Tag Archives: Christian Santos

Venezuela 1-3 Ecuador – CONMEBOL Qualification Stage for FIFA World Cup 2018 (17 November 2015)

The fourth matchday of La Vinotinto’s 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign yielded the fourth consecutive defeat for Noel Sanvicente’s charges. Here, Hispanospherical.com provides a match report and offers some thoughts on the game.

CONMEBOL Qualifying Stage for FIFA World Cup 2018

Tuesday 17 November 2015 – Estadio Cachamay, Puerto Ordaz, Ciudad Guayana, Bolívar State

Venezuela 1-3 Ecuador

Video Highlights of Venezuela 1-3 Ecuador, CONMEBOL Qualifying Stage for FIFA World Cup 2018, 17 November 2015 (YouTube)

Match Report

Contrasting Fortunes in Puerto Ordaz

What began as bottom versus top ended as bottom versus top yet, for now at least, Noel Sanvicente is still the Venezuela manager. A replacement had been rumoured beforehand and at least another one has been linked since the final whistle was blown in a disenchanted Cachamay stadium. Although Chita emphatically ruled out resigning immediately after this fourth consecutive qualifying loss, he is not really in a position to determine his own fate. With four months from now until matchday five, the Federación Venezolana de Fútbol (FVF) have got considerable time to weigh up how they envisage the remainder of the seemingly doomed Russia 2018 campaign. This may be partially revealed as soon as Monday 23 November, as a meeting with Sanvicente has been scheduled.

Before kick-off, fan discontent was already high, a fact reflected in the vast numbers of empty seats – a far cry from a near-full crowd of 35,076 who turned up to the Estadio José Antonio Anzoátegui for the same fixture three years ago. Much of the Puerto Ordaz public no doubt felt scarred and short-changed from the three other dreadful Vinotinto encounters that have taken place in the same ground over the past two months. Nevertheless, those who did attend brought with them some vocal, giddy, enthusiasm that could only be gradually tamed by events.

Many were excited to get a good look at a vast array of their leading representatives, all of whom currently play for overseas clubs in, remarkably, 11 different countries. This was a much-changed side from the one featuring five home-based players that was seen off by Bolivia at high altitude. It combined established cracks and familiar faces with a few individuals who many hope will be long-term regulars (namely injury-hit Rómulo Otero and the recently converted pair, Christian Santos and Jeffrén Suárez).

Alas, it did not take long to dissipate the rather optimistic hope that, in spite of recent performances, this encounter against CONMEBOL’s most in-form nation would be when things suddenly gel. Though the hosts just about held their own in the opening exchanges, the 11th minute witnessed Pumas striker Fidel Martínez receiving a short pass in a disconcerting amount of space before firing into the back of the net. The Venezuelan back-line breathed  a collective sigh of relief upon seeing the offside flag but their mood did not last long. Following a failed attack just four minutes later, they were caught hopelessly out of position as right-back Juan Carlos Paredes simply dinked a ball over into the central area to Martínez who had the time to control and strike home. Highlighting the hosts’ defensive woes, it was right-back Roberto Rosales – albeit, with little hope of success – who was the closest to putting in a challenge, with centre-backs Oswaldo Vizcarrondo and ‘Sema’ Velázquez never in the race.

Ecuador were apparently aware of Venezuela’s lack of pace at the back and later in the half were only narrowly denied with a couple more speed battles in open spaces that they instigated via chipped central passes.

No tactical know-how was needed for the second goal, however, though home fans will have felt a dispiriting sense of déjà vu. In the 23rd minute, it seemed Venezuela’s – and, perhaps, Sanvicente’s – fate was sealed when the pass out by goalkeeper Alain Baroja went awry. It was far too short for Vizcarrondo, who was beaten to the ball by Miller Bolaños who, in turn, nudged it to Jefferson Montero. The Swansea City winger quickly passed it back to Bolaños on the left side of the area and the Emelec man was able to return the ball to the centre for the incoming Montero, who doubled the lead with relative ease. While the culprit was different – for most observers, anyway – the goal inevitably drew comparisons with the mix-up involving Vizcarrondo and Baroja for Paraguay’s late winner  in the same ground a month ago.

Deflated on the pitch as well as in the stands, Venezuela struggled to inspire genuine hope of a comeback. Otero seemed the most likely catalyst with his occasionally testing balls into the area, bursts of pace, plus an ambitious shot or two. It was his run into the left side of the area in the 43rd minute that created a chance of sorts for Jeffrén; alas, he shot too close to goalkeeper Esteban Dreer. Just a minute prior, the ex-Barcelona wide man had fashioned a chance for himself when, from the right, he cut onto his left and struck a shot a yard or so wide from the edge of the area.

This slight momentum continued and grew in the early stages of the second half. NEC Nijmegen’s top-scorer Santos was to come close twice in as many minutes. Firstly on 52 minutes, he got onto the end of Rosales’ cross but his header, though powerful, was directed straight at Dreer. Soon afterwards, he received a flick-on by Salomón Rondón and beat Dreer to the ball, nudging it around him, though was ultimately denied by a defender guarding the exposed net.

Alas, just several minutes later as the hour mark approached, the contest was effectively over. From a break, Montero paced up the left to cross in a hanging ball that was met in space 16 yards out by Felipe Caicedo. Unmarked, the Espanyol striker powered a spectacular header into the top left-hand corner.
In the remaining thirty minutes, Ecuador continued to attack without increasing their lead. As has often recently been the case with Venezuela’s opponents, the home spectactors were left with the feeling that if their rivals had really needed at least one more goal, then they would have got it. The closest they did come, however, occurred in the 69th minute when a phenomenal 35-yard left-footed free-kick from Walter Ayoví venomously curled over the wall and then rattled off the highest point of the right-sided post.
Goal-wise at least, Venezuela were to have the last say. Their consolation came with little more than five minutes left as substitute Josef Martínez arrived unmarked at the far post to side-foot home Rosales’ cross from the right. Much as the Torino striker wanted to rouse his team-mates for an ambitious grand finale, it was the visitors who looked more likely to find the net. Indeed, as the game entered stoppage-time, Ecuador broke on a counter with at least a man advantage, but Rosales just about caught up with Walter Ayoví to commit a foul a couple of yards outside the area, for which he received a booking.
Nevertheless, with a 3-1 away victory, fans of La Tricolor will be as delighted with their fourth consecutive win as La Vinotinto followers will be dejected with their fourth straight defeat.
What follows are some thoughts on this encounter. 
Too Much Diversity? Venezuela’s Awkward Transition

Greece, France, Spain, Portugal, Switzerland, Colombia, Italy, Chile, England, Belgium and the Netherlands. These are the countries in which the Venezuelan starting XI play their respective domestic football. All different and all overseas. Given the weakness of the Venezuelan top-flight, the latter is perhaps not so much a problem but the former surely is. While several have long-standing experience of playing together at international level, this is certainly not the case for new ‘recruits’ such as Jeffrén and Santos. These two men are past their mid-20s and have only recently become eligible to represent La Vinotinto, having moved away from Venezuela with their families while very young.

Of course, most fans are always excited to see their disparate representatives all on one field together. However, it is hard not to avoid the feeling that their distances from one another for most of the year are not really conducive to effective team play. Indeed, familiarity amongst players at club level is a huge asset for international managers who are usually short of preparation time, as has been evidenced by the last two World Cup-winning sides, Germany and Spain.

While many South American nations have their leading talents scattered across the globe (mostly in Europe), the diversity of leagues represented is easily the highest amongst the current Venezuelan crop. Although a typical Argentina or Brazil squad may draw upon talents based in seven or eight different countries, the cream of the crop largely come from no more than three or four. While recent results for these two decorated nations may not be meeting past standards, their records from the past decade or so are nevertheless envied by the vast majority of national federations.

Thus, though Venezuelans should be proud to now have so many players plying their trade in highly competitive leagues, it could well be that they are currently at a difficult transition phase in their footballing development. Indeed, while it may only provide one piece of the puzzle, in order to see more unity and cohesion on the pitch we may all have to wait until more top players are clustered in no more than a handful of different leagues. In such a scenario, irrespective of whether or not they play for the same teams, not only would they be experiencing broadly similar playing styles, surfaces, cultures etc. but there would be more opportunities to socialise off the pitch. Fostering a collective team spirit is every bit as important as a functioning playing system.

Sanvicente’s Future/Venezuela’s Regression

Another defeat for Noel Sanvicente and another unwanted record. Venezuela have now got off to their worst start in World Cup Qualifying since the campaign for USA 1994. This was in a different format and consisted of a run of seven straight losses that, on the last matchday, was ended by a solitary victory. If Chita‘s current charges are to avoid again making history for the wrong reasons, their best chance may be in the next encounter away to Peru in March – quite a challenge in itself. Otherwise, their subsequent encounters in the 18-game process are against Chile, Colombia, Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil. For Venezuela at least, there really are no easy games in CONMEBOL qualifying.

Such regression has understandably irked fans. Not only are the results very poor but there is no discernible style to Venezuela’s play and there is little awareness of what the manager is trying to achieve. Consequently, analyses of team performances seem increasingly unenlightening. Even if a player shows glimpses of promise – for this game, Josef Martínez’s goal and general drive to go forward should not go unremarked upon – not only does it seem relatively minor but also, they seem to have prospered in spite of, rather than because of, whatever system Sanvicente is trying to implement.

Although they may just be idle rumours, two Argentines have been linked with replacing him as national boss. Firstly, 2014 Copa Libertadores-winning Edgardo Bauza of San Lorenzo and, even more eye-raisingly, renowned maverick Marcelo Bielsa, formerly of Argentina and Chile, whose most recent job was at Marseille. Even if it does not come from either of these two men, there is certainly a threat to the position of Sanvicente and he will have to wait until Monday to discover his fate.

UPDATE (23 November 2015): Following a meeting with the FVF, Noel Sanvicente remains as the Venezuela national team manager. One casualty from the talks, however, is the Estadio Cachamay, where Venezuela have played – and lost – two qualifiers and will no longer be appearing at during this qualifying cycle.

Venezuela Also Disconcerting off the Field

Finally, it was not just a bad night for Venezuelan football but also for the nation’s politics – not to mention democracy. Indeed, towards the end of the game, some fans started chanting against the current government headed by Nicolás Maduro and were audible to those watching at home. It did not take long for those in control of the public announce system to drown these voices out with the sounds of what was most probably the first piece of music they could lay their hands on. Anyone who is familiar with the country’s media will be unsurprised to learn that this unsavoury incident largely went unreported in the leading outlets.

Team Selections

Venezuela (4-4-2): Baroja; Rosales, Vizcarrondo, Velázquez, Cichero; Jeffrén (Martínez, 54′), Rincón, Lucena (Acosta, 46′), Otero; S. Rondón, Santos (M. Rondón, 68′).

Ecuador (4-2-3-1): Dreer; Paredes, Guagua, Erazo, W. Ayoví; Noboa, Quiñónez (Castillo, 70′); F. Martínez, Bolaños, Montero (Cazares, 76′); Caicedo (J. Ayoví, 82′).

Darren Spherical

@DarrenSpherical 

Venezuela’s CONMEBOL Qualifying Campaign for FIFA World Cup 2018 – November 2015 Preview

With Venezuela having lost their opening two World Cup Qualifying fixtures, Hispanospherical.com looks at the situation facing manager Noel Sanvicente, his team’s preparations for their visit to high-altitude La Paz to face Bolivia as well as the notable call-ups for this game and the subsequent home encounter with Ecuador.

CONMEBOL Qualifiers for FIFA World Cup 2018

Thursday 12 November 2015 – Estadio Hernando Siles, La Paz, La Paz Department

Bolivia vs Venezuela

Tuesday 17 November 2015 – Estadio Cachamay, Puerto Ordaz, Ciudad Guayana, Bolívar State

Venezuela vs Ecuador
Sanvicente Urgently Needs to Give Fans Something to Cheer About

Estadio Hernando Siles, La Paz, La Paz Department, Bolivia, where Venezuela play on 12 November 2015. (Photo courtesy of David Freeman who travelled to 67 football matches across Latin America. Read more about his adventures here

‘I am not a coward, I won’t resign’. So proclaimed Venezuela boss Noel Sanvicente last month at a lengthy press conference shortly after his nation’s Russia 2018 qualifying campaign had been inaugurated with two straight defeats. The 3-1 loss away to Brazil may have been largely anticipated, but the embarrassing late defensive mix-up that caused a 1-0 reversal in the opener in Puerto Ordaz at home to Paraguay certainly irked fans, greatly lowering morale at the first hurdle. Coming off the back of poor friendly performances and the failure to reach the knock-out stages of Copa América 2015, many fans ran out of patience with Chita.

The ex-Caracas and Zamora director técnico has lost considerable goodwill in his 16 months in charge. Results have not met expectations, displays have been lacklustre and most players have struggled to replicate their club form. Regarding this last point, given the tactical incoherence repeatedly exhibited as well as the high number of attackers fielded with similarly incohesive results, many point the finger of blame at Sanvicente as his intentions continue to puzzle and bewilder.

In further comments to the media, while he acknowledged some of the criticism and accepted responsibility, he seemed unwilling to consider a fundamental shift in his approach. Instead, amongst other things, he lamented the ‘accident’ involving Oswaldo Vizcarrondo and Alain Baroja that gifted the win to La Albirroja and also remarked upon the superior club levels that many of his country’s opponents play at – an observation that ‘you don’t have to be Harry Potter to see’.

Before Sanvicente categorically stated that the thought of ‘resigning doesn’t go through my head’, he also reiterated that ‘my thing is work, work and more work’. Weary words for many Vinotinto fans as ‘all work and no play’ would certainly be a succinctly apt assessment of his goal-shy reign to date.

Under pressure, currently point-less and in charge of the lowest ranked nation in CONMEBOL (83rd), Sanvicente knows that all this much-vaunted labour must be converted into positive results as soon as possible. This month’s challenges from fellow strugglers Bolivia as well as injury-hit high-flyers Ecuador, while certainly substantial and seemingly with the potential to send Chita scurrying out of a job, do also offer opportunities to reinvigorate the cause. However, though he has claimed his methods will not be changing any time soon, the personnel definitely will be – more so than at any other point since he took up the post.

Venezuelan Preparations: Bumper-sized Squad to Help Cope With High Altitude  

Indeed, Thursday’s trip to La Paz’s Estadio Hernando Siles – over 3,600 metres (nearly 12,000 feet) above sea-level – serves up all kinds of logistical issues that South American nations have attempted to counteract in differing ways. Sanvicente has opted to call up an enlarged squad of 33 players, with 20 of them making the journey to Bolivia; these comprise of an equal mixture of ten home-based individuals and ten, largely more established, legionarios who ply their trade abroad. Several of the latter possess experience of playing at high altitude at club and/or international level but it is those currently featuring in the transitory Torneo Adecuación who have undergone the greatest preparation ahead of this game.

For the past three weeks or so, they have been training at La Vinotinto‘s National Centre of High Performance (CNAR) facility on the northerly Isla de Margarita. Ideally, physical trainer Rodolfo Paladini said he would have liked 17 consecutive days with the players but due to club commitments for some – though not all – this was somewhat problematic. Nevertheless, when available, this domestic crop have been spending time in hyperbaric chambers which are intended to help users experience and acclimatise to simulated high-altitude conditions.

In the few days preceding the game, the overseas-based contingent have gradually been joining up with them at CNAR and today, Wednesday 11th, the 20-strong group flew to Bolivia. However, rather than travel straight to La Paz, they are instead staying in the relatively low-altitude Santa Cruz de la Sierra (416 metres above sea-level). Tomorrow on matchday, they will embark on a get-in-and-get-out strategy as they shall enter the city of the fixture no more than two hours before kick-off; some Bolivia-based portable chambers have been hired to assist any breathing problems they may experience. Almost as soon as the game is concluded, the squad will then take an aeroplane back to the national training centre.

A calculated risk, no doubt, though far from the first time something like this has been deployed by a South American nation. The altitude issue has been a bone of contention for decades and FIFA resolutions have been passed more than once (notably in 1995 and 2007) to ban international games in La Paz, though these were subsequently repealed. It is undeniable that even if not all of Bolivia’s players are accustomed to high-altitude conditions, they have more than enough who are and this has been a partial factor in many victories over some of the continent’s heavyweights. Anyone resistant to this argument may wish to briefly peruse the nation’s woeful record away from home – their Copa América win against Ecuador in June was their first competitive victory on foreign soil since 1995.

Nevertheless, though their home advantage has attained near-mythical status over the years and casual observers may consider a visit from CONMEBOL’s lowest-ranking team as a banker win for La Verde, this is far from assured. Indeed, in the past two visits during World Cup Qualifying campaigns Venezuela have attained a 1-1 draw (in 2013, when Juan Arango’s last international goal was cancelled out with four minutes left) and a 1-0 win (in 2009 via an own goal; this was during the same qualification cycle in which Bolivia beat Argentina 6-1 and Brazil 2-1).

If, however, they are unable to get a result, the pressure will be on to get one against Ecuador – no mean feat as La Tricolor are riding high following two consecutive wins, the first of which being a sensational 2-0 away triumph against under-fire Tata Martino’s Argentina. Though they will be missing key-man Antonio Valencia, they have strength in depth and will fancy their chances as last month’s heroics came without Enner Valencia, Michael Arroyo or Renato Ibarra on the pitch (and who are all injured this time around). The likes of Jefferson Montero and Felipe Caicedo promise to offer the Venezuelan backline a consistent threat throughout the game.

Again though, La Vinotinto have a strong recent qualifying record in this particular fixture, drawing the last encounter 1-1 and winning the preceding two 3-1. Post-La Paz, after the full Venezuela squad reconvenes at CNAR, they will head over to Puerto Ordaz for this game looking to give the Estadio Cachamay public something to cheer about. Indeed, not only did the 1-0 debacle against Paraguay occur at this ground but in September it was also the site of two dreadful displays: a 3-0 reversal meted out by Honduras which was followed by a 1-1 draw with Panama on a bog of a pitch. An on-field apology of sorts is very much in order.

Predicting who will line-up for this second fixture is only marginally more problematic than that of the Bolivia game. Nevertheless, what follows is a brief overview of some players to look out for in the upcoming week, starting with the La Paz trip.

venezuelabolivia

20-man Venezuela squad for the trip to face Bolivia in La Paz (photo: @SeleVinotinto)

Players to Keep an Eye Out For

‘The following are the matches of our lives. We have to go out with impetus. [We] can not give away more points.’ Experienced Franklin Lucena understands the significance of these two games and will more than likely start in La Paz, either as a central defender or a holding midfielder. This is owing to his club outings this season at Colombia’s Once Caldas who play home matches at over 2,000 metres above sea-level and who are accustomed to similar levels of altitude in certain away matches. For similar reasons, Luis Manuel Seijas of Colombia’s Independiente Santa Fe has also been touted for a place in the line-up. If both men start, then Lucena will be more than likely at the back with Seijas partnering captain Tomás Rincón in defensive midfield – that is, if El General of Genoa has recovered from his injury.

First-team spots have also been rumoured for the versatile right-back/wide-man Alexander González (Young Boys) and centre-back Wilker Ángel (Deportivo Táchira), who both scored the last time Venezuela played in La Paz in a 3-2 defeat in November 2014. So long as he has shaken off his minor injury then first-choice goalkeeper Alain Baroja (AEK Athens) will be between the sticks. Once again, the attacking positions are the hardest to predict though, if utilised effectively, there is certainly talent in the 20-man squad: Josef Martínez (Torino), Jhon Murillo (Tondela, on loan from Benfica), Juan Falcón (Metz) and Mario Rondón (Shijiazhuang Ever Bright) may all be granted a chance to wangle their respective ways into the long-term thinking of Chita.

Regarding potential starters from the home-based crop, aside from Ángel, few strong rumours exist though Sanvicente has said he is keen on giving youth a chance. If he follows through on this, many fans will be keen to see international debuts granted to 20-year-olds Carlos Cermeño, a highly rated defence-minded player at Táchira, and Caracas’ attacking full-back, Jefre Vargas. However, one youngster who will not be featuring is the league’s top-scorer, 21-year-old Manuel Arteaga who, despite intiially being called up to the full squad, was the victim of some kind of communication failure between his club and country and so was unable to make the trip. On a more experienced note, midfielder Arquímedes Figuera (Deportivo La Guaira) can not be too far away from a starting berth, having featured as a substitute against Brazil.

Who from this group will be in a state to play against Ecuador is anyone’s guess though it can be said with the closest thing to certainty that the following cracks will start in Puerto Ordaz: right-back Roberto Rosales (Málaga), centre-back Oswaldo Vizcarrondo (Nantes) and striker Salomón Rondón (West Bromwich Albion).

The locals as well as most fans will also be keen to see Christian Santos and Jeffrén Suárez, two men born in the state but who were raised in other countries and who have only in the past year acquired the relevant citizenship documentation to represent La Vinotinto. The former in particular has been in eye-catching form, banging in 9 goals in 12 games for NEC Nijmegen in his debut season in the Dutch Eredivisie. The latter has also shown promising form as he seeks to revitalise his career with KAS Eupen, who currently reside at the top of the Belgian second tier. One other individual who, due to injury troubles, is featuring in his first international squad since he ran the show away to Honduras in February is 23-year-old Rómulo Otero (Huachipato). For some, a possible successor to Juan Arango, this Chile-based playmaker has long been tipped for a long-term spell in the first team.

Alas, this is all largely educated conjecture at this stage. On matchdays, Sanvicente’s line-ups tend to be revealed in advance to the press, so those interested in being in the know at least a couple of hours before kick-off should either return to this page for a short update or follow @DarrenSpherical on Twitter. Otherwise, enjoy the games and feel free to return for some thoughts on them in the upcoming week.

UPDATE (12 November): This, courtesy of @SoccerDataVEN, is the Venezuela line-up that will face Bolivia:

venezuelavsbolivialineup

Full Venezuela Squad

Goalkeepers: Alain Baroja (AEK Athens), José Contreras (Deportivo Táchira) and Wuilker Faríñez (Caracas FC).

Defenders: Wilker Ángel (Deportivo Táchira), Francisco Carabalí (Mineros de Guayana), Carlos Cermeño (Deportivo Táchira), Jhon Chancellor (Mineros de Guayana), Gabriel Cichero (Sion), Alexander González (Young Boys), Roberto Rosales (Málaga), Jefre Vargas (Caracas FC), José Manuel Velásquez (Arouca) and Oswaldo Vizcarrondo (Nantes).

Midfielders: Rafael Acosta (Mineros de Guayana), Arquímedes Figuera (Deportivo La Guaira), César González (Deportivo Táchira), Jacobo Kouffati (Deportivo Lara), Franklin Lucena (Once Caldas, on loan from Deportivo La Guaira), Jhon Murillo (Tondela, on loan from Benfica), Rómulo Otero (Huachipato), Tomás Rincón (Genoa), Luis Manuel Seijas (Independiente Santa Fe) and Ronald Vargas (AEK Athens).

Forwards: Richard Blanco (Mineros de Guayana), Juan Falcón (Metz), Josef Martínez (Torino), Mario Rondón (Shijiazhuang Ever Bright), Salomón Rondón (West Bromwich Albion), Christian Santos (NEC Nijmegen) and Jeffren Suárez (KAS Eupen),

Notes: Fernando Amorebieta (Middlesbrough, on loan from Fulham) and Juan Pablo Añor (Málaga) were initially called up to the 33-man squad but have since been ruled out due to injury.

Also, Manuel Arteaga (Zulia) was also in the initial squad but has been unable to join up with the group following a communication problem between his club and the Venezuelan football association (FVF).

Darren Spherical

@DarrenSpherical

Brazil 3-1 Venezuela – CONMEBOL Qualification Stage for FIFA World Cup 2018 (13 October 2015)

Matchday 2 of La Vinotinto’s 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign brought the second loss to Noel Sanvicente’s charges. Here, Hispanospherical.com provides a match report and offers some thoughts on the game.

CONMEBOL Qualifying Stage for FIFA World Cup 2018

Tuesday 13 October 2015 –  Estádio Plácido Aderaldo Castelo, Fortaleza, Ceará.

Brazil 3-1 Venezuela 

Video Highlights of Brazil 3-1 Venezuela, CONMEBOL Qualifying Stage for FIFA World Cup 2018, 13 October 2015 (YouTube).

Seleção’s Superiority Self-Evident as Venezuela Leave Opening Round Point-Less

Match Report

The night may have begun with boos for Seleção boss Dunga but come the final whistle it was his opposite number Noel Sanvicente whose position had become the more precarious. Brazil, coming off the back of a 2-0 reversal against red-hot Chile, wasted little time trying to get back into their fans’ good books, asserting their superiority with less than 40 seconds on the clock. Luis Gustavo dispossessed Alejandro Guerra in the middle of the park, feeding Chelsea’s Willian who was granted plenty of time to drive into the area and then strike with evidently too much venom for Alain Baroja.

Venezuela initially responded well to this setback, getting forward and gaining some space in opposition territory. However, their hosts were to find that they could afford occasional minor defensive lapses as the visitors offered little from open play, something that could not be said of the likes of Willian, Douglas Costa and Oscar, as well as the wing-backs Dani Alves and Filipe Luis.

For the majority of the half, these players, as well as 35-year-old striker Ricardo Oliveira, largely tested the nerves of the Venezuelan backline more than the actual goal. However, they were to get their reward and go into the break with a scoreline that did justice to their dominance, as Willian doubled the lead in the 42nd minute. This time, Luis jinked past both Ronald Vargas and Roberto Rosales on the left, before pulling the ball back towards the edge of the area; Oscar dummied over it and the incoming Willian blasted home.

The ease with which they maintained the ball – tiring the visitors as they sprayed it about – continued into the second half. Often, the hosts gave the impression that they possessed an extra gear and could shift into it and score more if they really needed to. Costa’s 53rd-minute cross-cum-shot that hit the underside of the bar nearly sealed the win. However, though Venezuela were still a distant second in this half, their set-pieces increasingly improved in quality; one provided unexpected hope. Indeed, Luis Manuel Seijas’ 64th-minute corner was headed by Oswaldo Vizcarrondo to the back post and knocked in by the thigh of Christian Santos in what was his first ever competitive international. Just like that, Venezuela had halved the deficit.

Though the Castelão crowd were momentarily silenced – even the TVes Venezuelan commentators were taken aback – the goal did not significantly alter the game’s complexion; ten minutes later, it was over. Costa’s whipped cross from the left bounced before defender Fernando Amorebieta who opted to use his left boot on the turn to try to clear the ball. Unfortunately for his pride, he swung and failed to make any meaningful contact, with Ricardo Oliveira instead profiting; the Santos striker needed no invitation to score on what was his first start for his national side in over ten years.

Brazil comfortably saw out of the remainder of the game, doing so with Kaká and then later, Hulk, on the field – much to the delight of the squealing females in attendance. While the heat is still very much on coach Dunga, for the next few weeks at least, he will surely be sleeping far more soundly than his Venezuelan counterpart.

What follows are some thoughts on the Venezuelan display. 

Venezuela’s Defence Lacking the Necessary Resilience of the Recent Past 

Against Paraguay, aside from the late gift Baroja and Vizcarrondo delivered to Derlis González – which, considered alone, could be dismissed as an aberration – Venezuela’s defence largely put in a respectable performance. Alas, against vastly superior Seleção opponents, nobody could be said to have emerged favourably.

Goalkeeper Baroja failed to get a strong pair of hands behind Willian’s early goal and was unconvincing with a few of his attempted claims and stops. Right-back Rosales (who can not always replicate his impressive club form for his country), along with left-back Gabriel Cichero, often struggled with the flank attacks of Willian, Costa, Alves and Luis – the second and third goals came from Rosales’ side and Cichero was hoodwinked by Oscar’s dummy on the second. Centre-back Amorebieta stood off Willian for the first, allowing him to strike and was especially embarrassed on the third with his unnecessary air-kick. His partner Vizcarrondo did not play as prominent a role in the concession of goals – conversely, he assisted Venezuela’s solitary effort – but he could have done:  in the 14th minute, he was manfully shrugged off a long ball by Oliveira who ran towards goal in considerable space but shot too close to Baroja.

Collectively, they were regularly given the runaround, struggling to maintain their shape and organisation. Such a performance, considered alongside many other unconvincing displays, increasingly makes the disciplined 1-0 win over Colombia at Copa América look like a curious anomaly. Venezuela’s impressive showing in the last qualification cycle was built upon a relatively strong defence, yet this has rarely been witnessed in Sanvicente’s 15-month tenure. While wholesale changes are not required in this area, greater concentration and organisation levels plus two or three new competitive faces would not go amiss. Alas, regarding the latter, there does not currently appear to be anyone in a good position to fill at least one of those vacancies.

Plenty of Attackers, Few Ideas

Of course, a shaky defence could always be masked by a rampant attack – not two words one expects to put together in a sincere sentence with ‘Venezuela’ any time soon. Indeed, against Paraguay, Salomón Rondón was partnered in attack with Juan Manuel Falcón, with César González and Jeffrén Suárez on the flanks; Guerra, Josef Martínez, and Jhon Murillo were all brought on as second-half substitutes. In Fortaleza, Rondón, nominally at least, was receiving support from three different starting attackers: Santos behind him, with the returning Guerra and Vargas in wide positions. These latter two lasted 45 minutes before being replaced by Murillo and the less offence-minded Arquímedes Figuera; with under 10 minutes to go, Alexander González also came on, replacing the deeper-lying Seijas, a move which required some further positional adjustments.

In all, over these two games, nine different attacking players were used in conjunction with Rondón. Did anything that can be built on actually occur? It seems customary for many Venezuelan fans and media figures to highlight and overstate the quality of any minor piece of skill or invention displayed; to these distant eyes, nothing of note happened that was not done multiple times and with greater panache by many of their Brazilian counterparts.

Perhaps Santos’ goal will have aided his personal cause but for the most part the match was the wearily tedious tale of a group of attackers failing to both combine effectively and create ways of penetrating the opposition rearguard. It is now 15 games into Sanvicente’s reign and virtually no on-field progress in this area has been made. Can anyone, with any genuine confidence, name even one of the players in this part of the pitch that Sanvicente considers a starter? There is, after all, almost as much competition outside of the current squad as within. Further changes are a cert next month in La Paz against Bolivia, as to deal with the high altitude Sanvicente is poised to take with him a large number of home-based players; this, when against Brazil, substitute Arquímedes Figuera was the only representative of the domestic league.

One minor positive to be noted was the standard of set-pieces delivered, mostly by Seijas. Many first-half corners and free-kicks were at least reaching testing areas; by the second period, team-mates were actually making contact and of course, Santos’ headed goal came from a dead-ball put in by the Santa Fe midfielder which, in turn, was headed on by Vizcarrondo. Given the problems from open play, this has long seemed like an area well worth dedicating considerable time towards on the training ground.

Under-Fire Sanvicente Has Little Reason to Expect a Sudden Turnaround

Unsurprisingly, many have lost patience with Sanvicente, whose impressive club-level record holds increasingly little currency these days. Immediately after the Brazil game, in an admittedly completely unscientific Twitter poll, around 75 per cent of voters felt that he should no longer continue as manager. ‘Support is gained with the results and at the moment we do not have them’, he said post-game in Fortaleza. Will he have any to speak of after next month’s qualifiers away to Bolivia and at home to Ecuador? Given that afterwards there will be a four-month gap before the subsequent round of competitive fixtures he, and any under-fire manager knows, just how crucial the November encounters will be.

While some may derive optimism from the competitive debuts of both bright new things, Jeffrén and Santos, it has undeniably been a thoroughly depressing opening to the campaign. Aside from the performances, captain Tomás Rincón was pilloried online by many of his own fans for swapping shirts on the pitch at half-time with two-goal Willian, ultimately the undoubted man of the match. Although professionals such as El General may view such acts differently, symbolically it played into the hands of Vinotinto supporters who feel the team lacks bite, self-respect and character.

Furthermore, before and after the Brazil game, Santos and Alexander González had goods stolen from their luggage at two different Venezuelan airports (UPDATE: Andrés Túñez also had similar problems). There has been some speculation that morale and the general atmosphere in the camp is rather low – such incidents are obviously not likely to help.

Given all that has occurred over the past week or so, it is going to take something rather unanticipated to improve Sanvicente’s mood before the end of the year.

Team Selections

@DarrenSpherical

Venezuela 1-1 Panama – International Friendly (8 September 2015)

International Friendly

Tuesday 8 September 2015 – Estadio Cachamay, Puerto Ordaz, Ciudad Guayana, Bolívar State.

Venezuela 1-1 Panama

(To read a preview of both of Venezuela’s September 2015 friendlies, click here)

Goal Highlights of Venezuela 1-1 Panama, International Friendly, 8 September 2015 (YouTube)

Team Selections

Venezuela (4-4-2): Baroja; Rosales, Vizcarrondo (Carabalí, 80′), Túñez, Cichero; A. González (J. Suárez, 59′), Rincón, Seijas (C. González, 74′), Guerra (Arango, 74′); Santos (Falcón, 31′), S. Rondón.

Panama (4-4-2): Mejía; Henríquez, Torres, Parris, Machado; Gómez, Cooper, Quintero, Godoy (Macea, 24′) (Escobar, 80′); Pérez (Buitrago, 77′), Blackburn (Addles, 26′) (Calderón, 90+6′).

Match Report

Little Learned as Venezuela Sneak a Draw in Bog-Standard Conditions

On a rain-soaked pitch that would have been classified as waterlogged in other parts of the world, Salomón Rondón’s stoppage-time tap-in enabled La Vinotinto to narrowly avoid two consecutive defeats at the hands of Central American opposition.

Pre-kick-off torrential downpourings delayed the start of game by over 20 minutes and were to mire proceedings. The Panamanians, stung from a narrow 1-0 defeat against Uruguay at the weekend, initially seemed unfazed, taking the lead with barely two minutes on the clock. A central free-kick from distance was hoisted into the area where, after a knock-on, defender Gabriel Cichero uncomfortably nudged it into the path of Rolando Blackburn. Escaping from Oswaldo Vizcarrondo, the Comunicaciones forward squeezed in a fairly tame, bobbling effort from the right byline. However, goalkeeper Alain Baroja misjudged the shot’s trajectory and was caught off-balance, with the ball instead ghosting through his attempted grasp to trickle a mere inch or two over the goal line.

Certainly not the start desired in the stands by the hearty souls who shunned any sheltering from the elements. However, in terms of actual footballing action, it proved to be a false dawn. The subsequent half-hour was bereft of goal-mouth opportunities, with the teams instead seemingly trying to outdo each other in providing the referee with justifications for abandoning the match. With the soggy turf regularly halting the ball’s unpredictable movement, challenges that only the most nihilistic would not wince at frequently came flying in. Club managers watching on were doubtlessly horrified and there were to be two early victims as goalscorer Blackburn and team-mate Aníbal Godoy had to be taken off in quick succession around the 25th-minute mark.

Five minutes later, a third substitution was made, though this time it was by the hosts and not due to injury. Much online dismay greeted the removal of Christian Santos, who was making his second appearance – and home debut – for his country, having only received the green light to represent the country of his birth within the past year. Last season, the Germany-reared attacker had a spellbinding year with promotion-winning Dutch side NEC Nijmegen, yet this rare opportunity to show manager Noel Sanvicente if he could transfer his goalscoring club form to the international arena was abruptly truncated. In post-match comments, Chita claimed that this was because the conditions were not conducive to Santos’ typical style; whether true or not, few can argue that his replacement Juan Manuel Falcón thrived in the circumstances, troubling defenders with his pacy runs and dribbles, getting away several attempts at goal.

The forward, now languishing in France’s Ligue 2 with Metz but who has much experience of Venezuela’s largely substandard playing surfaces, even thought he had scored a mere four minutes after his arrival. Indeed, shortly after the hosts’ first attempt on target – an Andrés Túñez header from an Alejandro Guerra corner that was comfortably saved – Falcón anticipated a hoisted ball into the area and beat the onrushing goalkeeper Luis Mejía to nod home. Alas, within a second or two, the Venezuelan was confronted with the raised offside flag.

Aside from captain Tomás Rincón using the farcical conditions as perhaps the only time in his professional career when it will be excusable to channel his inner Lionel Messi and embark on some uncharacteristic dribbles infield, there was just one more moment of note in this half. This came in the 40th minute when left-back Cichero nearly latched on to a free-kick curled in from the left but could not quite direct a low volley on target.

Nine minutes into the second half, it was again Cichero, currently back in Switzerland with Sion, who had his side’s next chance of note.  Luis Manuel Seijas’ left-sided free-kick was met on the edge of the area by the defender, whose header was tipped just over the bar. Subsequently, the resulting corner was flicked on towards the back post where Falcón was readying himself for a tap-in; fortunately for the visitors, defender Leonel Parris just about cleared the ball away for another corner.

Offering the promise of some much-needed urgency, on the hour mark came the long-anticipated international debut of former Barcelona starlet Jeffrén Suárez. Drawing to a close a saga that lasted the best part of nine years, he has seemingly given up on his ambitions of representing the country in which he was reared – Spain, for whom he won two major trophies at youth level – and has instead accepted the long-standing offer to play for the nation of his birth. Now at Belgian second-tier side KAS Eupen, a few years ago when he was still considered an emerging name worth remembering, he may have received his Vinotinto bow on a grander stage. However, little did the sparse Cachamay crowd know at the time that while they had just seen the beginning of one international career, they were also to witness the end of another.

Indeed, at the post-match press conference attended by the entire squad, a teary-eyed Juan Arango, undoubtedly Venezuela’s greatest and most important player of all time, announced his retirement from the national team. No word yet as to whether this was to definitely be the very last of his 129 official appearances, though many fans are already clamouring for a farewell match more befitting of his achievements than a friendly cameo in a stadium only fractionally full.

He arrived onto the pitch in the 74th minute, at which point the match was beginning to look like another toothless, morale-sapping Vinotinto defeat. However, though perhaps not entirely related, his introduction was to coincide with a slight increase in tempo and urgency, as the number of chances and incidents began to rise. The first of these was arguably the most gilt-edged. On the right, Jeffrén cut inside to slide the ball to Rincón, whose finely weighted pass towards the right side of the area found Falcón. However, one-on-one with the goalkeeper, to the dismay of every home fan in the ground, he skied his shot a few yards over. Nevertheless, Jeffrén here provided a brief glimpse of his capabilities and was to be a confident and positive presence on the ball, often looking to get forward and link up from the right.

Venezuela’s forward forays continued into the last ten minutes of regulation play, serving up a host of noteworthy moments: Firstly, Rondón beat the opposition goalkeeper to one of Arango’s pinpoint long balls but was unable to get a shot away in time; Cichero went up for a corner but could not quite make effective contact from a cross; soon after, Falcón outpaced his marker on the left before passing to Jeffrén who nudged it on for fellow substitute Francisco Carabalí, before the move broke down; finally, in the 87th minute, Arango’s ball into the area was well-chested and then struck low by Falcón, whose shot was parried out to Carabalí, who could only blaze over.

Soon afterwards, the hosts’ chances of an equaliser appeared to have been ended as Carabalí received a red card, a mere ten minutes after entering the fray. The reason for his dismissal remains somewhat unclear but it is likely that he raised a hand (or two) amidst some heated altercations involving several players.

However, Venezuela were not to be deterred, continuing their attacks and, three minutes into stoppage-time, they were to get their deserved reward. From the right, César González’s corner was uncomfortable for goalkeeper Mejía, with the ball falling downwards before being nudged over towards Rondón, who instinctively struck home a fairly straightforward finish.

Immediately afterwards, Panama goalkeeper Luis Mejía evened things up, receiving a second needless yellow card in a matter of five minutes, having previously been awarded one for timewasting. Despite a total of eight stoppage-time minutes being played, this brief return to parity in the playing personnels did not lead to any further goals and thus the game ended in a draw.

Given the conditions, it is unlikely that Sanvicente will feel much was gained from this encounter or, for that matter, the preceding 3-0 loss against Honduras. Nevertheless, Venezuela went into this international week needing to improve their attacking play and goalscoring rate, but it can hardly be said that much has changed in these departments. A few players showed glimpses of what they can do, most notably Falcón and Jeffrén, as well as Josef Martínez (in combination with Rondón) in the Honduras game. Ahead of next month’s World Cup qualifiers against Paraguay and Brazil, Juan Arango’s retirement opens up an attacking berth either behind or in tandem with Rondón. However, not only is it unclear who will replace him – or if any other attackers have contrived to play their way out of the line-up during these games – but it feels as if little progress in the teamwork of the attackers has been made. Thus, while the defence – who, admittedly, hardly covered themselves in glory either – proved in Copa América that they are more than capable of doing a respectable job in big games, Venezuela’s attacking problems are set to be an ongoing issue well along the road to reach Russia 2018.

Darren Spherical

@DarrenSpherical

Venezuela’s Friendly Internationals – September 2015 Preview

International Friendlies 

Friday 4 September 2015 – Estadio Cachamay, Puerto Ordaz, Ciudad Guayana, Bolívar State.

Venezuela vs Honduras 

Tuesday 8 September 2015 – Estadio Cachamay, Puerto Ordaz, Ciudad Guayana, Bolívar State.

Venezuela vs Panama

estadiocachamay

Estadio Cachamay in Puerto Ordaz, Ciudad Guayana, Bolívar State (Wikimedia).

Getting the Gang Back Together to Prepare for the Greatest Challenge

We meet again. Casually resented by great swathes of European fans who are spoilt-for-choice domestically, yet eagerly anticipated by many in the talent-exporting Latin American nations, an international break is once again upon us.

Venezuelans, for whom the national team inspires infinitely more passion amongst the general population than the neglected local fare, are amongst those in the region readying themselves for two further opportunities to run the rule over their representatives. Indeed, it may have been a mere two-and-a-half months ago that La Vinotinto’s Copa América campaign ended in dejection almost as soon as it had been inaugurated by unexpected euphoria, but with World Cup qualifying commencing next month, there really is little time or appetite to be absorbed by self-pity and scapegoating. After all, as mainstream football coverage of the nation rarely misses the opportunity to point out, Venezuela remains the only CONMEBOL country yet to feature at a World Cup.

Thus, warm feelings and intrepid eyes greet the bulk of this 26-man squad of players derived from four continents, 13 countries and 15 distinct leagues. Such diversity means that the attempts of even the most caffeine-addled, antisocial and aspiration-free fanatics in tracking every movement of the individuals in with a shot of a selección call-up will be hopelessly thwarted. Instead, those who are so inclined tend to resign themselves each weekend to an overseas game or two featuring one or more of their pioneering compatriots, supplemented by some online highlights of several other cracks – if, that is, they can find them.

The inadequacies and skewered view of the team intrinsic to this particular footballing consumption should be apparent. It is, after all, not often one comes acoss much visual material  of merit featuring the players who are fielded in less headline-grabbing and highlight-friendly positions, such as defence and defensive midfield. Moreover, newcomers to football in this corner of the world will be unsurprised to learn that the disparity in the locations of the players’ clubs is often matched in the wide differences of opinions held amongst fans, with certain favourites being held in high esteem by some for feats observed in YouTube videos and vines, yet achieved in the distant past.

One can only wonder how coach Noel Sanvicente and his staff manage to keep tabs on their potential history-makers. Some repeatedly ignored players, such as Yonathan Del Valle who announced his retirement from the international game in May a couple of weeks shy of his 25th birthday, doubtless think that they have grave difficulties coping with their workload.

Nevertheless, for both the fans and the serial-winner leader they call Chita, this all conspires to make the scant amount of time the players have together golden. With the symbol to inspire and unify the sometimes suppressed footballing passions of this nation reactivated once again, most of the men who take to the pitch in the upcoming days know that irrespective of what they have achieved recently at club level, what they do for their country will carry most weight in the minds of those in the stands as well as in the dugout.

‘Don’t I Know You From…?’ Familiar Faces in the Central American Opposition

Honduras and Panama, though undeniably substantial opponents, may lack the star power to entice a full house to Estadio Cachamay, but the atmosphere inside Mineros de Guayana’s home ground could still take a few by surprise. Indeed, for various logistical and administrative reasons, opportunities to fly the flag have been at a premium recently, with only one game having been played on home soil in Sanvicente’s near-14-month reign – a 2-1 win in February, also against Honduras.

This result marked the conclusion a double-header between the two nations and also the second Venezuelan win, as the preceding week in San Pedro Sula a 3-2 defeat was inflicted upon Jorge Luis Pinto in what was his debut game in charge of Los Catrachos. While the Colombian mastermind behind Costa Rica’s run to the quarter-finals of last year’s World Cup has continued his poor start, exiting July’s CONCACAF Gold Cup at the group stage, he has seemed in good spirits upon his arrival in Venezuela. Indeed, no doubt partly alluding to his 2010/11 title-winning tenure at the helm of Deportivo Táchira, he remarked to the local press in Puerto Ordaz that the country holds ‘very fond memories’ for him. As the encounters earlier this year were contested mainly by home-based players (plus a few MLS-dwellers on the Honduran side), in more ways than one, he will be hoping for an altogether different match on 4 September.

By contrast, Panama have won their last two internationals with Venezuela. While both games did occur back in 2010 and the Vinotinto line-up contained a mixture of fringe players alongside first-teamers, Los Canaleros have consistently shown, through their admirable, if similarly unlucky, 2014 World Cup Qualifying and 2015 Gold Cup campaigns, that they are more than capable of a third consecutive win. Furthermore, due in part to the country’s relative proximity to their opponents, a fair few Panamanians have enjoyed considerable recent success on Venezuelan soil playing in the domestic league, such as last season’s leading goalscorer, Edwin Aguilar of Deportivo Anzoátegui. He is not in the current squad but Marcos Sánchez, a midfielder for the 2014/15 champions Deportivo Táchira, is.

Squad Overview: Defence Less Tight for Friendies but the Core is Seemingly Settled 

How much weight Sanvicente puts on getting results, irrespective of the performances, from these two friendlies is debatable, though several in the Venezuelan set-up have spoken of the necessity of a strong home record to help keep them at least within touching distance throughout the two-year qualifying campaign. Given the contrast between the woeful, defensively porous displays in the games leading into Copa América and the resolute, compact performance in the surprise 1-0 group win over Colombia, many could be forgiven for questioning the merits of such internationals. Indeed, while La Vinotinto may have lost their subsequent two group games – 1-0 against Peru, 2-1 versus Brazil – their defensive record for the tournament still stood at an ostensibly admirable three conceded in three games – quite an improvement on the 18 (19 officially) that were knocked into their net by largely weaker opposition in eight warm-up games. Then again, as Group C at Chile 2015 was rather low-scoring, with a mere nine goals in total, more considered verdicts on the defence may have to wait until at least a few qualifying games have been played.

Nevertheless, what can be said with some certainty is that while Sanvicente has been a little coy on his line-up plans for these friendlies, nothing has occurred to suggest a dramatic change of personnel regarding the majority of his first-choice picks, particularly at the back. Barring injuries/suspensions/colossal mishaps, between the sticks next month for the qualifiers with Paraguay and Brazil will be Alain Baroja who, after winning a last-minute battle to be the national no. 1 in June has since left Caracas FC and has played the opening two league games of the season for AEK Athens. At right-back will be Málaga’s tenacious Roberto Rosales, with the centre-back pairing comprising of the towering, dependable Oswaldo Vizcarrondo and Buriram United’s Thai-based GladiadorAndrés Túñez. All of these men were amongst their clubs’ most consistent and reliable performers last season and also played the entirety of their country’s three games at Copa América. If there is to be any experimentation in this area, Deportivo Táchira’s 22-year-old centre-back Wílker Ángel, who is already very much part of his club’s folkore, may be given a run out. He sat on the bench in Chile and may well find himself in future competitive line-ups, but there has been no suggestion that he is on the cusp of a breakthrough just yet.

Owing to Fernando Amorebieta’s tournament-turning red card against Peru and subsequent suspension, the front-runner to occupy the left-back berth for at least the Paraguay game next month is the man who filled in for him after his dismissal and against Brazil, Gabriel Cichero. Now back at Swiss side Sion after a year on loan in his native country, he will be looking forward to Europa League games against, amongst others, Liverpool and also to proving Sanvicente that he was wrong to ditch him so late on, after he had started all but one of the warm-up games in the year preceding Copa América. The only competition he has in the current squad is from Caracas’ Francisco Carabalí, but while he has been an integral part of his club’s miserly defence, having not been included in the Copa América squad, he currently stands less chance than Ángel of starting a competitive fixture.

So then, barring misfortune and/or catastrophe, all these positions for at least the first October qualifier seem fairly predictable and, as of this moment, so are the two spots in front of them. Indeed, Genoa-based roaming midfield warrior Tomás Rincón will undoubtedly start, with much of the team’s success dependent on the levels of commitment, organisation and belief he can help instil and inspire in those around him. His partner-in-crime in June was Santa Fe’s Luis Manuel Seijas, a more graceful midfielder capable of some stunning strikes and creative passes, but who is also not averse to mucking in. His most likely competition in current squad comes from Franklin Lucena, who has recently joined him in Colombia on loan at Once Caldas. However, at 34, he may be feeling uncertain as to whether Sanvicente fancies him in the long run for a position that demands zero lapses in concentration and, ideally, optimum levels of energy to meet head-on what can be frequent onslaughts. He may nevertheless take to the field in the upcoming days, as may 24-year-old Franco Signorelli, whose last two – also his first two – brief appearances for his country came last year. Having recently agreed to a loan from Serie A Empoli to Serie B Ternana, he will undeniably be seeking to make the most of his rare time with Sanvicente, as who knows how much the boss will see of his club outings this season.

Ultimately, while Sanvicente is likely to opt for a more open approach against Honduras and Panama, which may well afford their opponents more opportunities than the likes of Colombia, Peru and even Brazil could muster, he can allow himself a considerable degree of confidence regarding his defence-minded players in competitive games. After all, despite the two defeats endured in June, they never embarrassed themselves, nor were they ever far from gaining a result – that is, had their attacking players been able to link up more effectively, more frequently and create more goalscoring opportunities.

Squad Overview: Better Teamwork and More Target Practice Needed for Attackers 

Indeed, while Venezuela surprised their Colombian neighbours by having the better of the chances in the first hour or so (and, should any football-fatigued soul have forgotten, scored the match-winning goal), this proved to be something of a false dawn. Exiting the tournament with a mere two goals from three games just compounded the already meagre returns under Sanvicente, whose overall record now stands at 14 goals scored (though 12 officially) from 11 games. Thus, with his defensive personnel and tactics having largely been proven to aid the cause, Chita must surely place far greater emphasis in these two warm-up games towards finding the net more often.

As in all three of the group cames in Chile, he started with the same three players in the attacking midfield positions as well as the same striker up front, it is tempting to think that they are all likely to retain their spots next month. Transfer record-breaking striker Salomón Rondón undoubtedly will and the three behind him all have strong claims for places as well. After all, Atlético Nacional’s Alejandro Guerra on the left repeatedly linked up well with Rondón, gaining an assist for the goal against Colombia and could well have notched more had Venezuela’s chief marksman maintained his composure in front of the framework. In the centre, Juan Arango, despite persistent speculation that his age (35) renders almost every game as ‘quite possibly his last’, nevertheless managed to play some key, elegant passes and had a vital role in both tournament goals. On the right, the resurgent Ronald Vargas impressed so much against Colombia with his abilities to beat his marker, hold the ball up as well as link and switch with his team-mates, that he had the Athens-based press salivating over what he would be bringing to his new owners AEK. He was, however, less visible in the subsequent two games and though he has since scored on his debut for his Greek paymasters, as was the case in the summer, he is still unable to complete a full 90 minutes. If it is fitness which ultimately sees him sidelined in the future, for Guerra the most likely factor would be his inconsistency and tendency to give the ball away, whereas for Arango it would probably be his comparative lack of tracking back, as he was often left in a high, free role in Chile.

Thus, while these men collectively may all be currently in pole position to get the nod next month, they will not be feeling as secure of this as the defensive players surely are. The Venezuelan attacking midfield has long been the most competitive area of the pitch and, with at least ten versatile players of note capable of filling any of the three roles, there are almost as many players outside of the current squad as are within it who could receive a spot in the line-up within the next two years.

Indeed, for one, there is 22-year-old Rómulo Otero, who was ruled out of Copa América with injury and is currently again sidelined, frustrating his new owners Huachipato, for whom he got off to an explosive start in early August. He has long been considered an international star-in-waiting and had been linked to teams in countries such as Portugal and France, so when his long-anticipated move away from Caracas took him instead to a fairly unprestigious Chilean outfit, many were bemused. Similarly high hopes have been expressed for 20-year-old Jhon Murillo, who scored the winning goal against Honduras on his international debut earlier this year and was called up to the Copa América squad. He was eagerly snapped up just before the tournament by Benfica on a five-year-deal and is now a regular starter on loan at fellow Primeira Liga side Tondela. Sanvicente has stated that the speedy, if volatile, winger is one for the future but has been left out as he knows what he can do and instead wants to allow him to settle in with his new club, while he takes a closer look at other players. No explanation has been forthcoming regarding the absence of 21-year-old Juanpi of Málaga, though it is most likely that a lack of first-team experience in La Liga is the cause. However, with a recent exodus of midfield talent having occurred at the Andalusian club, he has come off the bench in both league encounters this season. Having already been granted a lengthy contract extension, this could prove to be his breakthrough year and will hopefully go some way to determining which of the positions he has hitherto occupied is best suited for him: in the hole, on either flank of an attacking midfield trident or, further back in a deep-lying playmaker role.

Regarding those in the actual squad, Torino’s Josef Martínez is currently the strongest challenger for a starting berth. Indeed, it surprised many that he was not in any line-up in June, yet when he did come on, he showed glimpses of his abilities to unsettle defenders and make things happen. Had fellow substitute Miku either been born a few inches taller or jumped a similar distance higher (the jury is still out on that one), then he would have been able to convert Martínez’s whipped cross in the dying moments of the Brazil game and thus secured Venezuela’s progress. Alternatively, there is Christian Santos, who Sanvicente has said he wants to take a closer look at and is likely to feature in at least one of the warm-up games. After confirming his eligibility to represent the country of his birth, there was much fanfare for the Germany-raised attacker when he made his international debut earlier this year. However, having lasted only an hour of a dismal friendly loss against Jamaica and subsequently missing out on Chile 2015, fans will this time be hoping to see him replicate some of last season’s phenomenal goal-scoring club form which helped NEC Nijmegen’s charge into the Dutch top-flight. Elsewhere, Mario  Rondón, the most surprising omission from the Copa América squad, has earned a recall and rather than being consumed by bitterness is instead seemingly filled with determination to ensure he is regularly in Sanvicente’s plans for at least the next two years. Indeed, a February move from Portugal to China may not have entirely helped his personal cause as beforehand he had been one of the most common names on Sanvicente’s teamsheets, yet come late May when the final cut was made, alleged justifications for his exclusion included his supposedly inferior fitness levels and lack of unique qualities in relation to his rivals. As he will be 30 next March and has earned roughly half of his caps under Sanvicente, he knows that the upcoming qualification cycle is likely to be his last chance to shine for his country. Another man in contention who has also earned a recall is Juan Falcón, who owes much to his international manager for converting him from a midfielder to a striker when the pair won the Venezuelan title twice together with Zamora (2012-14). He subsequently moved to Metz in Ligue 1 where he started in strong goalscoring form, yet succumbed to a long-term injury and struggled to regain his place in the side, who ultimately slipped down to the second tier. Nevertheless, with less than a handful of caps to his name and a strong personal association with the boss, this is a vital opportunity to remind everyone what he is capable of. However, if he is given a chance, it will more likely be as one of the attacking midfield three, possibly playing off Salomón Rondón.

With all this competition over three spots on the pitch, it seems counter-intuitive to many that Venezuela have struggled so much to find the net in recent times. There was seemingly some progress made in the three games in June as beforehand, the team often struggled to put together more than a handful of effective forward passes and were largely reliant on long-range efforts, set-pieces and defensive errors for goals. Still, Sanvicente knows that he is yet to stumble upon the right formula in this area. While he will doubtless trial at least a couple of the aforementioned individuals in the upcoming days, it remains to be seen whether a change of personnel is required.

Saviour or Historical Footnote? The Wildcard on the Wing 

If it is, however, then there are plenty of Venezuelans hoping that one individual in particular can constitute a large proportion of the solution. This man, hitherto unnamed but who is predicted to feature in at least one of the friendlies, is precisely the kind of player whose reputation owes much to on-field achievements that occurred in what can at times feel like the distant past. An attacking winger, born in the town of San Félix in Ciudad Guayana, he has played with and won trophies alongside some of the greatest names in global football and also scored in one of the most famous club games of the 21st century. Indeed, Salomón Rondón may now be the leading Venezuelan in most people’s eyes but, despite playing in the most-watched league in the world and being serenaded with his own personalised infectious ditty, even he can only claim a mere one-third of the number of Twitter followers this purported man of the hour has. Despite this, the wide-man who some are hoping can rapidly enhance the West Brom striker’s goal tally has never yet actually played for the country of his birth and a considerable number of his compatriots feel he should not be allowed to.

Readers who already know who the player in question is may feel this build-up is unmerited; time may very well prove that to be the case. For those still in the dark yet seeking enlightenment, click here to find out just who the mystery man is. The rest of you: enjoy the games and feel free to come back here in the upcoming days to find out whether there has been a Second Coming or not.

Venezuela Squad

Goalkeepers: Alaín Baroja (AEK Athens), José David Contreras (Deportivo Táchira), Wuilker Fariñez (Caracas FC).

Defenders: Wilker Ángel (Deportivo Táchira), Francisco Carabalí (Caracas FC), Gabriel Cichero (Sion), Alexander González (Young Boys), Grenddy Perozo (Zulia FC), Roberto Rosales (Málaga), Andrés Túñez (Buriram United), Oswaldo Vizcarrondo (Nantes).

Midfielders: Juan Arango (Xolos de Tijuana), César González (Deportivo Táchira), Alejandro Guerra (Atlético Nacional, on loan from Mineros de Guayana), Franklin Lucena (Once Caldas, on loan from Deportivo La Guaira), Tomás Rincón (Genoa), Luis Manuel Seijas (Santa Fé), Franco Signorelli (Ternana, on loan from Empoli), Christian Santos (NEC Nijmegen), Jeffrén Suárez (KAS Eupen), Ronald Vargas (AEK Athens).

Forwards: Juan Falcón (Metz), Nicolás ‘Miku’ Fedor (Rayo Vallecano), Josef Martínez (Torino), Mario Rondón (Shijiazhuang Ever Bright), Salomón Rondón (West Bromwich Albion).

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