating Vinotinto colleague Baroja in the process. He has within the past year been linked with a move abroad and made his international debut back in November, scoring a header with the faintest of touches against Bolivia, in what is still his only national team appearance. Having not been called up for any subsequent squads until the present one, it is tempting to think that his Clausura-winning goal, with all the elation and hyperbole that greeted it, aided his selection.

Nevertheless, though he will have a battle on his hands to get any playing time, he is one of only a very small number of players in this group who have a realistic chance of leaving their homeland for pastures new after the tournament’s conclusion. That is not a criticism of the quality of this squad; on the contrary, a mere glance at where all the players are currently based instead makes apparent just how far the nation has come in the past decade or so.

Right-back

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Following Alexander González’s omission from the final squad due to injury, not only have commentators been deprived of regaling viewers with the story of him proposing to his girlfriend on the pitch, but Sanvicente now only has one natural right-back to choose from. However, as this is first-choice Roberto Rosales (26) – who has just completed a fine debut season in La Liga with Málaga – so long as he does not get sidelined, there should not be too much to concern in this patch of the field.

Since making the step up last year from FC Twente, he has proved to be more than capable of maintaining his close-tracking and tenacious tackling approach in his top-half Spanish side. Though the nature of his club’s style and the forwards at their disposal may be why his regular, pacy forays up the flank have only yielded three assists (which, nevertheless, put him third overall for the season just gone), in open play at least, he certainly provides more than his international defensive colleagues do in this department.

More pertinently to the group stage, in both league games against Barcelona, he was able to keep Brazil’s golden boy Neymar quiet, firstly in a 0-0 home draw and, most impressively, a 1-0 away win at Camp Nou. Largely influenced by this second performance, he was subsequently named in La Liga’s February Team of the Month. Quite how he will fare in a markedly different back line is less certain, particularly as none of the likely starters who have impressed at club level have been able to replicate their form internationally under Sanvicente.

Midfielders

Defensive Midfielders

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Playing in a role few schoolboys tend to daydream about emulating, defensive midfielder Tomás Rincón (27) is nevertheless the most important player in this squad. Although some other previews on Venezuela have picked out striker Salomón Rondón or ageing icon Juan Arango as their key man, El General will surely be playing the lead role in determining La Vinotinto‘s fortunes. Indeed, as if to confirm this status, in the run-up to the tournament, he was officially allocated the captain’s armband, taking over from the long-serving Arango.

Update (14 June 2015): Despite it being widely reported in late May that Rincón would be the new permanent captain, there are lots of claims that Arango will instead retain the armband for this tournament. Nevertheless, as Rincón has been the vice-captain for some time and Arango tends not to last the distance often, even if the latter ultimately officially keeps the armband, expect to see the former wear it during the tournament and eventually take over full-time in the future. 

To ensure the side is not overran in the central area and to also provide additional cover for the vulnerable back four, the Genoa midfielder’s leadership and organisational qualities will be integral. While renowned more for assiduous tracking and tough tackling than searching forward passes – or, for that matter, getting anywhere near the opposition goal – he will also need to release the ball quickly for the attack to prosper.

Following over five years with Hamburg, he has enjoyed a largely successful debut season in Serie A, finishing sixth with unfashionable Genoa and has been linked with a big move to La Liga or a return to the Bundesliga. Valencia is the strongest rumour of the several currently doing the rounds and though a repeat of 2011, when he was named the Adidas Player of the Tournament, seems a big ask, an impressive showing will certainly do him no harm.

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Rincón’s defensive midfield partner four years ago was Franklin Lucena (34) and if Sanvicente ultimately errs on the side of caution, particularly for the Colombia and Brazil games, the experienced Deportivo La Guaira man would be in a shoo-in to reprise this role.

However, as is the case for a few of Venezuela’s most impressive performers from 2011, age is not really on the side of El Paky (a nickname one suspects British broadcasters of the tournament will not be using). Indeed, Lucena’s advancing years were presumably a concern of the coach as he did not appear in the first matchday squad back in September. While he featured in the two November losses, it was not until February’s line-ups of home-based players for the games against Honduras that it could be said that he made a claim for a starting place. Here, he captained the side, flicked in a goal and was generally a vital pillar of assurance while playing in his customary no-frills holding role. He then continued in this position for the following month’s clash with Jamaica, though he was withdrawn at half-time as Sanvicente experimented with a more attack-minded player next to Rincón, as he also did in the subsequent game with Peru from the off. Ultimately, whether Lucena starts or comes on to shore things up, one expects to see him on the pitch at some stage in the upcoming weeks.

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This, however, can not be said with any confidence about the other player in the squad whose attributes are closest to those of the two aforementioned men: Mineros de Guayana’s Rafael Acosta (26). Indeed, it was Acosta who Lucena replaced during the latter’s first outing under Sanvicente in the 5-0 loss to Chile, as the former’s almost ghost-like presence in the middle of the park repeatedly allowed the opposition to stride through. While Acosta started the following game against Bolivia alongside Lucena, he was no more than a second-half substitute in the two domestic XI clashes with Honduras and was then omitted completely from the March friendlies. Given this fall from grace and an underwhelming club season, the inclusion of this relatively internationally inexperienced individual certainly was not news to everyone’s ears. While he perhaps offers something slightly different, being more inclined than the other two to get forward, of all the outfield players, he is the one with seemingly the least chance of making it onto the field.

Deep-Lying Playmakers

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A role which may or may not be utilised, it was nevertheless experimented with in March’s two friendlies as well as, more pertinently, in training sessions leading up to the tournament. Juan Arango, now 35 and understandably slowing down, is the most likely candidate if this position is ultimately given the green light. Indeed, though the free-kick maestro and scorer of almost exclusively sensational goals made his name in Spain and Germany with more of an attacking licence – centrally as well as on the left – he became accustomed to this role at club level in the season that has just passed.

Having returned last year to Mexico where he played before he made the transition to Europe back in 2004, while his current club Xolos de Tijuana had an underwhelming campaign, he gradually came to flourish in this less energy-sapping placement, particularly in the league’s second half (the Torneo Clausura). Overall in Liga MX, he scored nine goals and officially received credit for six assists, though his inviting crosses, corners and free-kicks certainly played a prominent role in at least a few more.

Playing in his sixth Copa América, though he may not be the same player who spearheaded the history-making 2007 Quarter-Final finish and who was later named in most observers’ 2011 Best XI of the Tournament pieces, his pin-point long-range passes could still be vital this time around. Although a place in the line-up can not be entirely guaranteed, he has played in all four games that he has been available for under Sanvicente (starting three and making a strong impression when he came on against Peru). If he starts but in another position, reprising a more forward role behind the striker or on the left are certainly possibilities.

Update (13 June 2015): On the eve of the opening game, it has been reported that in a slightly altered team that has been practising in training which has two personnel changes to the one previously observed, Arango has been playing as the left-sided attacker, with Luis Manuel Seijas instead as the deep-lying playmaker. If Arango does start off the tournament on the left (or, according to some alternative interpretations, in the middle), there is nevertheless a strong chance that he may drift back to beside Rincón at some point. It will be of possibly painful intrigue to see if his legs are still up to a more forward position.

Lastly, while it may not have made as many headlines as a certain incident involving Luis Suárez, Arango was guilty of biting an opponent at the end of a Mexican league match in early April, for which he was merely banned for two domestic encounters. Should Venezuela meet Uruguay in the latter stages – a possible, if not the likeliest, scenario – expect to hear more about this.

If Sanvicente does opt for this role, but situates Arango elsewhere, two candidates in with a strong shout are a certain pair who have recently been playing in the Copa Libertadores with Colombian sides. Firstly, Luis Manuel Seijas, more accustomed to playing on the left of attack both internationally and for Independiente Santa Fe, found himself in this position from the start against Peru in March. While it can not have been said to have been an unqualified success, its usage in a victory against a group stage rival may well have influenced the manager’s thinking. Update (13 June 2015): As noted above, Seijas may well start in this position.

If, however, the ex-Standard Liège man is overlooked, Alejandro Guerra, who has been on loan to Atlético Nacional from Mineros de Guayana for the past year, could find himself here, though it seems more likely in his case that a more advanced position is in the offing. Similarly, while there is a slight chance that Deportivo Táchira’s César González could do a job here from the bench, his natural place is further forward on the flank. More on these three individuals below.

Attacking Midfielders

The three attacking positions behind the striker are easily the most competitive in the squad. The likes of Sanvicente-regular Mario Rondón (who perhaps did himself few favours moving from Portugal to China in February), Christian Santos (23 league goals in NEC Nijmegen’s phenomenal promotion to the Eredivisie) and Yohandry Orozco (four years ago, arguably the country’s brightest prospect) failed to make the final 23, having been cut from the 30-man preliminary squad. Furthermore, Rio Ave’s Yonathan Del Valle, who last season scored some fine goals in the Europa League as well as a dramatic late domestic winner against Benfica, has barely even been considered, a situation that has led to him ‘resigning’ from the national team at the age of 25.

Given the contemporary tendency of fielding inverted wingers, with an individual who is predominantly right-footed ending up cutting inside from the left (and vice versa), as well as the versatility of those who have made it into the final squad – not to mention the inconsistency of Sanvicente’s selections – these positions are somewhat difficult to predict. Consequently, the bulk of information pertaining to certain players may be located underneath a position they ultimately do not play in.

Left-sided Attacking Midfielders

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As noted earlier in the Deep-Lying Playmakers section, Independiente Santa Fe’s Luis Manuel Seijas (29 on 23 June) is more at home in this position and has played here twice (against Japan and Bolivia) in his four appearances in the past year. Though far from Usain Bolt, he nevertheless possesses some pace as well as being capable of swinging in testing crosses and is certainly not afraid to shoot from range. If he is on the pitch and Arango – another player who could certainly perform in this role – is not, expect him to take charge of set-pieces. An experienced international with over 50 caps, whether or not he starts either here or a little further back, expect to see this 2014 Torneo Finalización champion at some point.

Update (13 June 2015): As noted elsewhere, according to reports on the eve of the opening game, there is a strong chance that against Colombia Seijas will play as the deep-lying playmaker with Arango instead starting in this position on the left.

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If, as is being suggested by reports, neither Seijas nor Arango is fielded in this left-sided spot to begin with, there are several other contenders in the frame. According to how the team has been training, Torino’s Josef Martínez (22) appears to be the likeliest candidate to start, despite being more regularly deployed at club level just behind the striker. Indeed, he can also play as the front man and if there are any problems with Salomón Rondón up top, he could well be pushed forward to step in.

Update (13 June 2015): According to a new line-up tried in training with two changes to the one at the top of the page, he may not start after all. While there are some suggestions that he may still start in an attacking position, see the sections on Seijas and/or Arango for more details.

Although, following a two-and-a-half year spell in Switzerland and a debut year in Turin, he now has a full Serie A season as well as Europa League experience with two different clubs under his belt, he still just about qualifies as being off the radar of most fans of top-level European football. With this being his first Copa América, he has the opportunity to showcase his abilities to new and larger audiences. Wherever he ends up playing on the pitch, in contrast to Jhon Murillo – who has been designated in several preview articles as Venezuela’s top young prospect despite only ever making one substitute appearance for his country – he has significantly more chance of starting at least one game. For this reason more than any other, he must be considered as his nation’s leading young player to look out for.

However, if he does shine, rather than gaining a bigger move, it is more likely to be beneficial for his chances at club level as while in 2014-15 he featured in 26 league, one cup and 13 European clashes – scoring seven goals along the way – he did not last the course in over half of these. Internationally, he is far from alone under Sanvicente in not having the most glorious of times in the past year but he did look particularly sharp when coming on as a substitute against Jamaica and, subsequently, scoring the winner against Peru. As a very mobile player, capable of rapid movements and turns, as well as clinical and long-range strikes, who can also provide support to other attackers, he has much to offer the team.

Other contenders in this area include the aforementioned Murillo and González as well as the returning Ronald Vargas but more on these three predominantly right-footed players in the Right-sided Attacking Midfielders section further down.

Central Attacking Midfielders

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Given his role at Torino and the excitement which his potential elicits, Martínez would be many fans’ favourite to start in this position, though according to reports, Alejandro Guerra (29) may well get the nod here – at least for the Colombia game. Indeed, though a spot on the flank could certainly also be suited to the latter, as Martínez has more ability to take on his man, whereas Guerra tends to worm his way into key central positions, take shots from around the edge of the area and be rather direct in his approach, this reported arrangement could well work out. In a slightly different formation, both men linked up well after coming off the bench against Jamaica back in March and one would expect to see the pair get at least one start each in the tournament, possibly far more.

Update (13 June 2015): While Guerra keeps his proposed place in a slightly altered line-up reported on the eve of the opening game, Martínez does not feature in this new possible XI. See the section on Arango, his possible replacement, for more information.

Possessing similar international experience to Seijas, Guerra has played some part in all four of the games in the past year that he has been available for, starting all but the Jamaica game. At club level over the past year, while not always initially named on the pitch with Atlético Nacional in the league, playing roughly half of their games, he did manage to score five goals. More prominently, he did play over half of the first leg of December’s Copa Sudamericana final against River Plate and, more recently, featured in six Copa Libertadores matches, memorably coming off the bench against Barcelona (de Guayaquil) to score this acrobatic effort. As it appears that he will be returning to his parent club, Mineros de Guayana, this competition offers him an opportunity to continue playing his football at a higher level than Venezuela can offer – something that, when he finally made the move abroad at 28 to Nacional last year, he said he had long craved.

Otherwise, if neither of these two players end up here or if an alternative is sought, then Arango could well reprise his glory days at some point. Murillo and, especially Vargas, are also possibilities, but more on these two below.

Right-sided Attacking Midfielders

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Both Martínez and Guerra are certainly in with a shout for this position as well but, in perhaps the most curious inclusion in the alleged opening-day line-up, Ronald Vargas (28) may well start off the competition here. Curious because in all of Sanvicente’s time in charge, the only matchday squads he has been part of were the two in March, where he played just half an hour against Jamaica and less than 15 minutes in the Peru win.

However, Vargas has had what must cautiously be considered a rejuvenation or sorts, having played regularly in the past year for Turkish side Balıkesirspor, scoring six league goals and setting up several more. That, barring an early scare, he went through the season without any major injuries is ample cause for many Venezuelans to celebrate. Indeed, when he first moved to Europe in 2008, he was considered by many as the country’s brightest prospect and, on occasion, he has gone some way to demonstrating why – most notably in the 2010-11 league campaign for Club Brugge when he scored 15 goals in 23 games. This earned him a move to Anderlecht, yet three injury-plagued seasons and 25 league appearances (nine starts) later, it was to end on a limp note, as he was released on a free. Last August, not long after he had been given a chance to rehabilitate himself in Turkey an article was published in the Venezuelan media stating that in all he has missed well over a year of his career to injury in his then-six-and-a-half year European career. It is a sorry fact that in all this time, he has never played more than 26 league games in any one season. Concurrently, his international career stalled, with his early exploits – such as his goal in his nation’s first ever win against Brazil in a 2008 friendly – a distant memory and he has picked up less than 20 caps overall.

Nevertheless, following his year in Turkey as well as two goals in Venezuela’s late-May practice game against Godoy Cruz youths, he appears to have done enough to earn Sanvicente’s trust and favour, especially as he has been handed the much sought-after number 10 shirt – a position some feel is his strongest. Given that he has also recently agreed a move to the more prestigious AEK Athens, one can only imagine the high spirits he must currently be in after having endured so many setbacks.

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Though he is not likely to start in the opening game, Jhon Murillo, who must be on cloud nine having recently turned 20 and signed for Benfica from Zamora, stands a fair chance of entering the fray at some point – if only as an impact substitute. Presumably due to this potentially life-changing move as well as there being no other young attacking player in the squad who has not already played for a European club, he has been singled out in many preview features as Venezuela’s hot prospect to watch. Maybe. He has, after all, reportedly impressed Arango in training, knows Sanvicente well from when the coach was at Zamora (2012-14) and, given the chance, will delight in aggressively running at defenders and pouncing on any hesitancy. However, with so much competition in this area and the fact that he has only previously been called up for one game – the second against Honduras in February in which, due to a defensive mix-up, he capitalised to score 37 seconds into his debut – one wonders if it is all a bit too much, too soon. Indeed, he has done remarkably well in his early club career, making his Zamora debut under Chita at the end of the 2012-13 campaign, before scoring an impressive 19 goals in 54 league games (all starts) in the subsequent two seasons while playing on the wing as well as, at times, more centrally. He was also his now ex-club’s leading threat this year in their otherwise dismal Libertadores campaign, scoring twice in four games.

However, he was also red-carded in the opening game, seemingly for comments made towards – or at least in front of – the referee and it is this worrisome temperament of his that could well hold him back in the long run. Indeed, while he was also the Venezuela U20 side’s best attacking player in January’s Sudamericano Sub-20 tournament, his antics at the very end of the final group game are further testimony to his volatile nature. Against hosts Uruguay, following a relentless verbal and even physical reprimanding of the referee, he played a leading role in getting the official – who, it must be noted, had riot police at his disposal – to reverse his decision on a legitimate opposition goal, securing for Venezuela the 1-0 win. Not entirely for his appearance and haircut then has he been nicknamed ‘Balotelli’ (though, in fairness, the Venezuelan is at least significantly more consistent on the pitch). Furthermore, while he will not be regretting it now, it is believed that his attitude during a trial at Basel in 2014 cost him a move to the Swiss giants. Ultimately, whether or not he gets many opportunities in the next month, one can only hope that the experience of being around long-standing high calibre professionals will inject a little more humility and maturity into this otherwise exciting prospect.

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One last player who regularly plays in this position at club level and also did at the last Copa América is Deportivo Táchira’s César González. The 32-year-old is not lacking in experience though with so many pacy rivals on this flank, one wonders where this more reserved, calculating player will fit in. As noted, a holding position further back is not entirely out of the question, though not anticipated.

His inclusion in the final squad, while not a shock, did raise a few eyebrows simply because, in contrast to some of the players who were ultimately discarded, he has barely played during the Sanvicente era. Indeed, though he knows the coach well from his spell at Caracas between 2005-07, his only call-up for the international side in the past year came in March, when he ended up starting against Peru. It should be said, it is likely that he would have featured in the previous month’s friendlies against Honduras but, like his Táchira team-mates, was unable to join his home-based colleagues due to playing in the ultimately successful Libertadores qualifying play-offs against Paraguay’s Cerro Porteño. Subsequently, he was a regular in the Libertadores group stage and while his side had a fairly forgettable campaign, he did manage to bag three goals in these six matches.

On a related note, while he is more of a playmaker, typically playing through balls to be finished off and swinging in free-kicks to be headed home, he did manage a very impressive goalscoring return last season, netting 13 goals in 31 games. No doubt this form – one of his best campaigns in a career that has included stints at four Argentine clubs – in Táchira’s dramatic championship-winning season contributed heavily to him winning a spot in the squad. Although he may not get on the pitch, his tournament experience should come in handy.

Strikers

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Salomón Rondón (25), the most expensive Venezuelan of all time, is considered by many as the team’s main man. Understandable, given that in the season just gone he played in both major European club competitions and ended it as champion and joint-second top-scorer of the Russian Premier League.

However, internationally, his success is largely dependent on the service provided by those behind him – something that has been frustratingly lacking in the past year, as he has not managed to score in any of his four outings, often appearing anonymous. When he has received chances, he has at times lacked composure and direction. Furthermore, though he may have only been 21 four years ago at Copa América 2011, he did come into the tournament with a domestic scoring rate of one in two in his debut season at Málaga and subsequently featured in all six of his country’s games (three starts), scoring just the once. While he does have an important role to play and will be looking to use his height to spring onto the end of balls coming into the area as well as be on his toes finish off chances, it can be easy to overstate his significance to this team.

Indeed, as he is more of a penalty-box predator who usually plays little role in the build-up, it is the players behind him who will be particularly crucial if he is to prosper. If he receives the requisite supply – and it is a big if, given the noted issues the attacking midfield players have had linking up effectively – then it should be a morale booster for the team. All the same, expect any goals that may or may not be scored to be spread around the side, rather than gobbled up by one individual.

The tournament could potentially be a great opportunity for Rondón to put himself in the shop window, as the talk emanating out of Zenit St Petersburg for the past several months has been that manager André Villas-Boas is seeking to offload him. Further fuelling the rumours, the player has commented more than once that he fancies trying his luck in England or Germany, though would not be averse to a return to Spain either. Media reports have dutifully obliged, with stories published linking him to, among others, Tottenham, Liverpool, Wolfsburg and Sevilla. While he may struggle to shine in such a tough group when Venezuela may often be on the back foot, the presence of such a relatively high calibre marksman up top ensures that those behind know, that if they can just play the right ball forward, the team will always have a chance.

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As mentioned, if Rondón is sidelined for whatever reason, there is a strong chance that Martínez will be pushed forward. However, in such a scenario, if Sanvicente elects to keep the Torino livewire behind the lead man, then the likelihood would be that Nicolás ‘Miku’ Fedor (29) will instead step in. The inclusion of the Rayo Vallecano forward has not gone down entirely well with some, seemingly due to his lack of game-time this season, combined with the perception that the best years of his career have already been and passed. Sanvicente, on the other hand, appears to have more faith in the man of Hungarian extraction (‘Miku’ is short for ‘Miklós’). Indeed, while he did not call him up for any friendlies this year, Miku did feature in the first four games of his reign, albeit only once as a starter.

It is likely that a change of clubs around two-thirds into the season has aided his return to the fold. He started off the 2014-15 campaign at Qatari side Al-Gharafa, who he had joined at the end of September 2013 from Getafe where, having worked his way up the Spanish pyramid, he enjoyed his most prosperous professional period. However, in Qatar, he was to find his first-team opportunities gradually diminishing and became a regular fixture on the bench, scoring only one goal there last season. When Vallecano came in for him, he jumped at the chance to return to the country that he started off his career in as a teenager, though he had to wait until early April to make his debut. Ultimately, he was to make seven appearances (two as a starter) for the overachieving club from Vallecas, scoring twice – one effectively a tap-in, the other a clinical strike on the turn. Thus, having proved he still has something to offer at a high level, if he is called upon in this tournament, the striker who played in all six of the games in 2011 should not feel overwhelmed by the occasion.

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Lastly, there is Gelmin Rivas (26) who, somewhat remarkably, is the only outfield player in the entire squad to have not been called up for a single matchday grouping in the Sanvicente era. It should be noted though, that given his domestic form with eventual champions Táchira (20 goals in 31 games, the second-highest in the league), he most likely would have been called up to the February squad had he not been otherwise engaged. Indeed, while his home-based compatriots were twice defeating Honduras, he was spearheading his club’s entry into the Copa Libertadores group stage, scoring two crucial goals in the decisive leg of the play-off with Cerro Porteño. All the same, no call-up was forthcoming in March, though he did make May’s 30-man preliminary squad and evidently Sanvicente liked what he saw.

In terms of attributes, perhaps at a level or two below, he shares much in common with the other two main strikers, getting the majority of his goals from close-range finishes and headers. Having had a couple of Belgian sides allegedly sniffing around him at the turn of the year, he will definitely be wanting to put himself in the shop window. However, given the competition for this solitary position, he will have quite the task on his hands to see any minutes in this year’s tournament.

Darren Spherical

@DarrenSpherical

Venezuela – Copa América 2015 Team Preview

As Venezuela get set to kick-off their 2015 Copa América campaign, Hispanospherical.com takes a look at how they may fare in Chile. Following on from a general overview, there is a more detailed summary of how the past 11 months have gone under new manager Noel Sanvicente as well as profiles on several players who could be crucial to the team’s chances. For more information on the representatives of La Vinotinto, click here for profiles on every single player in the 23-man squad as well as the coach and how he intends to set up his team. 

Venezuela

Copa América 2015 Team Preview

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The official 23-man Venezuela squad for the 2015 Copa América

(Image courtesy of Copa América. See bottom of page for details on the clubs of the players)

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Overview of Venezuela’s Chances:

Under-prepared Team in Transition Facing a Daunting Challenge

With Brazil, Colombia and Peru accompanying La Vinotinto in Group C, it is tempting to think that their chances of qualifying for the knock-out stages are largely contingent on getting a win against Los Incas and then praying for that to be enough to claim one of the two best third-placed-side spots. Indeed, while they may have finished fourth last time around and then challenged until the death for a World Cup berth, the team has struggled to gel under new manager Noel Sanvicente and appear to be under-prepared for the tournament. With the exception of Jamaica, who seem to be treating their Chilean experience as their warm-up for July’s CONCACAF Gold Cup, Venezuela are the only team not to play at least one official match in the weeks leading up to the competition.

Their planned late-May friendly against Bolivia was the fifth in the past year to be cancelled and, considered in light of the recent FIFA shenanigans that implicated Venezuela FA (FVF) President Rafael Esquivel, organisational and administrative issues both on and off the field have certainly impacted upon Sanvicente’s plans. Chita (yes, cheetah), to give him his popular moniker, has overseen eight games in his 11 months in charge, yet despite also holding several training modules with home-based players, he has struggled to successfully instil his approach into his players. Indeed, the attempt to transition the side from one that soaked up pressure and then struck on counters, to a more confident, controlling team who press their opponents from the off has yet to reap dividends. Not only has the attack shown little cohesion with the team instead dependent on set-pieces, long range efforts and defensive errors for the goals they have scored (12, though 10 officially), but they have looked porous in the middle of the park as well as at the back, conceding 18 (19 officially). Furthermore, the three wins they have achieved – and in which they got 6 of their 10 official goals – have been of dubious merit, with two coming against Honduras in games contested solely by domestic players (only one or two of whom are likely to feature in a starting line-up this month) and the other occurring in a 1-0 win over an understrength Peru in the debut match of their new boss Ricardo Gareca.

Watching so many players who ply their trade at relatively high club levels – including La Liga, Serie A and Ligue 1 – struggle to replicate their weekly form within Sanvicente’s system has been disheartening for the nation’s ever-growing number of football fans. The obstacles that have thwarted Chita in regularly calling up every player he would have liked for friendlies as well as the sheer diversity of leagues in which the members of the 23-man squad played last season (12, in 10 different countries and four distinct continents) may well be partly to blame for the lack of fluidity and disjointed forward forays. Nevertheless, many fans instinctively retain hope; understandable given the memories of 2011’s semi-final run as well as some of the players Sanvicente has at his disposal.

Indeed, though the defence is arguably the area where the disparity between performances at club and international level has been most evident, it will nevertheless feature two of the most high-profile players in the squad. Firstly, towering centre-back Oswaldo Vizcarrondo, who played the most minutes of anyone at Nantes last year as well as regularly captaining the side and secondly, right-back Roberto Rosales, Málaga’s most used outfield player who kept group stage-rival Neymar quiet in both league encounters. Ahead of them will be arguably the team’s key man, defensive midfielder Tomás Rincón who, in his debut season since moving from Hamburg, helped play a central role in Genoa’s impressive sixth-placed finish. If Sanvicente errs on the side of caution against the likes of Brazil and Colombia, it is likely that Deportivo La Guaira’s experienced Franklin Lucena will renew the partnership with El General that was so effective in 2011. If however, he instead deploys a deep-lying playmaker – as he did for varying periods of time in both of March’s friendlies – Juan Arango, arguably the greatest Venezuelan player of all time, could well occupy this spot. Indeed, now 35 and winding down his career in Mexico with Xolos de Tijuana, it is not entirely clear if he will start but, having been moved back from a more advanced area into this position at club level, Sanvicente has also experimented recently with him here in training, so the possibility is very much there. Whoever ultimately plays alongside Rincón, likely to be in front of them in some capacity are the mobile legs of 22-year-old Josef Martínez, who showed glimpses of his clinical finishing and rapid movement in his first season for Torino. While he can play up front, he is likely to be used either slightly behind or on one of the flanks as the sole striker up top will undoubtedly be the team’s most valuable player (monetary-wise, at least). Salomón Rondón, who has recently won the Russian Premier League with Zenit St. Petersburg, may be yet to find the net in the Sanvicente era, but his height, physical power and finishing always provide fans and team-mates alike with ample reasons to feel confident when in the final third.

Ultimately, Rondón and co. will all need to regain some form and hastily generate some on-field chemistry and solidity if they are to achieve anything other than squabbling with Peru like two bald men fighting over a comb.

There are other players of note in the squad who could prove to be more influential than these established cracks – not least Alejandro Guerra, the returning Ronald Vargas, Luis Manuel Seijas and, possibly if he gets a chance or two, 20-year-old winger Jhon Murillo, who has recently been snapped up by Benfica. Along with every other player in the squad, they are all featured in this extensive reference guide of player profiles, some of which are relayed in the Key Players section below. However, should you choose to read on, before these, there is a more thorough overview of how The Sanvicente Era has so far panned out, starting with a reminder of the situation that the coach inherited.

The Sanvicente Era:

How to Follow Farías?

Four years ago in the unpredictable, online gambler-infuriating Argentina-hosted edition of this tournament, La Vinotinto were one of the leading sides to defy expectations as, enthusiastically cheered on by then-President Hugo Chávez, they embarked on a rollercoaster ride to the Semi-Finals. Although their performances had markedly improved in the preceding decade, with the Quarter-Final finish in 2007 at the time their best showing, their traditional reputation was nevertheless such that, for example, a Brazilian advertisment could still blithely mock their supposed lack of footballing prowess.

However, such flippant scorn was to rebound on these particular devotees of the Seleção, as Venezuela claimed a creditable opening-day draw off them, before beating Ecuador and then, following two dramatic goals at the death against Paraguay in a 3-3 draw, securing their place in the knock-out stage. In the Quarter-Finals, Chile, who finished ahead of eventual winners Uruguay in their group, came undone against César Farías’ men, whose swashbuckling run, in turn, ended in the most heartbreaking circumstances on penalties against Paraguay. A history-making fourth placed finish was thus confirmed following a play-off loss against Peru.

The boys in burgundy had done wonders to further increase the profile and popularity of football in their baseball-reared culture and were to continue to achieve some impressive results in qualifying for World Cup 2014, being in with a chance of claiming the fifth-place play-off-spot until their final matchday.

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Venezuela manager Noel Sanvicente (Image courtesy of Foto Prensa FVF)

However, this sixth-placed finish in late 2013 marked the end of the Farías era and it was not until July 2014 – and just one game later – that a permanent replacement was appointed, in the form of seven-time domestic champion, Noel Sanvicente. The five-time Caracas and two-time Zamora title-winner, who also has international caps from his playing days to his name, had been interviewed for the role back in 2007 and was a popular choice this time around, in spite of Diego Maradona tenuously linking himself to the job. However, as noted, Chita has struggled to implement some attack-minded tactical changes and has had his attempts to do so regularly undermined by games being cancelled as well as rarely having all the players he would have liked at his disposal. Nevertheless, what follows is a succinct overview of the matches he has overseen:

He had a decent selection of players for his first two games, which occurred on September’s Asian tour and consisted of a 3-1 defeat against South Korea and a 2-2 draw with Japan (later officially overruled as a 3-0 loss; see here for more details). However, due to wanting time to bed in with his new club in Mexico, veteran icon Juan Arango omitted himself, a few other hitherto first-teamers were missing and several who have ultimately received the Copa call were quite far off a squad place back then. Following on from this, the two scheduled matches that were originally planned for October were cancelled, then rashly replaced by two more fixtures which, in turn, were then also called off. In lieu of any competitive action, some hastily arranged training sessions took place in Madrid that were almost exclusively attended by overseas-based players (goalkeeper Alain Baroja being the exception). Any tactical plans for the subsequent set of matches in November were undermined by the absences of 8-10 key players (including Venezuela’s very own three R’s: Rincón, Rondón and Rosales), which led to predictably disastrous results: a 5-0 thumping from Chile, in which Venezuela were easily overran and outflanked, then a 3-2 defeat against Bolivia, providing El Verde their first win in 21 months.

Early February brought some qualified joy, as a squad consisting entirely of domestic league players chalked up two victories in a double-header against Honduras, though in light of the fact that only one or two of the starters are likely to maintain this status in Chile, these have to be considered B-level encounters. Nevertheless, with the first wins of the new era under their belt, considerable enthusiasm greeted the two late March friendlies as Sanvicente was able to call upon arguably his strongest pool of players to date. Yet, morale was to fall to a new nadir as La Vinotinto were overpowered and outpaced in a 2-1 loss away to Jamaica who, at the time of the Copa América draw in late 2014, were the lowest seeded team. The subsequent 1-0 victory against group rivals Peru went some way to restoring hope that the team would not be entirely humiliated in Chile. However, it has to be acknowledged that it was manager Ricardo Gareca’s first game at the helm and, unlike then, for the tournament he will have Claudio Pizarro (Bayern Munich) Jefferson Farfán (Schalke 04), Paolo Guerrero (Flamengo, recently signed from Corinthians) and Juan Manuel Vargas (Fiorentina) at his disposal.

All the same, it was the side’s first win under Sanvicente in a game featuring the overseas contingent, as well as the first clean sheet and, particularly in the latter stages, saw them create far more chances than they had previously. Yet, the boss was to be largely denied the possibility of building upon this as firstly, for reasons known only to the FVF, a May home game was unable to be arranged. Then, amidst, and allegedly affected by, the FBI raid on FIFA that implicated FVF President Rafael Esquivel, a friendly against Bolivia in Mendoza, Argentina, was cancelled. Thus, since the Peru win, the closest thing Venezuela have had to a competitive test was a practice match against the youth team of Argentine side Godoy Cruz, which at least ended in a reassuring 5-0 bogwashing.

Collectively then, the representatives of La Vinotinto go into this competition relatively under-prepared and still struggling to be accommodated effectively in Sanvicente’s bold new system. Additional training modules have been held at various points throughout the past year largely in order to indoctrinate home-based players – many of whom never had a prayer of making the final squad – into the coach’s way of thinking, but as yet, the jury is still out. Thus, with results underwhelming, the defence porous and shaky, the midfield timid and the attack playing like strangers incapable of more than a few consecutive passes, if Venezuela manage to get out of the group, it has to be considered a success. Although Sanvicente may have received much goodwill upon taking the job, if his side crashes out at the first stage and his methods still yield little discernible results several games into the upcoming World Cup Qualifying campaign, he may find himself warily looking over his shoulder. However, such dystopian scenarios are doubtless far from the players’ minds as, with at least half of the 2011 regulars likely to also start here, they will retain the conviction that being the underdog and proving people wrong are part-and-parcel of being a Venezuelan footballer in the 21st century.

Key Players 

Below are several profiles on some of the leading names in Venezuela’s 23-man squad, as well as a couple of youngsters who could well make their mark. These profiles come from this extensive article which provides similar information on every single player in the squad as well as manager Noel Sanvicente and how he intends to set up his side.

The Spine of the Squad

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Hispanospherical.com Key Man

Playing in a role few schoolboys tend to daydream about emulating, defensive midfielder Tomás Rincón (27 years old) is nevertheless the most important player in this squad. Although some other previews on Venezuela have picked out striker Salomón Rondón or ageing icon Juan Arango as their key man, El General will surely be playing the lead role in determining La Vinotinto‘s fortunes. Indeed, as if to confirm this status, in the run-up to the tournament, he was officially allocated the captain’s armband, taking over from the long-serving Arango.

Update (14 June 2015): Despite it being widely reported in late May that Rincón would be the new permanent captain, there are lots of claims that Arango will instead retain the armband for this tournament. Nevertheless, as Rincón has been the vice-captain for some time and Arango tends not to last the distance often, even if the latter ultimately officially keeps the armband, expect to see the former wear it during the tournament and eventually take over full-time in the future. 

To ensure the side is not overran in the central area and to also provide additional cover for the vulnerable back four, the Genoa midfielder’s leadership and organisational qualities will be integral. While renowned more for assiduous tracking and tough tackling than searching forward passes – or, for that matter, getting anywhere near the opposition goal – he will also need to release the ball quickly for the attack to prosper.

Following over five years with Hamburg, he has recently enjoyed a largely successful debut season in Serie A, finishing sixth with unfashionable Genoa and has been linked with a big move to La Liga or a return to the Bundesliga. Valencia is the strongest rumour of the several currently doing the rounds and though a repeat of 2011, when he was named the Adidas Player of the Tournament, seems a big ask, an impressive showing will certainly do him no harm.

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Though Nantes stalwart Oswaldo Vizcarrondo (31) can be assured of a starting place, having played in all six Sanvicente-era games he was eligible for as well as performing regularly and consistently at the highest club level of anyone at centre-back, his partner is less clear. There are four other options in this department and, given the noted issues at the back, it could very well transpire that Vizca ends the tournament having played alongside more than one of them. Thus, the leadership, organisational and renowned communication skills of this imposing, committed individual will be vital to the entire team’s chances.

A towering presence in the air at both ends of the pitch, though he is far from alone amongst the back line in lacking in speed, he can nevertheless be a beacon of solidity and persistent marking – just some of the traits which saw him placed in many Best XI features after the 2011 Copa América. That he is performing so well in Europe and even regularly captaining his Ligue 1 side is all the more impressive when it is noted that it was not until 2013 at the age of 29 that he made the leap over to the Old Continent. Indeed, previously he had racked up a colourfully respectable list of Latin American clubs: Caracas (Venezuela, two spells), Rosario Central (Argentina), Olimpia (Paraguay), Once Caldas (Colombia), Deportivo Anzoátegui (Venezuela), Olimpo (Argentina), América (Mexico) and Lanús (Argentina).

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Following Alexander González’s omission from the final squad due to injury, not only have commentators been deprived of regaling viewers with the story of him proposing to his girlfriend on the pitch, but Sanvicente now only has one natural right-back to choose from. However, as this is first-choice Roberto Rosales (26) – who has just completed a fine debut season in La Liga with Málaga – so long as he does not get sidelined, there should not be too much to concern in this patch of the field.

Since making the step up last year from FC Twente, he has proved to be more than capable of maintaining his close-tracking and tenacious tackling approach in his top-half Spanish side. Though the nature of his club’s style and the forwards at their disposal may be why his regular, pacy forays up the flank have only yielded three assists (which, nevertheless, put him third overall for the season just gone), in open play at least, he certainly adds more than his international defensive colleagues do in this department.

More pertinently to the group stage, in both league games against Barcelona, he was able to keep Brazil’s golden boy Neymar quiet, firstly in a 0-0 home draw and, most impressively, a 1-0 away win at Camp Nou. Largely influenced by this second performance, he was subsequently named in La Liga’s February Team of the Month. Quite how he will fare in a markedly different back line is less certain, particularly as none of the likely starters who have impressed at club level have been able to replicate their form internationally under Sanvicente.

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A role which may or may not be utilised, a deep-lying playmaker was nevertheless experimented with in March’s two friendlies as well as, more pertinently, in training sessions leading up to the tournament. Juan Arango, now 35 and understandably slowing down, is the most likely candidate if this position is ultimately given the green light. Indeed, though the free-kick maestro and scorer of almost exclusively sensational goals made his name in Spain and Germany with more of an attacking licence – centrally as well as on the left – he became accustomed to this role at club level in the season that has just passed.

Having returned last year to Mexico where he played before he made the transition to Europe back in 2004, while his current club Xolos de Tijuana had an underwhelming campaign, he gradually came to flourish in this less energy-sapping placement, particularly in the league’s second half (the Torneo Clausura). Overall in Liga MX, he scored nine goals and officially received credit for six assists, though his inviting crosses, corners and free-kicks certainly played a prominent role in at least a few more. Playing in his sixth Copa América, though he may not be the same player who spearheaded the history-making 2007 Quarter-Final finish and who was later named in most observers’ 2011 Best XI of the Tournament pieces, his pin-point long-range passes could still be vital this time around. Although a place in the line-up can not be entirely guaranteed, he has played in all four games that he has been available for under Sanvicente (starting three and making a strong impression when he came on against Peru). If he starts but in another position, reprising a more forward role behind the striker or on the left are certainly possibilities.

Update (13 June 2015): On the eve of the opening game, it has been reported that in a slightly altered team that has been practising in training which has two personnel changes to the one previously observed, Arango has been playing as the left-sided attacker, with Luis Manuel Seijas instead as the deep-lying playmaker. If Arango does start off the tournament on the left, there is nevertheless a strong chance that he may drift back to beside Rincón at some point. It will be of possibly painful intrigue to see if his legs are still up to a more forward position.

Lastly, while it may not have made as many headlines as a certain incident involving Luis Suárez, Arango was guilty of biting an opponent at the end of a Mexican league match in early April, for which he was merely banned for two domestic encounters. Should Venezuela meet Uruguay in the latter stages – a possible, if not the likeliest, scenario – expect to hear more about this.

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Salomón Rondón (25), the most expensive Venezuelan of all time, is considered by many as the team’s main man up top. Understandable, given that in the season just gone he played in both major European club competitions and ended it as champion and joint-second top-scorer of the Russian Premier League.

However, internationally, his success is largely dependent on the service provided by those behind him – something that has been frustratingly lacking in the past year, as he has not managed to score in any of his four outings, often appearing anonymous. When he has received chances, he has at times lacked composure and direction. Furthermore, though he may have only been 21 four years ago at Copa América 2011, he did come into the tournament with a domestic scoring rate of one in two in his debut season at Málaga and so subsequently featured in all six of his country’s games (three starts), but scored just the once. While he does have an important role to play and will be looking to use his height to spring onto the end of balls coming into the area as well as be on his toes finish off chances, it can be easy to overstate his significance to this team.

Indeed, as he is more of a penalty-box predator who usually plays little role in the build-up, it is the players behind him who will be particularly crucial if he is to prosper. If he receives the requisite supply – and it is a big if, given the noted issues the attacking midfield players have had linking up effectively – then it should be a morale booster for the team. All the same, expect any goals that may or may not be scored to be spread around the side, rather than gobbled up by one individual.

The tournament could potentially be a great opportunity for Rondón to put himself in the shop window, as the talk emanating out of Zenit St Petersburg for the past several months has been that manager André Villas-Boas is seeking to offload him. Further fuelling the rumours, the player has commented more than once that he fancies trying his luck in England or Germany, though would not be averse to a return to Spain either. Media reports have dutifully obliged, with stories published linking him to, among others, Tottenham, Liverpool, Wolfsburg and Sevilla. While he may struggle to shine in such a tough group when Venezuela may often be on the back foot, the presence of such a relatively high calibre striker up top ensures that those behind know, that if they can just play the right ball forward, the team will always have a chance.

Rising Stars

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If, as is being suggested by reports, neither Luis Manuel Seijas nor Juan Arango is fielded on the left of midfield in the opening game, there are several other contenders in the frame. According to how the side has been training, Torino’s Josef Martínez (22) appears to be the likeliest candidate to start, despite being more regularly deployed at club level just behind the striker. Indeed, he can also play as the front man and if there are any problems with Salomón Rondón up top, he could well be pushed forward to step in.

Update (13 June 2015): As noted in the Arango profile, according to a new, slightly altered line-up tried in training, Arango may instead start on the left against Colombia. Whatever transpires, expect to see Martínez at some point in the tournament.

Although, following a two-and-a-half year spell in Switzerland and a debut year in Turin, he now has a full Serie A season as well as Europa League experience with two different clubs under his belt, he still just about qualifies as being off the radar of most fans of top-level European football. With this being his first Copa América, he has the opportunity to showcase his abilities to new and larger audiences. Wherever he ends up playing on the pitch, in contrast to Jhon Murillo – who has been designated in several preview articles as Venezuela’s top young prospect despite only ever making one substitute appearance for his country – he has significantly more chance of starting at least one game. For this reason more than any other, he must be considered as his nation’s leading young player to look out for.

However, if he does shine, rather than gaining a bigger move, it is more likely to be beneficial for his chances at club level as while in 2014-15 he featured in 26 league, one cup and 13 European clashes – scoring seven goals along the way – he did not last the course in over half of these. Internationally, he is far from alone under Sanvicente in not having the most glorious of times in the past year but he did look particularly sharp when coming on as a substitute against Jamaica and, subsequently, scoring the winner against Peru. As a very mobile player, capable of rapid movements and turns, as well as clinical and long-range strikes, who can also provide support to other attackers, he has much to offer the team.

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Though he is not likely to start in the opening game, Jhon Murillo, who must be on cloud nine having recently turned 20 and signed for Benfica from Zamora, stands a fair chance of entering the fray at some point – if only as an impact substitute. Presumably due to this potentially life-changing move as well as there being no other young attacking player in the squad who has not already played for a European club, he has been singled out in many preview features as Venezuela’s hot prospect to watch. Maybe. He has, after all, reportedly impressed Arango in training, knows Sanvicente well from when the coach was at Zamora (2012-14) and, given the chance, will delight in aggressively running at defenders and pouncing on any hesitancy. However, with so much competition in the attacking midfield positions and the fact that he has only previously been called up for one game – the second against Honduras in February in which, due to a defensive mix-up, he capitalised to score 37 seconds into his debut – one wonders if it is all a bit too much, too soon. Indeed, he has done remarkably well in his early club career, making his Zamora debut under Chita at the end of the 2012-13 campaign, before scoring an impressive 19 goals in 54 league games (all starts) in the subsequent two seasons while playing on the right wing as well as, at times, more centrally. He was also his now ex-club’s leading threat this year in their otherwise dismal Libertadores campaign, scoring twice in four games.

However, he was also red-carded in the opening game, seemingly for comments made towards – or at least in front of – the referee and it is this worrisome temperament of his that could well hold him back in the long run. Indeed, while he was also the Venezuela U20 side’s best attacking player in January’s Sudamericano Sub-20 tournament, his antics at the very end of the final group game are further testimony to his volatile nature. Against hosts Uruguay, following a relentless verbal and even physical reprimanding of the referee, he played a leading role in getting the official – who, it must be noted, had riot police at his disposal – to reverse his decision on a legitimate opposition goal, securing for Venezuela the 1-0 win. Not entirely for his appearance and haircut then has he been nicknamed ‘Balotelli’ (though, in fairness, the Venezuelan is at least significantly more consistent on the pitch). Furthermore, while he will not be regretting it now, it is believed that his attitude during a trial at Basel in 2014 cost him a move to the Swiss giants. Ultimately, whether or not he gets many opportunities in the next month, one can only hope that the experience of being around long-standing high calibre professionals will inject a little more humility and maturity into this otherwise exciting prospect.

As noted above, to read similar profiles about the entire squad, click here.

Venezuela’s 23-man squad for Copa América 2015

Goalkeepers

Alain Baroja (Caracas FC), Wuilker Fariñez (Caracas FC) & Dani Hernández (Tenerife).

Defenders

Fernando Amorebieta (Fulham, ended season on loan to Middlesbrough), Wilker Ángel (Deportivo Táchira), Gabriel Cichero (FC Sion, ended season on loan to Mineros de Guayana), Grenddy Perozo (Ajaccio), Roberto Rosales (Málaga), Andrés Túñez (Buriram United) & Oswaldo Vizcarrondo (Nantes).

Midfielders

Rafael Acosta (Mineros de Guayana), Juan Arango (Xolos de Tijuana), César González (Deportivo Táchira), Alejandro Guerra (Mineros de Guayana, ended season on loan to Atlético Nacional), Franklin Lucena (Deportivo La Guaira), Jhon Murillo (Benfica, signed recently from Zamora FC), Tomás Rincón (Genoa), Luis Manuel Seijas (Independiente Santa Fe) & Ronald Vargas (AEK Athens, signed recently from Balıkesirspor).

Forwards

Nicolás ‘Miku’ Fedor (Rayo Vallecano), Josef Martínez (Torino), Gelmin Rivas (Deportivo Táchira) & Salomón Rondón (Zenit St. Petersburg).

One last time, to find out more about these players and to get a more precise idea of where and how they play, please take a look at this detailed set of profiles of all 23 members of the squad. Otherwise, thank you for reading and stay tuned for more Copa América coverage in the upcoming weeks on Hispanospherical.com.

Darren Spherical

@DarrenSpherical

Reflections on Venezuela’s March 2015 Internationals

Summary of Venezuela’s March 2015 Internationals Against Jamaica and Peru

With an eye towards the 2015 Copa América, Venezuela recently played two fellow entrants in the form of invitees Jamaica and long-term South American rivals Peru (who have been drawn in the same group as La Vinotinto, along with Brazil and Colombia). Against the Reggae Boyz, Noel Sanvicente’s charges put in a limp performance largely devoid of chances, cohesion and often basic organisation, losing 2-1 in the Caribbean. Given Jamaica were ranked the lowest amongst all the teams at the time of the draw for the Chile-hosted tournament, this was a particularly rude awakening. Some pride and morale was salvaged in Fort Lauderdale against Los Incas, however, as promising Torino forward Josef Martínez netted the only goal in a game that saw a significantly higher number of goalscoring opportunities and mercifully fewer defensive errors.

To get a better impression of the Jamaica and Peru games as well as the state of play before the two matches, please take some time to read a preview and a detailed analysis of the squad selection as well as the two match reports. If, however, you saw both matches then feel free to read on here as what follows are some brief reflections:

Key Points

Alain Baroja put in an assured performance in his opportunity between the sticks against Peru and, vitally for a goalkeeper, pulled off a memorable save. This will hopefully ensure that Tenerife’s Dani Hernández does not get too complacent as the current number one. The clean sheet that was kept – the first in all eight of Sanvicente’s games – will not have done Baroja’s case any harm either.

Andrés Túñez put in a superior shift at centre-back against Peru than Fernando Amorebieta did against Jamaica. Whether this was more due to the opposition than their respective abilities is difficult to say but Amorebieta, now on loan at Middlesbrough, must be hoping to be able to put in a few performances at club level that show that he is not only a solid unit but also in possession of basic match fitness as otherwise he could very well lose out to his Thai-based rival. Amorebieta was switched over to left-back for the Peru game, with the injured Gabriel Cichero missing his first game in all of Sanvicente’s reign, but one would have thought the Mineros de Guayana man is a safer bet for a starting berth here. The defence as a whole looked woeful against Jamaica, yet while far from flawless against Peru, not conceding a goal for the first time in two years should aid the collective confidence.

Alejandro Guerra and Josef Martínez were, over the course of the two games, the leading attacking threats for La Vinotinto. They were involved in the two main goalscoring chances in the second half against Jamaica and subsequently tested the Peruvian back-line from the very first minute, with Martínez scoring the winning goal. In the hotly contested attacking area behind Salomón Rondón, the Torino forward seems a near cert to start at the Copa América, whereas the Atlético Nacional man may have more of a battle on his hands. Whether or not he makes the line-up for the opening game against Colombia, he will still remain a key squad player and should appear more than once in the tournament.

Furthermore, continuing with this line of three behind the Zenit forward, Mario Rondón must be unsure where these games leave him. Indeed, having been arguably the brightest attacking player in the early phase of Sanvicente’s reign, this time around he only played an unremarkable, if volatile, half against Jamaica followed by a very brief cameo as a timewasting substitute in the dying stages of the Peru match. Similarly, Christian Santos, who made his much-anticipated debut against Jamaica before being withdrawn after an hour, did not even feature against Peru and must be wondering if he will receive another call-up in the next few months.

With more certainty it can be stated assertively that it would take a severe and sustained loss of form at club level for the likes of Roberto Rosales (right-back), Oswaldo Vizcarrondo (centre-back), Tomás Rincón (defensive-midfielder) and Salomón Rondón (striker) to lose their first-choice statuses. One can not be so sure about the legendary Juan Arango but, despite his misses against Peru, so long as he keeps up his fine club form and maintains his ability to perform well in various midfield positions, he should be okay.

Finally, with a squad of 23 players – 20 of whom got onto the pitch – and at least a handful who missed out but will be hopeful of being on the flight to Chile, there are understandably many more issues that could be explored. Rather than dissecting them now, it may be better to wait until the next – and final – game(s) before Copa América are due to be played in May (at the moment, only an encounter late in the month with Bolivia appears to be on the cards). However, if any readers seek any more information on how things currently stand regarding the likely squad, perusing the two latest match reports in conjunction with this lengthy analysis of the March selection, may well help to inform.

Darren Spherical

@DarrenSpherical

Peru 0-1 Venezuela – International Friendly (31 March 2015)

International Friendly

Tuesday 31 March 2015 – Lockhart Stadium, Fort Lauderdale, Florida, USA

Peru 0-1 Venezuela

Match Highlights of Peru 0-1 Venezuela, International Friendly, 31 March 2015 (Courtesy of YouTube user Claudio Navarro Vargas)

La Vinotinto Bounce Back as Starlet Martínez Restores Optimism

Team Selections

Peru (4-2-3-1): Gallese; Advíncula, Zambrano, Ramos, Céspedes; Ballón, Tapia; Carrillo (Benavente, 71′), Deza (Cueva, 30′), Hurtado (Gonzáles, 84′); Ávila (Ruidíaz, 71′).

Venezuela (4-2-3-1): Baroja; Rosales, Vizcarrondo, Túñez, Amorebieta; Rincón, Seijas (Lucena, 68′); Guerra (A. González, 90+2′), Martínez (Arango, 64′), C. González (Vargas, 78′); S. Rondón (M. Rondón, 90+3′).

Match Report

In what was an open and often fiercely contested international, Torino forward Josef Martínez’s strike on the hour-mark was enough to give La Vinotinto a morale-boosting win against their Copa América Group C rivals. 

As Brazil and Colombia are also in this group, the encounter on 18 June between these two nations may prove decisive in determining whether either can qualify for the knock-out stage as one of the two best-peforming third-placed sides. Venezuela, having just four days prior been defeated by Jamaica – another side with marginal hopes of reaching the second phase of this competition – will be pleased, not to mention relieved, to have gone some way to getting back on track with this victory. Had they not, the pessimism that has occasionally been expressed in the national media in the first eight months of Noel Sanvicente’s reign possibly would have permeated throughout the squad before a Copa ball had even been kicked.

This Vinotinto performance, though far from flawless, was nevertheless an improvement, with the side linking up more effectively in attacking positions, creating far more chances and conceding less ground in defensive areas. The more frequent forward forays can partly be attributed to three changes, namely the use of Luis Manuel Seijas as a deep-lying playmaker and, more significantly further upfield, Alejandro Guerra and Josef Martínez – both of whom had provided rare offensive optimism after they came on at half-time against Jamaica.

Here at the Lockhart Stadium – home to NASL’s Fort Lauderdale Strikers, whose pitch is evidently also used for American Football games – this attacking prowess was to be mostly demonstrated in the second half, with the first being a more even, albeit spirited, affair.

Indeed, Venezuela – in their blindingly luminous new away kit – began promisingly, with Martínez gaining some space on the inside-right within the first minute, though perhaps twisted one too many times in the area, thus allowing the defender to recover and block out any potential shot. Ten minutes later, the Serie A striker was to link up with Atlético Nacional’s Guerra on the inside-right, gaining space and putting in a low cross that rolled into space but was nevertheless dealt with. It was to be the Colombia-based Guerra who created La Vinotinto‘s best chance of the half when, on 26 minutes, he dinked in a ball from the right byline that went over goalkeeper Pedro Gallese but just evaded the agonising stretch of Zenit forward Salomón Rondón at the back post.

However, it was not to be all one-way traffic, with the Peruvians – who were missing top exports such as Paolo Guerrero, Jefferson Farfán, Claudio Pizarro and Juan Manuel Vargas – also exploiting space on the right in what was a rather even half. With what proved to be the only real efforts on goal in this period, both of Peru’s best chances came around the midway point and each fell to Jean Deza, currently plying his trade with Alianza Lima on loan from Ligue 1 outfit Montpellier. First, on 21 minutes, Luis Advíncula nudged the ball though to Deza in a central position and he gained some space before hitting a deflected shot that was comfortable for Alain Baroja. Six minutes later, the Caracas FC goalkeeper was again not to have too much trouble saving another effort that went into his arms from the edge of the area from Deza. Unfortunately for the Peruvian, despite looking like his side’s most likely scorer, this was to be his last contribution to the game as he was hurt by an incoming challenge and had to be withdrawn.

Though the first half was rather open and contested with a spirit that was refreshing for a friendly – possibly influenced by the buoyant expatriates in the crowd – this was to be turned up an extra notch or two after the interval, with both sides having more chances to score. Adherents to certain psychological methods may feel Venezuela coach Sanvicente helped to precipitate this by sending his charges out a few minutes before Los Incas. If so, it was to pay nearly instant dividends when a free-kick from a deep position was lofted into the area, then headed across by Oswaldo Vizcarrondo to Salomón Rondón who, under some defensive pressure, leant back slightly to scoop an attempt just over. On another day, he may well have been able to wrestle himself into some space before getting a snap-shot away.

Ten minutes into the new half, it was looking as if the game may boil over with three players – André Carrillo, Roberto Rosales and Josef Martínez – receiving yellow cards in quick succession, bringing the total number of players on a yellow card up to five. However, while the scrapes and skirmishes did not halt at this point, the cards did, with instead the real action – and what proved to be the pivotal moment – occurring soon afterwards.

Indeed, just before the hour-mark, the Peruvians were to suddenly gain some space on right, with a subsequent cross put into the area where it was met by Sporting Cristal marksman Irven Ávila. However, despite being in acres of room and being granted an age to direct his header, he could only nod it against the ground for it to clip off the top of the bar and over. The fact that the offside flag had gone up did little to spare his blushes.

However, little time was available to dwell on his poor finishing as immediately from Baroja’s pumped upfield clearance, Salomón Rondón flicked on the ball with Martínez taking it into his stride before unleashing a clinical right-footed shot from inside the area past Gallese. The versatile Torino forward, still a mere 21 years old, had given Venezuela the breakthrough. Yet, in a move that may have been planned before the goal, this highly promising starlet was almost immediately replaced by the undisputed icon of the past decade, Juan Arango.

Several minutes later it looked as if Sanvicente was looking to preserve this lead rather than extend it, as he took off Seijas, the attack-minded deep-lying playmaker, and replaced him with the more reserved, holding midfielder, Franklin Lucena. Yet if this was this intention, it was certainly not how the remaining 22 minutes panned out.

Indeed, La Vinotinto were to have several strong opportunities to increase the score as the Peruvians increasingly conceded possession and space. In the 76th minute, Arango burst forward slightly to the right-of-centre 30 yards out but, with only one defender separating him and Rondón, his pass went slightly askew, forcing the Zenit man into a wide position from where he could only win a corner. A couple of minutes later, Rondón attempted to turn provider when a poor clearance was rapidly headed into his path on the right, which he quickly released into the area but his intended target, César González, was in a difficult position and was unable to direct it goalwards. Another two minutes passed and Rondón again nearly set up a goal as he flicked on a ball centrally for Arango who, just inside the area, momentarily had a clear sight of goal, but a defender was ultimately to catch up and put him off making a meaningful connection with the ball.

Three minutes after this Arango was to have another, arguably better, chance to score as a cross sprayed from the right by Guerra drifted over two players tangling in the centre all the way to the Xolos de Tijuana man on the left of the area. Blessed with considerable time to shape up and shoot with only a defender’s desperate lunge separating him and the goalkeeper, he nevertheless dragged his shot wide of the far post.

With just three minutes remaining, Arango nearly managed to go some way towards making up for these wasted opportunities when, from the left inside the area, he slid the ball through to Guerra. Yet, from a mere seven yards out, ‘El Lobo’ was to sidefoot a very presentable opportunity straight at the chest of Gallese who managed to parry it out.

From then on, in stoppage-time Venezuela were to have one final opportunity to extend the lead. Following some rapid – and, in contrast to the majority of previous games, effective – short passing play, substitute Ronald Vargas curled in a fine cross from the left that Rondón ran onto but, perhaps due to a slight mis-timing of his run, headed over from just outside the six-yard box.

Though Venezuela had all these chances to record a more impressive victory, they could have also conceded on more than one occasion. Indeed, while the Peruvians were ultimately second-best in this half, they did continue to threaten, having a couple of penalty shouts turned down as well as, in addition to Ávila’s header against the bar, two opportunities that on another day could well have gone in. The most notable of the two came on 82 minutes when Paços de Ferreira’s Paolo Hurtado played an exquisite return pass to Alianza Lima’s Christian Cueva who, from eight yards out, volleyed a strike that seemed destined to go in but which Baroja did very well to parry out wide. This was a close shave, as was, more literally, Christofer Gonzáles’s shot a few minutes later. The Universitario substitute played a quick one-two from a free-kick then, 35 yards out, hit a fine effort that dipped only marginally over the crossbar.

Ultimately, La Vinotinto were to hold on, attaining what many will feel was the country’s first real victory under manager Noel Sanvicente, due to the other two against Honduras being in games contested solely by home-based players. While nobody should be getting too carried away given that the opposition were not at full strength and were experimenting in Ricardo Gareca’s first game in charge, it was nevertheless a boost following the dispiriting performance against Jamaica.

Quite where this all leaves the hopes of some of the players not entirely sure of their ticket to Chile in June is another matter, but several things taken from these two friendly matches can nevertheless be asserted. For some reflections on the Jamaica and Peru games, click here.

Darren Spherical

@DarrenSpherical

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.