This is just what they do, the Venezuelans. Do keep up…
Copa América Centenario Group C
Thursday 9 June 2016 – Lincoln Financial Field, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA
Uruguay 0-1 Venezuela
Video Highlights of Uruguay 0-1 Venezuela, Copa América Centenario, 9 June 2016 (YouTube)
Venezuela Book Place in the Knock-Out Phase With a Game to Spare
Thanks to Salomón Rondón’s first-half goal, Venezuela recorded an unanticipated and historic second consecutive win in the Copa América and are already in the draw for the Quarter-final stage.
This disciplined and hard-fought win, coupled with the other result in Group C today, means Rafael Dudamel’s revitalised men will duke it out with Mexico on Monday for top spot as well as, most likely, the opportunity to avoid Argentina.
Though headlines were already being made around the world during the game for Luis Suárez’ anger at not making it onto the pitch as well as Uruguay’s elimination from the tournament, for Vinotinto fans, there was only one story here.
That said, it was far from straightforward and as early as the fifth minute, it looked like it may not be their day. Indeed, La Celeste had edged the early exchanges and then, disaster appeared to have announced itself, as Málaga right-back Roberto Rosales – perhaps, at club level at least, the most reliable of the high-profile players – was fouled by Cristhian Stuani and had to leave the field. Though he came back briefly, he soon went down again and this time it was for good. He was replaced by Alexander González of Spanish second-tier side Huesca, a player with undeniable abilities going forward, but who does not always convince in a defensive role. However, such concerns were to prove unfounded in Philadelphia.
Nevertheless, Venezuela certainly had to defend, particularly in the opening stages as attacks of any consequence were rare. The two Uruguayan full-backs, Gaston Silva and Maxi Pereira, regularly got forward throughout the game and it was the latter who played a role in his side’s first chance of note. This came after 15 minutes when the Porto right-back – who was making a record-breaking 113th appearance for his country – crossed in to the back post. From here, the ball was headed back towards Edinson Cavani but, not for the only time in this match, the Paris St. Germain striker miscued. Five minutes later, another Pereira cross raised pulses, but Stuani could only glance the ball out to the opposite flank.
Venezuela may not have been roaming forward much to begin with, but they did manage to offer a slight fright in the 23rd minute. Left-back Rolf Feltscher crossed with his right and Rondón jumped with centre-back Diego Godín and goalkeeper Fernando Muslera, yet the ball evaded all three of them as well as, only by a few yards, the far post. Five minutes later, the underdogs made another foray into the area as Josef Martínez won the ball and then fed Rondón but the latter’s pass onwards was just about snuffed out at the critical stage.
Despite such moments, when the game reached the half-hour mark, the main talking-point was the number of fouls: roughly one every two minutes, as the game threatened to become an exceedingly ill-tempered affair. However, soon, on-field matters were to take several steps in a more positive footballing direction.
Indeed, Uruguay had two chances to open the scoring within the space of a few minutes. First, a central free-kick some 45 yards out was swerved into the area and Stuani glanced a very faint header onwards that hit the side of the post and went out. Then, in the 34th minute, Pereira put in a low ball from his side that Cavani poked towards goal. Dani Hernández parried and was no doubt relieved to see that the rebound narrowly evaded the onrushing attacker and was cleared.
However, just as Óscar Tabárez’s men appeared to have the upper hand, it happened. A moment that will undoubtedly be repeated in the minds of Venezuelans and on their televisions for some time to come. It came out of nowhere and yet has now taken them to a place that, pre-tournament, seemed unworthy of serious contemplation.
The Venezuelan imagination was expanded exponentionally by the vision of Alejandro Guerra. The Atlético Nacional midfielder won the ball on the right side of midfield and then, apropos of nothing, whacked an incredible strike from just inside the opposition half. To what will be the eternal disappointment of every Vinotinto fan, his shot was actually tipped onto the crossbar by the out-of-sorts Muslera. However, this memory will be sweetened by the on-cue Rondón, who had enough time to compose himself as the ball bounced down just infront of the goal-line before placing his shot into the back of the net. 1-0. Elation for everyone of a burgundy persuasion.
Their sky-blue-clad opponents initially struggled to come to terms with this setback and it was La Vinotinto who had the best chance to score a second goal just before the break. This time, a minute before the half-time whistle, Guerra won the ball in the centre around 35 yards from goal and with one touch managed to part the sea that was the Uruguayan defence, evading two or three players, before poking a shot goalwards. Unfortunately for him, his posture disadvantaged him and he could only nudge an effort with the outside of his boot too close to Muslera.
Uruguay went into the interval knowing that they had 45 minutes to save their place in a competition in which they have enjoyed phenomenal success for the past century. However, though they saw much of the ball in the early part of the second half, clear chances were rare. Their best moment in the moments before the hour-mark came after 54 minutes when a corner was swung in, knocked out and then Stuani, back-to-goal, swivelled and struck a couple of yards over on the turn.
The sense of urgency from Tabárez’s men was palpable yet their commitments upfield inevitably left them vulnerable to getting exposed at the back – as they indeed did in the 63rd minute. After Cavani was dispossessed in the area, the ball was knocked forward to the halfway line where it was picked up by 19-year-old starlet Adalberto Peñaranda who – somewhat surprisingly, despite his undeniable talents – was making his first ever start for his country. He ran with great speed and intent for 50 yards away from his pursuers, yet when confronted with a one-on-one with Muslera, hit the ball far too close to the Galatasaray goalkeeper, who saved low. Nevertheless, as the game became increasingly stretched, Peñaranda would find himself with more and more space in which to roam.
While Uruguay were still getting forward, raising Venezuelan heart-rates all the time, the attention for many neutrals increasingly turned to the sight of the agitated Suárez on the bench. At the beginning of the half, the injury-hit striker had been highlighted warming up with his team-mates and putting on some reinforcement tape. However, soon after Tabárez made his third and final change in the 80th minute, the Barcelona striker was seen fuming, removing his training bib, expressing his anger towards the coaching staff and then thumping the plexiglass at the side of the bench. Yet, though at the time many assumed he was furious at not being allowed onto the pitch, just as many wise-owls were aware of the fact that, according to the official team lists submitted pre-match, he was named as being unavailable and would not have been able to play no matter how much he protested. Suárez has since claimed that he was fully aware of this, but was training as he felt helpless just sitting inactive and passively with the stiffs. True or not, this was an unnecessary distraction for Uruguayans and, frankly, most Venezuelans could not have given the slightest toss. Try as many generalist football hacks did post-whistle to undermine and marginalise the result by reducing the game mainly to this non-issue, it should not diminish the scale of the achievement of Dudamel’s men.
That said, without any doubt, Tabárez – and any other manager in world football, for that matter – would have preferred if certain opportunities had instead been presented to his all-time top goalscorer. Indeed, though the remaining ten minutes of regulation time were characterised more by tension than chances, one particular gilt-edged opportunity arrived as the clock was about to strike ninety. This came when Nicolás Lodeiro slid the ball to Cavani just inside the area and, with one key touch, the PSG striker took the ball past the defender and opened up clear space to thump the ball goalwards. However, to the shock of himself, as well as the sunken Lodeiro and no doubt millions watching around the world, he whacked his effort hauntingly wide of the post. Though criticisms of the former Palermo man can often be unfair and sometimes reflect more on the high calibre of strike partners he has at international and club level, moments like this do little for his reputation. Barely a minute later, he almost had a chance to rectify this, but was unable to convert a knock-on from a rather direct lofted pass into the area which Hernández gratefully managed to get his body in the way of to halt the ball’s progress.
Despite these late scares, there was still time for Venezuela to have an opportunity to seal their victory. Indeed, in the fourth minute of stoppage-time, Muslera was caught in no-man’s-land after he came up for a corner and the ball was rapidly cleared to substitute Rómulo Otero on the halfway line. The Huachipato playmaker hastily tried to orientate himself in order to do something akin to what Guerra was narrowly thwarted in doing in the first half, yet his low strike from around 40 yards at the open goal went a mere yard wide of the far post.
The diminutive midfielder was understandably disappointed to see his effort swerve off-target but, within a minute, all was forgiven and forgotten after he was aggressively pushed off the ball by an opponent angered by the sound of the final whistle. He was quick to pick himself up and celebrate with his team-mates as the anguish and dejection of Uruguay contrasted with the smiles and euphoria of Venezuela.
To neutrals who perhaps only pay La Vinotinto attention in tournaments may well view this as another positive stride on their inevitable march of progress, but those who have been observing with more regularity know the ride has not been so smooth. Already through to the knock-out stage, they are in an undeniably impressive and unanticipated position for a team that is bottom in World Cup qualifying, has only had their current manager for two months and who came into the tournament winless in four friendlies. Coach Dudamel has also been bold with his selections, starting with players who barely featured in those pre-tournament warm-up games. While they may have had some fortune in their two wins, things do appear to have fallen into place remarkably quickly and the defence (two straight clean sheets and just four goals conceded in six games) has undeniably improved.
Nevertheless, one does not wish to break the habit of a lifetime by getting too carried away. The group-deciding match against Mexico in front of a packed Houston crowd is likely to be the toughest yet and even a draw would mean a likely Quarter-final tie with Argentina. Euphoria in football can be shortlived, not least during fast-paced tournaments.
Still, enjoy the moment. Always look on the bright side of life. Cheer up son, it might never happen.
Over the upcoming days, the author of this blog shall attempt to put these happy-go-lucky platitudes into action and suggests any fellow sympathisers do as well. There is much to be positive about and build upon for the future and one can not resist the feeling that we may have just witnessed the beginning of something really quite remarkable.*
To keep up-to-date with Venezuela’s prolonged progress in Copa América Centenario, remember to look up @DarrenSpherical on Twitter and/or return to this website in the upcoming days.
Uruguay (4-4-2): F. Muslera; M. Pereira, D. Godín, J. Giménez, G. Silva; C. Sánchez (N. Lodeiro, 78′), E. Arévalo, Á. González (M. Corujo, 80′), G. Ramírez (D. Rolan, 73′); C. Stuani & E. Cavani.
Venezuela (4-4-2): D. Hernández; R. Rosales (A. González, 8′), W. Ángel, O. Vizcarrondo, R. Feltscher; A. Guerra, T. Rincón, A. Figuera (R. Otero, 79′), A. Peñaranda; S. Rondón (L. Seijas, 79′) & J. Martínez.
*Or a complete false dawn. (Couldn’t resist).