Tag Archives: Deportivo La Guaira

Venezuela 2-1 Honduras – International Friendly (11 February 2015) & Assessment

Wednesday 11 February 2015 

International Friendly

Venezuela 2-1 Honduras

Estadio Agustín Tovar, Barinas 

Match Highlights of Venezuela 2-1 Honduras (YouTube channel: Deportes Hn)

Team Selections

Venezuela (4-2-3-1): Baroja; Carabalí, Fuenmayor (Vargas, 46′), Sánchez, Cichero; Lucena (c), Figuera (Acosta, 58′); Gómez (Murillo, 56′), Farías (Arteaga, 64′), Lugo (L. González, 46′); Blanco (Ocanto, 82′).

Honduras (4-3-3): Valladares; Crisanto, Figueroa, Leverón, Sánchez (Palacios, 69′); Peralta (Delgado, 76′), Claros, Martínez (Cardona, 82′); Quioto (Discua, 62′), Lozano (Tejeda, 75′), Castillo (Acosta, 36′).

Match Report

Following last week’s 3-2 away victory, Venezuela picked up their second consecutive win against Honduras in the two nations’ friendly double-header, with local debutant Jhon Murillo ensuring that his former club manager Noel Sanvicente enjoyed a triumphant return to his erstwhile stomping ground.

The Estadio Agustín Tovar, built in anticipation of Venezuela’s hosting of Copa América 2007, is the home of Zamora FC, the current leaders of the Torneo Clausura and the reigning two-time champions of Venezuela. Before taking the national job last July, it was Sanvicente who managed this club to these two titles – the only two in their modest history – and appropriately, in what was La Vinotinto‘s first home game under his guidance, he received a hero’s welcome upon his return.

noelsanvicente

Banner Tribute to Noel Sanvicente, expressing the fans’ support and belief that he will fulfil the nation’s dreams by qualifying for the 2018 World Cup (Image: Bet365 match feed).

The game itself was contested by home-based players plus one MLS-based Honduran who lasted little more than half an hour – more on this later. Whereas Jorge Luis Pinto, mastermind behind Costa Rica’s World Cup run, opted to experiment with his new squad by making seven changes from last week’s encounter, Sanvicente only made one alteration – one which was forced upon him. Indeed, Rómulo Otero – the pivotal figure who played a crucial role in all three of Venezuela’s goals – was injured in club action for Caracas FC at the weekend and was replaced in the line-up by club colleague, Edder FaríasThat the majority of the Venezuelan players were also in domestic action at the same time as Otero was a factor that their Honduran counterparts did not have to contend with and may have had some effect on this game’s dynamics (or lack, thereof). The play was, for the most part, sluggish and devoid of any sustained rhythm or fluidity, something that the players’ relative unfamiliarity with one another was no doubt also partly responsible for.

However, the opening exchanges were rather lively, with Farías driving a loose ball at Honduras’ returning World Cup goalkeeper, Noel Valladares, and within 17 minutes the two sides were level. The visitors looked to be relishing their role as potential homecoming saboteurs when, with 9 minutes on the clock, Rubilio Castillo’s decent low long-range effort was parried by Alain Baroja, only to be rapidly chipped back into the area from the left by Romell Quioto for Anthony Lozano to powerfully head in.

The hosts responded 8 minutes later from a free-kick just outside the right edge of the area. Argenis Gómez – who played a role in two of the goals in last week’s encounter – swung in a fine left-footed ball that was met by left-back Gabriel Cichero, whose header into the goalmouth found the trailing left leg of captain Franklin Lucena. Though Jorge Claros managed to hook it away, the linesman flagged that it had already crossed the line – parity had been restored.

One recurring theme of the first game between this pair was the high number of petulant fouls committed, a feature that was to recur to a slightly lesser extent in the subsequent phase of play. Within no more than two minutes of play, both Honduras’ Castillo and Venezuela’s Juan Fuenmayor were booked for offences on each other, though the likelihood of their tussles resulting in a red card or two was abruptly averted when Castillo went off injured after 36 minutes.

Before the match reached this point, however, two notable incidents had occurred. Firstly, after 22 minutes, from the free-kick conceded by Fuenmayor on Castillo, Mario Martínez  lined up a free-kick from the right flank 35 yards out. Struck with his left peg, his curled ball was met on the volley by Lozano’s outstretched right boot and his effort caused a few jitters but went narrowly wide into the side-netting. However, any Honduran hopes of regaining the lead were dealt a blow by the second incident worthy of comment in this period: Jorge Claros, arguably the most high-profile player in this line-up owing to his performances with Sporting Kansas City, receiving his marching orders for a wild high-foot challenge in midfield, some 5-6 feet off the ground.

Yet with ten men, the visitors certainly did not crumble and were to have at least a few more chances worthy of comment in the game, the closest one coming on 37 minutes, just several minutes after the dismissal. An exquisite left-footed diagonal ball by Martínez on the turn from the half-way line was taken adeptly in the stride of Quioto who, from inside the area on the left lashed a low shot that was to come off the inside of the post and agonisingly trickle back across the goalmouth. Whether or not Baroja got any of his left glove on this is open to debate, though if he did, as the margins involved here were so thin, this contact surely stopped the ball from crossing the line.

Though this reminded Sanvicente of the threat Honduras could pose even with the numerical disadvantage, he opted to make some attack-minded substitutes at the break. Off came centre-back Fuenmayor and attacking midfielder Jesús Lugo to be replaced by Luis Vargas, who appeared to operate in a deep-lying playmaker role, and debutant Luis ‘Cariaco’ González, who was largely to be found in advanced positions on the left.

The second half, perhaps partly due to it consisting of one side with many players who were contesting their third game in eight days up against a team trying to compensate for being a man down, was rather short on chances. However, when the first of note came after 57 minutes, it resulted in the winning goal. This was scored by Venezuela’s third substitute, local hot prospect – and hot-head – Jhon Murillo, a remarkable 37 seconds after arriving on the pitch. The Zamora winger as well as the unused José Marrufo were both not in the original squad but were called up on the strength of their performances at the recent South American Youth Championship.

He replaced Gómez on the field and was soon found on the right side of the area by the long searching ball of club team-mate Vargas. Murillo won an aerial duel to guide the ball into the area, where defender Johnny Leverón – back home after a season with Vancouver Whitecaps – horribly miscued an attempted clearance. Under no real pressure around his own six-yard box, he acrobatically hit the ball over goalkeeper Valladares – who had come out to claim it – and Murillo, with predatory anticipation, burst forward to chest the descending ball in from little more than a yard out – a dream debut for the substitute. It was certainly not a bad moment for Sanvicente either, with the move beginning with one former charge of his at club level and then finished off by another in what is their present, and his former, home ground – an ideal winning scenario.

In the rest of the half, after Cichero, González and Vargas all hit shots either wide or over from rather optimistic positions, Venezuela had their only other concrete chance. This came from another substitute, Manuel Arteaga, who capitalised on a poor midfield pass to rob a defender but then, from the edge of the area, shot far too close to Valladares.

Up the other end, the visitors mildly threatened first with a cross that was well-headed away for a corner and then a subsequent effort from outside the area that went comfortably wide. Their best chance, however, came with what proved to be the last kicks of the game, as Bryan Acosta’s free-kick was flicked on by Ángel Tejeda, which Baroja did well to see at a late stage and dive down low to parry out to the left.

Not long after, the whistle sounded and Noel Sanvicente had attained his second consecutive victory over his Central American opponents – also the second win of his reign, following defeats in his opening four games.

A Worthwhile Pair of Games?

Quite what the coach will draw from both games is difficult to ascertain as the constitution of the teams bore very little – if any – resemblance to the sides he is likely to select when Venezuela play competitive fixtures and the full overseas contingent is called up.

Left-back Gabriel Cichero is the only player likely to retain his place in future line-ups and he will be pleased to have had little to trouble him on his side of the pitch, as well as notching an assist.

Defensive-midfielder Franklin Lucena will surely have been buoyed at starting, being named as captain for both games and scoring a goal – he is surely now back ahead of Rafael Acosta and Édgar Jiménez (the latter of whom was not in the squad) in the pecking order. However, he is unlikely to receive a first-team place ahead of the supposed preferred pairing of converted right-back Roberto Rosales and official captain Tomás Rincón. Furthermore, with his 34th birthday coming up within a week, it remains to be seen how much of an international future the Deportivo La Guaira man has.

Alain Baroja, though he is very unlikely to replace Tenerife’s Dani Hernández as number one goalkeeper, will nevertheless be delighted to have played both games and surely consolidate his position as second-choice ahead of Rafael Romo. Regarding the defence as a whole, though their performance certainly improved and was more assured, that they still failed to provide Sanvicente with his first clean sheet will be a lingering concern.

Further upfield, both Argenis Gómez and, to a greater extentRómulo Otero did much to enhance their claims for a regular squad place. Though the attacking midfield slots are the most competitive positions at present, Otero’s absence from the second game arguably only helps to preserve the perception of his star performance in the first game and bolster his personal cause.

Finally, in the forward positions, though both Edder Farías and Richard Blanco scored in the first game, to see either in a future squad for a competitive game would be a surprise. Not only are there plenty of overseas-based rivals in this area but there is also competition from the top-scoring home-based Venezuelan who was unable to join this squad as he was busy enhancing the domestic league’s reputation in sensational fashion.

Indeed, immediately after the second national game had ended, Gelmin Rivas fired Deportivo Táchira through to the Copa Libertadores group stage, getting both goals away to Paraguayan giants Cerro Porteño as his side’s 2-2 draw ensured a 4-3 aggregate victory. To have three sides involved in this phase of the continent’s premier competition is very rare and this, along with the two national victories, marked a much-needed morale-booster for Venezuelan football.

It will be curious to see whether Rivas can maintain his form and earn what would be a somewhat unanticipated call-up to the senior side for their two friendlies in late March against Peru and an as-yet-unconfirmed opponent. These two games are currently the last scheduled chances to alter Sanvicente’s plans ahead of Copa América, so whoever ends up in the squad will be best-advised to make the most of their opportunity. With the coach having always been at least a few key players short in his squads up until this point, those that do receive a call-up will be acutely aware that there are certainly some places still yet to be determined.

Darren Spherical

@DarrenSpherical 

Honduras 2-3 Venezuela – International Friendly (4 February 2015)

Wednesday 4 February 2015

International Friendly

Honduras 2-3 Venezuela 

Estadio Olímpico Metropolitano, San Pedro Sula

Match Highlights of Honduras 2-3 Venezuela (YouTube channel: Futbol Hondureño)

Team Selections

Honduras (4-4-2): Escober; Peralta (Crisanto, 61′), Montes, Velásquez, Palacios; García (Quioto, 73′), Garrido (Acosta, 66′), Méndez (Claros, 46′), Martínez; Castillo (Tejeda, 61′), Lozano.

Venezuela (4-2-3-1): Baroja; Carabalí, Fuenmayor, Sánchez, Cichero; Lucena (c), Figuera; Gómez (Farías, 66′), Otero, Lugo (Acosta, 66′); Blanco (Vargas, 89′).

Match Report

At the fifth attempt, Noel Sanvicente achieved his first victory since taking charge of La Vinotinto – and the nation’s first since September 2013 – as Rómulo Otero enhanced his claims for a regular place by playing a prominent role in all three goals.

Though this game, the first in a double-header between the two nations, was contested by sides consisting of home-based players (plus three MLS-dwellers in the case of Honduras), it was nevertheless a much-needed morale-booster for Venezuela.

Sanvicente’s opposite number here was Jorge Luis Pinto, taking control of his first Los Catrachos match, having had some time to recharge his batteries following his exceptional World Cup quarter-final run with Costa Rica. With his considerable experience in both Central and South America, he no doubt was unsurprised to witness a first half in which his new charges, as well as their opponents, committed fouls at a rate of nearly one per minute. As the nature of these offences could rarely be defined as anything more than petulant or calculated, only four players ended up in the book.

Something that was also anticipated before kick-off that came into being was the inability of the relatively unacquainted players on both sides to build effective moves and engage in interplay for any sustained period of time. Nevertheless, Honduras saw more of the ball in the opening stages, often looking to attack down the right flank, but their crosses were either blocked or effectively dealt with in the centre.

When Venezuela scored in the 21st minute, it came very much against the run of play and was the visitors’ first shot on goal. Indeed, though La Vinotinto were to struggle throughout the game with any build-up play that involved lengthy possession, on three separate occasions they made rapid use of the ball in the final third to create goals out of nothing.

The first of these came from a move that began from a loose ball just outside the right edge of the Honduran area, where right-back Francisco Carabalí nudged the ball to Argenis Gómez. The sole representative of Apertura champions Trujillanos caught the defenders off-guard by swiftly playing an incisive ball into the area to Rómulo Otero who immediately passed it across the goalmouth for Richard Blanco to tap in. Quite what an international future the 33-year-old striker has beyond these two matches is unclear, but this will no doubt go down as a memorable goal for him and he will be hoping to enjoy similar moments in the upcoming Copa Libertadores group stage with Mineros de Guayana.

As an attacking threat, Venezuela were not to be greatly feared for the remainder of the half as instead the majority of the play consisted of the hosts’ quest for an equaliser. However, with the exception of a well-struck free-kick being deflected a couple of yards over and a soft shot in a promising position from Román Castillo, Honduras did not really threaten their opponents’ goal. Instead, aside from debutant goalkeeper Alain Baroja’s rather hasty advancements off his line to thwart attacks – which on one occasion saw him drop the ball that consequently trickled goalwards – the Venezuelan defence looked rather assured dealing with the attacks down the flanks and the crosses that drifted into the area.

Soon after the second half got underway, Honduras registered another shot on target, as Olimpia striker Anthony Lozano – who, in 2013, earned some online notoriety for this glaring miss at club level – received a low cross and got away a decent effort that was nevertheless comfortably, if acrobatically, caught by Baroja. However, barely a minute afterwards, the visitors were to provide the second sucker punch. This time it began with a Gabriel Cichero throw-in on the left, which bounced through to Gómez who passed it to Otero on the edge of the area who, with two deft touches and a turn, played it back to his onrushing team-mate. From inside the area, Gómez collected it and slid it over to Arquímedes Figuera to gently chip in for his first international goal.

In response, Honduras continued their fruitless quest for a goal, but though they sometimes advanced into good positions, their crosses were again either blocked or not met with enough intent/direction and their shots were of little concern to Baroja. In this period, the Caracas FC goalkeeper again only really encountered trouble from his own, seemingly nervy, desire to impress, as evidenced when he mishandled a comfortable catch from a header.

In the 76th minute, Venezuela were to deliver to the hosts what, at that point, was surely almost an anticipated blow. Otero’s role was again crucial as the 22-year-old starlet – a club team-mate of Baroja’s – picked up the ball on the inside-right, beat a man, then got the better of another inside the area, before playing the ball into the six-yard box. Here, another Caracas colleague – substitute Edder Farías – scored a cheeky effort sideways-to-goal with his trailing right foot to put the result beyond doubt.

Or at least that is how it seemed until a nervy climax emerged following two home goals, the first of which was as fortituous as it was an instinctive finish. It came on 80 minutes as a corner by Mario Martínez – formerly of the Seattle Sounders – was headed out only to be hit straight back into a crowded area for Anthony Lozano to divert past Baroja. The second came in the final minute of regulation time as Martínez swung in another corner from the opposite side that bounced through the crowd and was knocked in by incoming 2014 World Cup squad member, Juan Montes. The error that always seemed a possibility for Baroja had occurred as he was caught in no man’s land when the cross he came out to claim evaded him, though the failure of any of the outfield players to pick up the run of Montes must also be highlighted.

Despite these late lapses, Venezuela’s saw out the four additional minutes to attain their first victory of the Sanvicente era. ‘Chita’ can be proud of the improved defensive performance, with Carabalí, and especially his fellow often-maligned full-back Cichero, doing well to thwart many of the attempted crosses. Those that did make it into the area were largely dealt with effectively by Andrés Sánchez and the 35-year-old Juan Fuenmayor, neither of whom shirked from the frequent pressure they were put under.

Further upfield, though La Vinotinto were unable to put together many forward passes, engage in much possession play or even create a great deal of chances within the final third, the three that mattered were executed swiftly and clinically. Rómulo Otero, with two assists and a pivotal role on the other goal, has to be the man of the match and though the constitution of the side means that even a star performance like this can not guarantee a spot for him in future squads, it will nevertheless be of great benefit to his personal cause.

Before the game kicked off, gaining at least one victory from these two games seemed a necessity for Sanvicente in order to keep some of his impatient critics at bay. Having already achieved this away from home, expectations have increased and a solid win in his former stomping ground of Estadio Agustín Tovar – home of the reigning champions Zamora FC, whom he led to two successive titles – now seems the order of the day. Whether this has any bearing on his undoubted desire to use this rare opportunity to experiment ahead of the 2015 Copa América will remain unclear until the game kicks off next Wednesday.

Darren Spherical 

@DarrenSpherical

Preview for Venezuela’s February 2015 Friendly Double-Header with Honduras

Friendly International Double-Header

4 February 2015

Honduras vs Venezuela

Estadio Olímpico Metropolitano, San Pedro Sula 

11 February 2015 

Venezuela vs Honduras

Estadio Agustín Tovar, Barinas 

Less Prestigious Than Friendlies?

This international double-header between two nations represented by players from their respective domestic leagues (plus three MLS stars, in the case of Honduras) would be more accurately defined as a pair of ‘B’ internationals. Indeed, approximately three-quarters of a typical, fully fit Venezuela squad tends to consist of players based overseas. Even from the pool of home players, coach Noel Sanvicente has been partially thwarted in his attempt to watch the best local talent at close-quarters as the dates of these two matches coincide with Deportivo Táchira’s two Copa Libertadores play-off games against Paraguayan giants Cerro Porteño. From the side from San Cristóbal, he would have likely called up young centre-back Wilker Ángel (who scored on his debut against Bolivia in November), jinking midfielder Yohandry Orozco (who also featured against El Verde), as well as Gelmin Rivas (the highest scoring Venezuelan in the domestic league). Consequently, as these games are going to be contested by players who are largely unlikely to even feature again on the same field together for their country, it is a struggle, at least from tactical and team-building perspectives, to justify their arrangement.

The Managers:

Any Preparation Time is Invaluable

It may well prove that what the respective managers gain from proceedings will not be readily discernible to the majority of spectactors, as this may consist of learning who they feel they can trust, who are most receptive to their ideas and/or who shows the most potential in training.

For Honduras, these will be the first two games under the stewardship of Colombian coach Jorge Luis Pinto, last seen in the dugout by a mass audience guiding Costa Rica to a remarkable Quarter-Final finish in the 2014 World Cup. It remains to be seen whether he opts for the defence-minded counter-attacking approach that he utilised with Los Ticos when leading this particular Central American nation who generated some headlines of their own in Brazil – though largely for their rather physical play on and off the ball. With both squads mostly containing home-based players he does, arguably, have an advantage over his opposite number as he possesses some first-hand insights into Venezuelan football. Indeed, for almost a year and a half prior to taking the Costa Rica job, he was the coach of Deportivo Táchira and ended his reign with great success by winning the 2010-11 championship. Thus, as neither nation has called upon any of their emerging prospects from their U20 contingents – both of which having been recently preoccupied with their respective regional tournaments – he should have some familiarity with the majority of the Venezuelan side.

That is not to say his counterpart Sanvicente is completely in the dark regarding his opponents, as eight of the World Cup squad remain, including the MLS trio of Luis Garrido, Jorge Claros and Óscar Boniek García. Although attaining positive results may not be the primary purpose of such games, he will, however, surely be looking to gain at least one victory from the double-header. The man they call ‘Chita’ may have received much goodwill upon taking the job in July but, even though he has encountered some bad luck with injuries, having lost all four of the games he has overseen* he has certainly not been without criticism. A win then, irrespective of the personnel and methods used to achieve it, would give him some breathing space and surely boost morale amongst both the playing and coaching staff.

Venezuela’s Players

A Rare Opportunity for the Majority

In all, Venezuela have officially lost their last five games, with the first in this dismal sequence coming last March against Honduras in the same ground the first game will be played this time around. From this 2-1 defeat that featured many squad regulars, only Rómulo Otero – who started and scored a fine free-kick – and Arquímedes Figuera – who came on for little more than five minutes –  have been selected in the current crop.

Thus, it seems that Venezuela’s players, at least, will be very unfamiliar with their Honduran counterparts (and, depending on how much insight Pinto can impart, vice versa), not to mention somewhat unacquainted with one another. Indeed, this 20-man, largely makeshift, squad has been chosen from 10 different teams and the majority of these players have only really been together for a three-day series of training modules (from 19-21 January). Unless several players have an abnormal telepathic understanding, one thing that should not be expected from the Venezuelan players is free-flowing passing movements and creativity.

Nevertheless, while in this squad there are players who have little hope of a call-up to June’s Copa América squad and others who are frankly making up the numbers, approximately one-third have been previously selected at some point in the Sanvicente era. The majority of these are not regular starters but will most probably find themselves in the line-up next to players who they are unlikely to ever begin a competitive international with. Though their interplay and partnerships with most of their team-mates will not be utilised in future matches, they will nevertheless be under scrutiny with regards to their performances and how faithfully they carry out the coach’s instructions.

Thus, with all these caveats out of the way, what follows is a brief look at some aspects of La Vinotinto‘s side to look out for in these two games:

What to Look out for in the Venezuelan Side

How the Goalkeepers Perform

With Rafael Romo and Alain Baroja in the squad, both will likely feature at some point and, quite probably, receive 90 minutes each. With number one choice Dani Hernández having recently moved from the Real Valladolid substitutes’ bench to the Tenerife first team, seemingly only a severe loss of form on his part could see either of these men take his place between the sticks on a regular basis. However, it is not entirely clear who is the favoured stand-in, as neither have played in this new era. Although Romo – unlike Baroja – received a call-up to the last squad in November, he has been known to make the odd glaring error (as most recently witnessed at the weekend for his club side, Mineros de Guayana). His rival from Caracas FC perhaps benefits from playing for a more in-form club though he has himself made some impressive saves lately, yet in terms of goals conceded this season, there is little to separate the two men. The argument is unlikely to be settled by these two games, though they may go some way to suppressing it for the foreseeable future.

How the Defence Copes

This consideration may well be included in every Venezuela preview until at least when the upcoming World Cup Qualifying campaign ends. While Romo and/or Baroja will do well to avoid making any of the handling and positioning errors of Hernández, it is more the back four and the defensive-midfield partnerships that have been at fault in recent matches.

In Sanvicente’s four games as manager, his side have conceded 13 goals (*14 officially – see footnote), being frequently bypassed with ease in midfield and slow, not to mention disorganised, when dealing with through-balls and crosses. Left-back Gabriel Cichero – who is the only player in this squad to have faced Costa Rica under Pinto in a 2-0 loss back in December 2011 – has the unfortunate distinction of having started all of these games. He was not alone in his errors, but many fans did reserve for him their sternest opprobrium. Yet Sanvicente may well find his experience and know-how at this level invaluable, as he will likely be lining up with three other defenders who have little chance of playing much competitive international football. One possible defensive colleague, Juan Fuenmayor, who can operate at either left-back or in central defence, may have a couple-dozen caps to his name but the last of these came as a last-minute substitute four years ago and, more to the point, at 35 years old, age is not on his side. Cichero’s organisational and leadership capacities may be especially required when, as is likely, he finds himself in a back-line with Francisco CarabalíAndrés Sánchez and/or Jhon Chancellor who, between them, have a mixture of little and no senior international experience.

In front of the back four, when everyone is fit and available, Sanvicente appears to favour a defensive-midfield partnership of converted Málaga right-back, Roberto Rosales, and new captain, Tomás Rincón of Genoa. Although he has only ever been able to field this pairing once, when both men are available, the players in the current set-up have no chance of dislodging them. Indeed, when two players from the domestic league – Édgar Jiménez and Rafael Acosta – began the 5-0 thrashing meted out by Chile in November, both were hopelessly and repeatedly left for dead, unable to cope with the pace and movement of players from vastly superior leagues. Acosta also started but was to fare little better in the subsequent 3-2 defeat by Bolivia and so it was readily apparent, if it was not already, that the players who are used to competing in Europe’s top leagues were far better suited to these positions. Nevertheless, Acosta survives to live another day and is in this squad, though rather than looking to push for a regular first-team place, he should be more concerned with preserving his status as a fringe player in the squad. Franklin Lucena, who came on as a substitute for Acosta against Chile and replaced Jiménez in the line-up for the Bolivia game, would appear to be his most likely competitor from this pool of players to be first-choice stand-by, though again, turning 34 later this month, he does not appear to have much of a long-term future.

Rómulo Otero’s Role as an Attacking Threat

In the Sanvicente era, a recurring theme has been the inability of the attacking players to effectively and consistently link up and create chances. While this may be partly explained away by the changes in personnel that have occurred from game-to-game in these positions, it is nevertheless a concern. From their overseas contingent, Venezuela do not lack players of considerable talent who can play in the line behind the forward(s), with talents at their disposal including Luis Manuel Seijas, Juan Arango, Alejandro Guerra, rising star Juanpi and even, if required, Mario Rondón (who has been more accustomed to playing further forward). Thus again, the players in the current squad have quite a job on their hands with regards to attempting to gain a first-team place, though if anyone can do it, Rómulo Otero is surely the man. The Caracas FC starlet made substitute appearances against Chile and Bolivia, impressively assisting Alexander González’s goal against the latter with a swiftly executed lofted diagonal ball. With teams from abroad interested in him for some time now, and at the age of just 22 being the most internationally experienced attacking midfielder in this particular side, there should be some onus on him to impose himself in the games and be the catalyst going forward.

Elsewhere in this area, it will be interesting to see what Luis Vargas can offer, having played a key role in Zamora FC’s resurgence in form and subsequent ascent to the top of the Torneo Clausura.

How the Forwards Fare

At the very top of the field, not one of the forwards called up in previous match squads has come from the domestic league and the highest-scoring Venezuelan at home – Gelmin Rivas – is not even available for this clash. So what hope do this crop have of even being in with a chance of a place in a future squad for a competitive match?

Some focus will be on Jesús Lugo, a one-club man of only 23, who has been impressive creating and scoring chances in Aragua FC’s ascent to the outskirts of the title race and has U20 international experience. Despite being classified as a forward, he does tend to play a deeper role, offering support for the main goalscorer(s) and often finding himself in more of an attacking midfield position – an already highly competitive area in the selección, as noted.

When it comes to more traditional goal-getters, though Caracas FC’s Edder Farías has a respectable scoring record, he will turn 27 in the spring and yet has less than ten caps to his name. More long-term potential may come from taking a chance on Manuel Arteaga, a 20-year-old who has already scored twice in the Clausura for his new club Zulia FC, demonstrating strong composure when presented with one-on-one opportunities. He has previously had trials with Liverpool and Fiorentina, as well as a non-playing stint with Parma, so if his good form continues at club level, he may well earn a move abroad and find himself more in contention for future call-ups.

Ultimately, with the likes of Salomón Rondón, Mario Rondón, Josef Martínez, Miku and Juan Falcón all playing in strong European leagues, it will not be easy for any domestic forwards to find a spot in the first-choice squad, an issue faced by most players in this crop, irrespective of position. With so many reserves (and reserves to the reserves) on display, it is undeniable that these two meetings have the feel of being of less significance than even regular friendly games are generaly perceived. Nevertheless, as the games were hastily arranged at short-notice to give the managers some much-needed preparation time ahead of their respective continent-wide tournaments in June/July, it can be safely assumed that Sanvicente and Pinto view them as far from pointless.

20-man Venezuela Squad for the double-header against Honduras

Goalkeepers

Alain Baroja (Caracas FC)

Rafael Romo (Mineros de Guayana)

Defenders

Francisco Carabalí (Caracas FC)

Jhon Chancellor (Deportivo Lara)

Gabriel Cichero (Mineros de Guayana)

Juan Fuenmayor (Deportivo Anzoátegui)

Andrés Sánchez (Caracas FC)

Midfielders

Rafael Acosta (Mineros de Guayana)

Arquímedes Figuera (Deportivo La Guaira)

Argenis Gómez (Trujillanos FC)

Luis González (Deportivo La Guaira)

Óscar González (Deportivo La Guaira)

Franklin Lucena (Deportivo La Guaira)

Rómulo Otero (Caracas FC)

Luis Vargas (Zamora FC)

Forwards 

Manuel Arteaga (Zulia FC)

Richard Blanco (Mineros de Guayana)

Edder Farías (Caracas FC)

Jesús Lugo (Aragua FC)

Aquiles Ocanto (Carabobo FC)

*Venezuela’s match with Japan on 9 September 2014 ended 2-2 on the day but was later awarded as a 3-0 victory to Japan. Read more about it here.

Darren Spherical

@DarrenSpherical

Review of the Title Race in the 2014 Venezuelan Torneo Apertura

With the Torneo Clausura, the second half of Venezuela’s domestic season, starting this weekend, Hispanospherical.com looks back at how the 2014 Torneo Apertura panned out, paying particular interest to the fortunes of six of the league’s leading clubs. First, however, the events that occurred at the site of the final-day victory must be relayed…

Trujillanos Win the 2014 Torneo Apertura After Their Final Match is Stopped Following Violent Scenes

Security Forces Struggle to Deal Effectively with Delinquents at the Estadio Olímpico de la UCV, 14 December 2014 (Líder en Deportes’ Youtube Channel).

In circumstances as unsavoury as they were absurd, Trujillanos lifted their first-ever domestic title despite playing little more than 50 minutes of what was supposed to be their triumphant final win of Venezuela’s Torneo Apertura. 

While two clubs based in the nation’s capital, Deportivo La Guaira and, to a lesser extent, Caracas FC, went into the final weekend with some residual hopes of prizing the trophy away from Los Guerreros de la Montaña, the leaders never looked like faltering at the final hurdle. They took an early lead against another side from Caracas, Deportivo Petare, courtesy of a low 30-yard strike from Johan Osorio that skidded into the bottom corner and then midway through the first half, the Colombian forward James Cabezas – the club’s top-scorer in the league – headed them into a two-goal lead. Just after the restart, their position seemed so assured that midfielder Argenis Gómez felt it was the time and the place to attempt a Panenka-style chipped penalty. However, while this rebounded back off the crossbar there was little chance of his minor act of insouciance rebounding back in his face as shortly afterwards, the game was abruptly halted.

Attention was instead compelled to turn to the actions of a group of 10-15 hooded male youths seemingly ranging in age from teenagers to those in their early twenties, whose presence outside the Estadio Olímpico de la UCV had been noted on social networks before the game. Spectators inside the dilapitated stadium and at home watched on as, from behind the rusty perimeter fencing at the end that separates the ground from the streets, this ostensibly unaffiliated mob began hurling abuse as well as throwing stones and bottles. As there was a large space – not to mention, in common with most other multi-purpose grounds in the league, an athletics track – between them and the fans, no-one is believed to have been hurt but their persistent threats of intimidation required the security forces to take action. Consequently, pellets were shot and tear gas was sprayed, the latter of which caused several of the patient players on the field to shield their faces by either covering them with their shirts or laying prostrate on the pitch. Scenes befitting of impending champions, these were not.

Forty minutes passed and every other team in the league had completed their season apart from the presumed heirs to the throne and their beleaguered hosts. Ultimately, the inability of the security forces to deal effectively with the situation was deemed to be due to Petare’s understaffing and lack of available provisions. Consequently, with the safety of those inside the ground not guaranteed, the match, as well as the season, was concluded. Officially, the game was awarded to Trujillanos as a 3-0 victory but the outpouring of any euphoria that events had not managed to drain from their players was further stalled, as on security grounds, they were hastily ushered back into changing room.

Allegedly, this was partly due to the delinquents voicing their opposition to the side from the north-west city of Valera openly expressing their elation in the capital’s premier football stadium, which is also shared by the team that they are believed to support, Caracas FC. Nevertheless, this did not stop the 100-150 fans of Los Guerreros running onto the pitch in jubilation and mercifully, they were eventually allowed to be joined by some of their players.

The exuberance with which the first-ever title win in the club’s 33-year history was celebrated belied any dissatisfaction with how the day’s events unfolded. However, though Trujillanos were not fortunate to be awarded the win and their fans were justifiably proud of their team’s achievement, surely even they would acknowledge that the the manner in which the season unfolded in their favour was as much due to their rivals’ incompetence as much as their own quality. Indeed, the serendipitous aspects of their victory may partly explain why little could tarnish this historic triumph.

Torneo Apertura 2014 Title Race Review:

An In-Depth Look at the Campaigns of Six Leading Teams

Perhaps it is an inevitable consequence of a 17-match campaign in which the whims of the fixture list plays a part in determining the final standings, but the title-race during this Torneo Apertura was a very topsy-turvy affair with several teams at times looking like potential champions. One took a commanding early lead only to suffer an appalling run of results, others were initially hindered by engagements outside of the nation’s borders but made gradual progress up the league, some sides hovered in the upper echelons without ever quite making the necessary upgrade and one club that was tipped for glory never even challenged.

What then follows below are some relatively accessible reviews of the performances of six leading clubs accompanied by some musings on their chances in the Torneo Clausura. The clubs were chosen as much for their statuses going into the campaign as much as their final positions. The first three of these sides, by virtue of their final positions in the 2013/14 campaign, will play in the 2015 edition of the continent’s leading club competition, the Copa Libertadores. The subsequent three teams all played in 2014’s Copa Sudamericana (the continent’s secondary club competition, which ran from August to December), yet interestingly all finished higher in the Apertura than the three Libertadores-qualifiers. There were, of course, some other teams, such as Aragua and Deportivo Anzoátegui, who finished in higher positions than three of the teams who have been included and who, at times, appeared to be potential dark horses for the title. Their exclusion here is largely down to a combination of not being tipped pre-season and being slightly off-the-pace of the front-runners but nevertheless, they certainly played their part in the Apertura and it would not be a surprise to see them seriously challenge for the Clausura.

Before getting onto the reviews, for the uninitiated, here is a brief summary of how the Venezuelan Primera División is structured: 18 teams play each other once in the Torneo Apertura (Opening Tournament) from August to December, then the fixtures are reversed and they do it all over again in the Torneo Clausura (Closing Tournament) from January to May. The team(s) that is/are victorious in each tournament is/are considered to have won a title. If one team wins both then they are crowned the champions outright. However, as is more likely, if the tournaments are won by different teams then these two title-winners face one another in a two-legged play-off in May. There is also a domestic cup competition, the Copa Venezuela, that is played from August to December. 

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Final Standings of the 2014 Venezuelan Torneo Apertura (Soccerway).

Three Copa Libertadores 2015 Qualifiers:

Two Never Challenged, One Faltered at the Halfway Stage 

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  Zamora FC

Despite having won the last two championships outright – the only such victories in their history – the recent glory of the side from the late Hugo Chávez’s home state of Barinas was never predicted to continue into the new season. Indeed, as is common in South American football, they were victims of their own success, as their May national victory was rewarded with the departures of some key individuals. On the playing side of things, these included Pedro Ramírez – a jinking midfielder who was dubbed the ‘Venezuelan Messi’ after a mazy, dribbling goal against Carabobo – to Swiss club FC Sion and top-scorer Juan Falcón to FC Metz, where he made a fruitful start, netting four times in his first eight Ligue 1 games. The most keenly felt loss, however, was undoubtedly that of manager Noel Sanvicente who, having won the national championship twice with Zamora and five times with Caracas FC, was deservedly named as the new manager of the Venezuelan national side.

‘El Chita’, as he is affectionately known, was present to be commemorated before his ex-club’s opening game against Deportivo Lara, a mid-table side with the most modern, purpose-built stadium in the league, even if it is regularly less than ten per cent full. However, this match was played at Zamora’s home, Estadio Agustín Tovar, where Sanvicente must have been squirming in his seat as he witnessed his former charges come within seconds of surrendering the then-30-game home undefeated record he had overseen. A dubious penalty in the last minute of stoppage-time won by the brightest remaining prospect Jhon Murillo – who had an unsuccessful trial with Basel in the close season – and converted by the Argentine Javier López ensured the champions saved face with a 1-1 draw.

Yet this result only offered momentary salvation as Zamora were to endure a disastrous run of form, not winning any of their first 11 games, seeing their unbeaten home record end after 33 games against – somewhat appropriately – Trujillanos and finding themselves at the very bottom of the table. Sanvicente’s replacement, Juvencio Betancourt, was an early casualty of this meek title defence, losing his job after six games and gaining only four points. The man who stepped into his shoes, Julio Quintero, initially had no greater joy trying to stem the club’s decline and it was actually on his watch that they lost their unbeaten home record. However, this was to be their last defeat of the season as, following a draw with Petare, they went on an impressive and statistically unlikely run of five consecutive 2-1 victories. Two significant scalps along the way came against the two most decorated clubs in the top-flight, Caracas FC and Deportivo Táchira.

On the final day of the season, had a red card to midfielder Jhoan Arenas with 15 minutes remaining not put them on the back-foot, they may well have avoided conceding a late equaliser against strugglers Zulia and recorded their sixth straight 2-1 victory. Nevertheless, this 2-2 draw meant they ended the Apertura undefeated in their last seven games, clawing back at least some dignity with a 12th-placed finish. Following the campaign’s climax, Quintero – the beneficiary of a new contract – was quick to make reinforcements and while it remains to be seen whether they can be anything other than fodder in their Libertadores group, they will surely fancy their chances of a top-half finish in the Clausura.

Minerosdeguayana

Mineros de Guayana

Pre-season, the side furthest east of the nation’s north-western footballing heartlands was believed to be in pole position to win the Apertura. Indeed, Mineros de Guayana were unfortunate to have finished runners-up to Zamora in May’s Gran Final following a 4-3 aggregate loss, having won the 2013 Apertura and collected the most points in the aggregate table.

On paper, even with the retirement of former international midfielder Ricardo Páez and the loaning out to Colombian giants Atlético Nacional of current national team box-to-box battler, Alejandro Guerra, there appeared to be little disputing the quality of their squad. After all, they still contributed the most players to the national selección. However, in the internationals played concurrently with the Apertura, these individuals were to become the most consistently criticised performers, particularly experienced left-back Gabriel Cichero, who moved to Mineros pre-season on loan from Swiss side FC Sion after a spell at Nantes. He has played in all four defensively porous games of the Sanvicente era, including the 5-0 hiding served by Chile. In this game, his club team-mates Edgar Jiménez and Rafael Acosta played in front of him as the defensive-midfield pairing whose shortcomings were to be embarrassingly highlighted as they were repeatedly bypassed with ease.

Whether their form in the shirts of La Vinotinto was influenced by their club performances or vice versa is difficult to say, but their start to the season was nevertheless far from what was anticipated and ultimately, they were never to come close to challenging for the title. Alarm bells started ringing early on as an unconvincing opening day 1-0 win at home against newly-promoted Metropolitanos was followed up by a 1-1 home draw against another side fresh from the Segunda División, Portuguesa. Their opponents may have had five domestic titles to their name but these were all won back in the 1970s in more prosperous days when they even managed to attract Brazilian legend Jairzinho to the club for one memorable year in 1977. They even took the lead but a Richard Blanco strike 15 minutes from time restored parity for Mineros but disaster was only temporarily averted as, following away draws against first, Aragua and then, on a rain-sodden pitch in a farcical game against Zamora, they were to lose their 32-game home undefeated streak in the league.

Where the similarly lengthy run of last season’s champions was ended by this Apertura’s eventual winners, that of last year’s runners-up was halted by the side that were to finish second, Deportivo La Guaira. Another way in which Mineros de Guayana’s campaign was to echo that of Zamora’s occurred a few days after their next game, a 3-1 away defeat to Deportivo Lara.

Indeed, also six games into their campaign, Mineros parted ways with their manager yet whereas Juvencio Betancourt’s sacking elicited few mourners, that was certainly not the case for the departure of Richard Páez. Owing mainly to his role in overseeing the national team’s rise on the international stage from 2001-07, he is, without doubt, one of the leading figures in Venezuelan football over the past 10-15 years (if not of all time). Arriving at Mineros in advance of 2013’s Torneo Clausura following stints in Colombia and Peru, not only did he come agonisingly close to providing the club with their first championship in 2013/14 since their solitary triumph in 1988/89 but he left with a win-rate of over 63 per cent. Understandably, many fans were upset at the owners’ apparent impatience with this downturn in results and protested on the pitch at the next game at home to Estudiantes de Mérida. Of their many chants, some were aimed at César Farías, Páez’s successor on the international stage (2008-13) who had recently been sacked by Mexico’s Xolos de Tijuana and since been linked with the Mineros role.

Shortly after what turned out to be a 2-0 victory for Mineros, it was to actually be Marcos Mathías, assistant to Farías at Xolos and also the former coach of Venezuela’s Under-17 and Under-20 sides, who took over the reins for the final ten matches of the campaign. Though his points-per-game ratio for the Apertura (16 from 10) was to prove superior to that of Páez (6 from 6), this should not reflect too negatively on the ex-national coach who not only was not given a great deal of time, but also had a difficult job re-invigorating his troops after May’s disappointment. Nevertheless, Mathías ensured the side recovered from the lower-half of the table to finish sixth and though the lack of goals in four of his games must have been a concern, he has already attempted to rectify this ahead of their Clausura and Libertadores campaigns with the signing of James Cabezas. More on this later in the section on Trujillanos.

deportivotachira

Deportivo Táchira

With seven championships to their name, the second-most successful team in Venezuelan history were also predicted to have a strong campaign, with many fancying them as potential runners-up and some even suggesting they were joint-favourites to win the Apertura. However, the difference between Mineros and the club situated high in the northern Andes less than an hour’s drive from the Colombian border was that, for the first half of the season, the latter actually challenged for the title and looked the front-runners to win it.

Indeed, the club whose home games were to be witnessed by the highest average attendance in the Apertura got off to a fine start, beating another of the capital’s five top-flight sides, Atlético Venezuela, 3-0 at home on the opening day with striker Gelmin Rivas notching a hat-trick. In terms of goals, the 25-year-old forward was to enjoy the most prosperous calendar year of his career to date and he was to score 7 in his club’s opening 6 games of the Apertura, at which point Táchira led the way, having dropped just 2 points from a possible 18. This was to be the high point for Rivas as he failed to hit the target again, with Deportivo Anzoátegui’s Panamanian international striker Edwin Aguilar ultimately topping the scoring charts with 13 goals.

It was also to be Aguilar and co. who ended Táchira’s unbeaten start in the latter’s seventh game with another Panamanian, Rolando Escobar, netting a late winner. However, despite this blip, they were to remain at the helm of the league and followed this game up with a 1-1 home draw against Carabobo – the highest-attended match of the Apertura (15,378), which witnessed arguably the best goal – and then a 3-1 away win against Deportivo Petare.

Yet remarkably, despite Táchira’s bright start, this victory in the Estadio Olímpico de la UCV was to be their last one of the campaign. Their next two games were successive defeats away to Mineros de Guayana and then, in a considerable upset in their eleventh game, at home to Metropolitanos, at which point Los Aurinegros were usurped at the top for the first time in the Apertura by Deportivo La Guaira.

Having accrued 20 points from their first nine games, Táchira gained just 3 from their remaining eight, free-falling from 1st to a final position of 11th. If it helps to further highlight their declining form, when they were riding high at the top nine games in, Zamora were languishing in last with a mere four points, yet managed to salvage their campaign to finish just one point and one place behind Táchira with 22 points in 12th.

Somewhat curiously given the knee-jerk responses to adversity at Zamora and Mineros, Táchira’s manager Daniel Farías kept his job, though the relatively youthful 33-year-old doubtless has a considerable job reinvigorating his side ahead of the Torneo Clausura. He has much talent at his disposal, not least towering centre-back Wilker Ángel, an emerging prospect who scored in November against Bolivia on his international debut and has reportedly attracted attention from clubs in Europe and elsewhere in South America. Another key player in the squad is the attacking midfielder Yohandry Orozco, who moved from Zulia to Wolfsburg in January 2011, hot on the heels of scoring a sensational goal for the Under-20 national side that received acclaim from, amongst others, renowned South American football authority, Tim Vickery. He returned to his homeland to Táchira in mid-2013 having made little impact in Germany and though he enjoyed a strong first season back (12 goals in 34 games), a solitary goal in this Apertura was all he could muster as he struggled to regain the form that gained him a reputation as one of the country’s most exciting prospects.

It remains to be seen whether Farías can bring the best out of Orozco and his team-mates as well as hold onto Ángel. Unlike Zamora and Mineros, Táchira will have to qualify for the Libertadores Group Stage and with a tough play-off tie against Paraguay’s Cerro Porteño in which the likeliest outcome will involve Táchira having to focus on the league, this may well prove to be a blessing in disguise for Farías.

Three Copa Sudamericana 2014 Qualifiers:

All Three Were in the Hunt Until the Final Day

caracasfcfc

Caracas FC

Historically, the country’s most successful side with 11 championship wins, Caracas FC will definitely have more time to focus on the Torneo Clausura. After their commitments in the Copa Sudamericana caused some fixture congestion and international call-ups deprived them of key players at crucial moments in the Torneo Apertura, Eduardo Saragó’s side will surely relish the opportunity to rectify what may be seen as a missed opportunity.

Indeed, due to reaching the second round of the Copa Sudamericana, Caracas FC were playing catch-up for two-thirds of their campaign being, at times, two or three games behind their rivals. Yet after blowing an opportunity abroad in late September to face Boca Juniors in the Round of 16, the number of rescheduled matches and inconsistent form of their domestic rivals meant that the league title always appeared to be within their grasp.

Their campaign got off to a false start as, with a mere 17 seconds on the clock, Estudiantes de Mérida’s Colombian attacker Over García struck home past Alain Baroja from 30 yards for what proved to be the only goal of the game. This loss was to be the only blemish on Caracas’ record at the Estadio Olímpico de la UCV all season, as they won all of their remaining eight games there, in the process racking up high-scoring victories against Aragua (5-0), Zulia (4-2), Tucanes de Amazonas (5-1) and Portuguesa (5-2). Thus, ultimately it was their away form that let them down: in these eight games, they were to attain only one victory – 2-0 against Deportivo Petare – and even this occurred at the Estadio Olímpico.

Nevertheless, with no other team really making a convincing claim for top spot for any sustained period of time, their own title hopes were always alive and never more so following their tenth match of the Apertura on 2 November at home to Carabobo. Within just 18 minutes, the side representing the state that was the site of the decisive 1821 battle that led to the nation’s independence from Spain, were 2-0 up. This was the twelfth game for the visitors and with some impressive results and no defeats to their name, they were beginning to look like viable outsiders for the title. Ricardo Andreutti got Caracas back into the game not long before the break but, well into the second half, Carabobo continued to attack and often looked the more likely to score. That is, until the home side won a penalty with just over 15 minutes remaining that was converted by the well-travelled and much-capped Miguel Mea Vitali who, in the 82nd minute, then knocked in a rebound to complete an exhilarating 3-2 comeback.

With this victory, their fans’ pining for glory increased in volume as, following their solitary away win against Petare, their side, with two games in hand, were now on 23 points, hot on the tails of Deportivo La Guaira (25) and Trujillanos (24) – the latter of whom were to be their next opponents.

This game at Estadio José Alberto Pérez was billed as potentially having a crucial influence on where the trophy ended up and, on that front, it certainly delivered. The visitors suffered an early setback when James Cabezas gave the hosts an early lead and things went from bad to worse later on in the half when forward Edder Farías got himself sent off for violent conduct. Yet an unlikely point appeared to have been salvaged when Mea Vitali, a defensive-midfielder by trade, was again on hand to level up the score in the 67th minute. However, with what was virtually the last touch of the game deep into stoppage-time, Johan Osorio directed a header into the net to give Trujillanos a vital win that put them in pole position.

Reeling from this late blow, Caracas followed this up a week later with another 2-1 loss, this time against a resurgent Zamora, who gained their second consecutive win (as a sidenote, the consolation goal was scored by 17-year-old Leomar Pinto who, earlier in the year, enjoyed a brief stint training with Arsenal). With these two defeats, Los Rojos del Ávila had squandered virtually all of the belief and optimism that had been stockpiled over the preceding two months as they were no longer really playing catch-up, being still in 3rd, but four points behind leaders Trujillanos and with just the one game in hand.

However, Caracas may feel a little aggrieved as both of these defeats came at a time in November when they were deprived of some key players due to international duty. The most notable loss was of one Rómulo Otero, a nifty attacking midfielder and free-kick maestro prone to the occasional dribble who has courted much attention abroad for at least the past couple of years or so. Along with full-back Francisco Carabalí, he was in the senior international squad that faced Chile and Bolivia, the latter of whom were on the receiving end of a rifled strike from former Caracas utility man Alexander González (now of Swiss side FC Thun), who was superbly assisted by his former club team-mate Otero.

The Trujillanos game was played when both men were with the national set-up and the Zamora match occurred just 24 hours after the Bolivia international – certainly not enough time to return and recover from the altitude of La Paz. By contrast, Trujillanos had no players on senior duty and Franklin Lucena, the sole representative of the other leading title-challengers Deportivo La Guaira, had a four-day wait before his club’s next game against Portuguesa. Thus, he was able to come on as a late substitute in a 1-0 win against what turned out to be the worst team of the Torneo Apertura.

It should be noted that Trujillanos and La Guaira did have some other absentees of their own around this time until late November/early December. The former were missing midfielder Carlos Sosa and the latter were without Adalberto Peñaranda, an exciting prospect who, back in February at the age of just 16, scored a phenomenal individual goal that involved running from the edge of his own area, dribbling past six players and firing home. They were both competing with Venezuela’s Under-20 side in Veracruz, Mexico, at the Central American & Caribbean Games, a tournament at which they eventually finished runners-up to the host nation. However, Caracas FC themselves had not one, but two players in this squad themselves: Beycker Velásquez (who, admittedly, as reserve goalkeeper to Alain Baroja, was unlikely to have played even had he not made the trip) and defender Jefre Vargas (who, by contrast, had been a regular starter up until this point).

Thus, while the other two title-challengers had some issues with international commitments, Caracas FC were the most adversely affected in this area. Whether things would have been different had they not been encumbered in this way is impossible to say but these two defeats all but ended their title bid, with only a notable slip-up each from their rivals (more on this soon) keeping alive their rather faint hopes until the final day.

Looking forward to the Torneo Clausura, Caracas FC may be glad that they are not playing in the Libertadores and are thus less likely to suffer from a domestic fixture pile-up. They should consider themselves amongst the favourites to lift the trophy but in the brief inter-season break have already parted with some players, most notably Argentine defender Roberto Tucker. Their potential challenge for silverware may also be hindered by the potential loss of Jhonder Cádiz, a 19-year-old attacker whose agent has not been shy about claiming is a wanted man abroad. Most importantly, they will need to keep ahold of sought-after golden boy Otero who, at 22 years of age and having already had interest from Grêmio rebuffed by his family, surely can not hold off taking the overseas test for much longer.

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Deportivo La Guaira

Of all the sides who had a plausible chance of winning the Torneo Apertura, this well-funded, ambitious ‘new’ club was alone in occupying a position within the top two for virtually all of the campaign. They partially benefited from a lack of interference with their domestic schedule and once September had got under way, the team formerly known as Real Esppor soon became the likeliest challengers to early pace-makers, Deportivo Táchira, eventually usurping them in early October after their eleventh game. Yet despite defeating Trujillanos in the league as well as on penalties in the final of the domestic cup competition, they were ultimately to be denied a domestic double, surprisingly dropping points in the penultimate round in a game in which they were firm favourites.

Nevertheless, though this was a very dispiriting finale, the achievements of Leonardo González’s men in the second half of 2014 should provide them with considerable optimism going into 2015’s Clausura, for which they will be many people’s favourites. Indeed, not only did they beat the eventual Apertura winners 1-0 away from home and won their first ever trophy against them in the Copa Venezuela final, but also, with just two losses, they were the hardest side to defeat in the league (Trujillanos, Deportivo Lara and Carabobo all lost three).

Furthermore, they possessed the meanest defence, conceding 13 goals, whereas their nearest rivals, Trujillanos and Deportivo Anzoátegui, let in 15, a statistic that no doubt pleased goalkeeper, Renny Vega. Capped over 60 times for Venezuela and affectionately remembered for his last-minute assist for Grenddy Perozo’s equaliser against Paraguay at Copa América 2011, Vega announced during the Apertura that he will be retiring in 2015 and so has a strong chance of going out with some silverware.

Things could have perhaps been better at the other end as La Guaira possessed only the joint-fifth best scoring record in the league, netting 25 times in 17 games. Argentine forward Imanol Iriberri was their leading light in this area, finishing the campaign with 7 league goals to put him in joint-third position overall. With regards to league goals, he had no rivals on his own side, with his nearest competitors getting just two goals each, although it was a different case in the Copa Venezuela, where the scoring was spread around more and his compatriot Luciano Ursino was actually the club’s top-scorer. Coach González doubtless had some concerns in this area and so, ahead of the Clausura, has brought in not only Edgar Pérez Greco (6 goals for Deportivo Lara) but also Fredys Arrieta, who was in fact the top-scorer in the Copa Venezuela for rivals Trujillanos (more on this in the next section).

Thus, with these acquisitions, La Guaira appear to be in rather good health ahead of the upcoming campaign and, come May, will be hoping that they will not be looking back even more ruefully at the game played on the night of 6 December 2014. This was a home clash against Zulia, a side from the oil-rich state of the same name in the nation’s north-west (hence their nickname ‘Los Petroleros‘) who were to end the campaign second-bottom with just 11 points. This was the second-to-last match of the Apertura when La Guaira had recently returned to pole position following a minor blip and were understandably firm favourites to win this game and thus go into their final game in control of their own destiny. Alas, the hosts were to struggle to dominate play, let alone win the game. Zulia took the lead just before the hour-mark when Vega was embarrassingly caught in no-man’s-land, completely missing a cross only for the ball to sail over his flailing arms and be opportunistically nodded in by Johan Arrieche. With 12 minutes left, a very fortuitous penalty was awarded La Guaira’s way, which experienced international midfielder Franklin Lucena slotted home. However, despite the hosts’ increasingly desperate – and, at times, shameful – antics in the remaining minutes, they were unable to find a winner and thus, after Trujillanos gained three points at the death the following day, La Guaira knew that winning their final match would count for little so long as the rivals also did – as proved to be the case.

Ultimately, though they had a very disappointing end to the campaign, if La Guaira are able to regroup and deal with their shortcomings rationally, they can look forward to a Torneo Clausura that they will be very strong contenders to win and thus be able put some ghosts to bed against Trujillanos in the Gran Final.

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Trujillanos

So, to the side from Trujillo State – home to a colossal statue of the Virgin Madonna that is even larger than the Statue of Liberty – who supplanted La Guaira at the penultimate stage and sealed the Torneo Apertura on the final day in circumstances no schoolboy dreams about. Given that their meagre budget is believed to be around average in the league, the fact that they were far from runaway winners should not detract from their accomplishment of winning their first ever title. However, unfortunately for Los Guerreros, their lack of financial resources means that they have, in common with most triumphant South American sides, become a victim of their own success with key players having already departed for pastures new. Yet rather than join big sides elsewhere on the continent or in Europe, these individuals have instead signed deals at some of the domestic clubs that, given these losses, Trujillanos now may struggle to effectively challenge in the Clausura. Nevertheless, as could be witnessed in the scenes accompanying their final-day victory, this was a triumph that their fans shall savour irrespective of some the immediate consequences and stands as a testament to what hard work and good organisation can achieve.

The man who orchestrated this win is Argentine coach Horacio Matuszyczk who started his playing career as a team-mate of none other than Diego Maradona in one professional season at Boca Juniors in 1981/82. After moving on to Racing and then enjoying a stint in Chile, he saw out his playing career in Venezuela where he retired in the mid-90s and was to re-emerge as a manager over a decade later. He arrived at Trujillanos at the beginning of this Apertura, coming fresh from a respectable spell at Tucanes de Amazonas, a club on the Colombian border with similar resources to his current team, though curiously able to attract larger crowds.

However, unlike González’s La Guaira, Matuszyczk was unable to mount a consistent title challenge from day one as his side’s Copa Sudamericana campaign interfered with their scheduled fixtures. When they got around to playing their second game of the Apertura on 10 September, their opponents were La Guaira themselves, who were contesting their fourth match and won it 1-0 courtesy of a great 25-yard strike from hot prospect Peñaranda.

Yet Trujillanos’ early masterplan to seize the title – if indeed they had one; after all, this is a team that had finished no higher than fourth in the previous few years – was thwarted not only by the fixture list but also by their own form. Indeed, in their first six games they picked up a mere 8 points from a possible 18, along the way surrendering a three-goal lead in a home draw with a rather mediocre Atlético Venezuela and following that up with a very poor 4-1 away defeat to Metropolitanos.

However, with the advent of October came the real start of their title pursuit as, beginning with a 1-0 win against Mineros de Guayana in their seventh game, they were to go on a phenomenal run until the end of the campaign, gaining 28 points from a possible 33 as well as a place in the Copa Venezuela final. Although Trujillanos, in contrast to high-scoring Caracas FC, never really delivered any emphatic victories – scoring, as they did, no more than three goals in any one game – they did what they needed to and as the positive results continued to be registered, so their confidence increased.

It was in fact the 2-1 last-minute victory over Caracas FC during the November international break that put them top of the table for the first time all season, leading Deportivo La Guaira by two points. They had only four games left to play and the momentum appeared to be with them, a feeling they went some way towards cementing after defeating Tucanes 1-0. However, their next game was the home leg of the Copa Venezuela final against La Guaira, which ended 1-1. Whether or not failing to beat their rivals gave rise to internal doubts regarding their credentials as potential champions is impossible to say but they followed this draw up with a 2-0 defeat in the league away to Deportivo Anzoátegui – a loss that La Guaira capitalised on. Indeed, Trujillanos now trailed their rivals by a point with just two games to go and following La Guaira’s Copa triumph on penalties (following another 1-1 draw) in the next game, the writing appeared to be on the wall for Los Guerreros.

However, lowly Zulia clearly had not read the script as they managed to hold La Guaira to a 1-1 draw in the penultimate round of fixtures, allowing Trujillanos a reprieve the subsequent day in their home game against Carabobo. If they won this, then going into the final day, their fate would once again be in their own hands. Yet their opponents – draw specialists, with nine, which was the league’s joint-highest – were never going to roll over and so it proved as, entering the final stages, the two sides found themselves level at 1-1. With this score, much excitement was building on social media as it appeared to let not only La Guaira, but also – albeit, to a lesser extent – Caracas FC, back into the title race. However, fans of both of these sides from the capital were to be reeled in for the suckerpunch as Trujillanos, for the second time in a key match, were to grab a stoppage-time winner. This came courtesy of a header following a flick-on from late substitute Irwin Antón, a man who played no more than 45 minutes in this Apertura spread over three games, yet certainly picked his moment to play an integral role in the title victory.

Thus, on the last day of Apertura, as has already been relayed in considerable detail, Trujillanos travelled to the capital to seal the deal. They took a 2-0 lead against strugglers Deportivo Petare that they never looked like surrendering and, following some violence and intimidation from local youths which saw the game halted for over forty minutes, the match and, consequently, the title was awarded to Trujillanos.

To be sure, this was an exceptional achievement and one that will offer much hope to many other mid-ranking sides with rather average budgets, yet it was also one that Los Guerreros de la Montaña were paying for before the confetti even had time to settle. Within a couple of days there were strong rumours that various players were leaving and before long, deals were announced that tore apart their attacking triumvirate. Indeed, while Sergio Álvarez has so far stayed put, the Colombian duo of Johan Cabezas and Fredys Arrieta have been snapped up by two rival sides. The former, their top-scorer in the league, has become Mineros de Guayana’s chief reinforcement ahead of their Copa Libertadores campaign and the latter, their top-scorer in the Copa Venezuela, in a particularly galling move, has signed for Deportivo La Guaira.

Although Trujillanos have a strong recent history with recruiting quality forwards – amongst others, Borussia Dortmund’s Colombian international Adrián Ramos had a successful loan spell here back in 2005 – they may struggle to find adequate replacements for the Torneo Clausura. Their inability to match the wages that can be offered by their rivals clearly hampers them and unfortunately, having also lost experienced defender Édixon Cuevas to Mineros, there is a considerable chance that they may slip, Zamora-esque, down the table in the upcoming campaign.

As it seems unlikely that they will triumph again it remains to be seen what condition they will be in when, as is probable, they meet the victors in May’s two-legged play-off between the Apertura and Clausura winners to determine the outright champion.

Darren Spherical

@DarrenSpherical