With Venezuela having kicked off Group C of this year’s Copa América with a victory against Colombia which, given the recent form of the squad, has to be considered a surprise, Hispanospherical.com takes a look back at some key talking points of the match, as well as provides some thoughts on the upcoming encounter with Peru.
Mission Accomplished: Venezuelan manager Noel Sanvicente celebrates winning against Colombia, 14 June 2015 (courtesy of GradaDigital)
Colombia 0-1 Venezuela – Talking Points
To read an extensive match report, complete with highlights, photographs and additional context, click here.
History or Humble Pie?
‘Venezuela have improved massively over the last decade or so; I fancy them today.’
‘Colombia have not beaten Venezuela in a competitive game since 2007 and, overall, have lost 3 of the last 5 meetings.’
‘A finely poised match: Don’t forget that Venezuela did remarkably well in the last tournament with their run to the semi-finals.’
While paraphrased, these comments and many similar ones were expressed in the build-up to the game, typically uttered by people who had paid La Vinotinto scant attention since the 2011 Copa América or, in a few cases, since their 2014 World Cup Qualifying campaign began to stall over two years ago. Their optimism, explicitly stated or otherwise, was nevertheless vindicated by the result. However, many of us who have followed Venezuela a little closer in more recent times, particularly since the inauguration of the Noel Sanvicente era back in July of last year, were anticipating a far less positive outcome. Indeed, one can not help but think of a certain ex-work colleague who, despite not being a devotee of the beautiful game, managed to predict the most correct outcomes of the games played at the 2010 World Cup out of anyone in her office and then proceeded to mock all the men who ‘thought they bloody knew it all, didn’t they?’ Nevertheless, following in an august tradition of football writing, this particular writer retains hope that any readers out there who perused this site’s cautious prognosis will stick around to glean some insights into why what was predicted beforehand ultimately did not transpire – at least not in the opening game.
Indeed, as has been noted in detail already, Noel Sanvicente, the seven-time Venezuelan domestic champion, had not had the most propitious of starts in his first eight games in charge of the national side. His three wins were of dubious merit (two wins with teams comprising solely of home-based talent and one against an understrength Peru), while his players had conceded a jarring 18 goals (19 officially) and only managed to find the net 12 times (10 officially). To add further potential woe to their plight, none of these goalscorers were named in the line-up on sunday. To put it bluntly, anyone who had to sit through last November’s 5-0 thumping meted out by Chile or, even more pertinently, the 2-1 defeat at the hands of Jamaica just three months ago, would have struggled to have envisaged not only the win, but the solidity, fitness levels and teamwork required to attain it.
So, what to make of this disparity? Where did the qualities evident in Rancagua come from? With the benefit of hindsight, one has to place some emphasis on March’s second international against Peru – the last warm-up game before the tournament – in which nine of the players in the line-up were ultimately also named from the start against Colombia (with all 11 starters on sunday having some part to play in the friendly victory). Indeed, the most similar starting XIs before this game featured, at most, six of the same players and these were against both Jamaica as well as Japan, with the latter match occurring all the way back in September.
The Peru match was seemingly crucial as it featured the first ever collective outing of the defence of Roberto Rosales, Oswaldo Vizcarrondo, Andrés Túñez and Fernando Amorebieta. While the first two were always going to be crucial players, this was Túñez’s only previous appearance under Sanvicente before the Colombia match, yet he along with Vizcarrondo were to win many plaudits on sunday for both how they stifled the likes of Bacca and Falcao as well the way in which they effectively dealt with crosses. Amorebieta, on the other hand, had only played in the Jamaica and Peru games pre-tournament, with the latter match the first time he had been selected at left-back as opposed to his more natural centre-back position. Indeed, while he had made appearances on the flank last season at club level in the English Championship, he rarely covered himself in glory, regularly looking woefully short of fitness and failing to keep track of various jinking wingers. Understandably, there was much apprehension regarding his ability to deal with Juan Cuadrado yet, as with the other major concern at the back – namely, his, Vizcarrondo and Túñez’s lack of pace – it seems Sanvicente found an effective way of minimising such deficiencies.
This is where the coach’s organisational intentions, largely hidden from public view, came into play as while he may have picked similar players to the ones who faced Peru, the approach was somewhat different. Indeed, whereas the friendly was more open, with greater space for opponents to step into, the Colombia game saw not only Tomás Rincón and his defensive-midfield partner Luis Manuel Seijas, but also the two wingers Ronald Vargas and Alejandro Guerra, act as reinforcements for the back four. All of these players bar Vargas (who came on as a late substitute) started against Peru, but what was not seen to the same degree in that game was their close proximity to the defence and regular doubling-up on opponents. Thus, the likes of Cuadrado, Rodríguez, Bacca and Falcao were often stifled for space and had few opportunities to run at the Venezuelan back-line. Had José Pékerman attempted to counter this Venezuela set-up earlier on in the game than he appeared to, by perhaps combining some sitting back of his own with defence-splitting upfield passes at choice moments towards the pacy Teófilo Gutiérrez (who only came on in the 72nd minute), then the outcome may well have been more positive for him.
It is possible that Pékerman, like most who had watched Venezuela over the past 11 months, simply did not anticipate that Sanvicente would be able to instil so much discipline, perserverance and organisation in what were effectively two defensive lines. Indeed, most analyses of the ex-Caracas and Zamora coach’s methods with La Vinotinto coming into the tournament instead emphasised his desire to make Venezuela a more possession-based, high-pressing, positive side who look to play on more of an equal footing with the big boys. This has been perceived as an attempt to move away from the more reserved, defensive, counter-attacking tactics of his highly successful predecessor César Farías. However, given the paltry success witnessed in the warm-up games, one has to wonder if, for the opening Group C game at least, Sanvicente ate some humble pie and resorted to some of the tried-and-tested tactics of the past that the players were more responsive to.
Moving Abroad: A Case of When, Not If
One man not yet mentioned who also started against Peru and may well have aided the defensive performance against Colombia by virtue of being a more reassuring presence than his rival Dani Hernández, is goalkeeper Alain Baroja. The 25-year-old had a sensational season last year with Caracas FC, being arguably the most important player in his side’s desperately unlucky title bid, conceding just 10 goals in the 16 games he played in the Torneo Clausura. Making his international debut as recently as February in an away game against Honduras, his form in the league as well as in the Peru friendly – the only clean sheet before sunday – and his performances in training no doubt all combined to persuade Sanvicente to give him the nod. Indeed, in the initial predicted line-up based on reports a week before kick-off, Hernández was still on course to start the opener yet, on the eve of the game, new inside information put Baroja in the frame to play his first ever competitive international.
While ultimately he may not have had a great deal to do, he handled the majority of the crosses and loose balls that came his way with confidence. There may have been one or two moments of hesitancy and though these can not be outright dismissed given the standard of opposition he is more accustomed to playing against, it was reminiscent of the eagerness to impress and get things moving that at times marked his debut against Honduras. In that particular game, he had a couple of moments of haste where, upon attempting to collect the ball and then feed it quickly upfield, he failed to get a good handle on the initial ball and had to backtrack to save outright embarrassment. Nevertheless, it is his propensity for memorable acrobatic saves that has gained him a strong reputation at home and while he was hardly under duress in the shot-stopping department on sunday, he was more than equal to the two shots of note that he had to save. Indeed, he did well to firmly parry out Rodríguez’s 79th-minute strike from the edge of the area as well as swiftly recover up to get a hand to Edwin Cardona’s deflected rebound.
Although he was afforded much praise in this site’s squad profiles, what prevented him from being featured as one of the players to look out for in the team preview was simply the uncertainty over whether or not he would even make it onto the field. As it is now likely that he will play in all of his country’s games – and hopefully add to his record of four caps and four wins – one would like to go some way towards rectifying that by sharing a brief anecdote that will surely be retold ad infinitum once he makes the seemingly inevitable move abroad:
In an interview with El Universal in April 2014, Alain Baroja related how as as a schoolboy he would typically play as both a striker and a goalkeeper in games. At around the age of ten on a trip to Spain, his team was thrashed 14-0 by a junior side of Real Madrid. Upon leaving the pitch a man then in his late forties came up to him, shook his hand and told him to keep his head up as he had a future between the sticks. This gentleman was none other than then-Real Madrid manager Vicente del Bosque and, in time, Baroja would come to don the gloves full-time.
Ultimately, whether or not he gains a genuinely big move remains to be seen but, to put it simplistically, if Hernández is deemed good enough to play in the Spanish second-tier with Tenerife, then Baroja’s agent should certainly be looking at a move for his client to at least this level. With the capability to pull off as saves as eye-catching as the one below, it would not be surprising for a more illustrious club to take a chance on him.
Alain Baroja once again saving his side, Caracas FC 3-2 Llaneros de Guanare, 2015 Venezuelan Torneo Clausura, 19 April 2015 (Video courtesy of Futnaccs)
Ronald Vargas Looking to Belatedly Fulfil Potential
Moving on to the performances of the attacking midfielders, starting with majestic captain, Juan Arango. While the 35-year-old icon may not have roamed about as much as the pair either side of him, he did play a useful, level-headed role, holding up the ball as well as playing it into wide positions to further relieve some pressure on the back-line and, of course, getting through the odd key pass. Indeed, not only did he set up Vargas with a glorious pass through a tight space for the first real chance on target in the first half, but it was also his instinctive awareness that led to the hooked cross on the turn that Guerra headed to Rondón for the goal. While he could still end up at some point in the more reserved deep-lying playmaker role that many had earmarked for him pre-tournament, if Sanvicente adopts the same tactics for future games, his role behind the striker should not prove to be too energy-draining.
Regarding the two wide players, as noted, both Guerra and Vargas played important roles tracking back and doubling up on wingers and full-backs, squeezing the space into which the opponents could manoeuvre. Attack-wise, in a welcome change from the majority of the friendlies, some effective link-up play also occurred on the occasions Venezuela managed to break away from the Colombian pressure. Particularly in the second half, Guerra appeared to develop a good understanding with Rondón, crossing the ball in on the left with his right a couple of times to find the Zenit man – not to mention assisting him for the match-winning goal. Overall, within the limitations imposed upon him by the team’s tactics, he put in a strong performance both on the flank and when he cut inside to get a more direct move going – as he did in the aforementioned one involving Arango and Vargas. Somewhat surprisingly then, it has been reported that Colombian giants Atlético Nacional are not renewing his loan deal with them, instead sending him back to Venezuelan underachievers Mineros de Guayana. If this proves to be the case, so long as he keeps up performances like the one on sunday, the 29-year-old may well get another opportunity to ply his trade outside of his homeland.
As for Vargas, he particularly stood out in the first half in his nominal position on the right, from which he made several inroads, skipping into the centre and even, on occasion, over onto the left. He raised Venezuelan hopes whenever he beat one of his opponents – usually Pablo Armero – for pace, dribbling past to create chances, most notably just after the quarter-hour mark when his low ball was nearly met by Guerra. As noted, he also had the best chance of the first half when, running into a space on the left, he received an exquisite through-ball from Arango on the turn and poked a shot that David Ospina did well to get a hand to. In the second half, while perhaps not as much of a threat – particularly after the goal, upon the arrival of which, there was less need to take risks going forward – he still played his part, jinking past defenders, creating space and keeping the ball.
It was a memorable display, not least because of all the attacking players – and possibly of the entire team – his inclusion in the line-up was arguably the most surprising. Indeed, he had only played less than 45 minutes in two substitute appearances under Sanvicente which, due to frequent recurring injury problems, followed on from featuring in a mere four internationals in the preceding six years – rarely playing the full ninety minutes. However, now 28, with his return to the national set-up after an encouraging year with Turkish side Balıkesirspor, his performance against Colombia has filled many with optimism that he can go some way to fulfilling the potential that has only been sporadically shown since he left his homeland for Belgium in 2008. He has recently signed a deal with Greek giants AEK Athens and following the opening-day display, one of the leading newspapers of this classical city elected to put him on the front page, waxing lyrical about what a great player the team will be receiving and regaling readers about how he danced around the opposition.
Front page of Athens newspaper Athlitiki Hora, 15 June 2015 (courtesy of @WistfulNick)
Rondón Roars Again
Last note on the team concerns the headline-grabbing lead man himself, Salomón Rondón. While he may have been the joint second-highest scorer in Russia last season with Zenit St. Petersburg, he did not always impress, unfortunately squandering some presentable chances in the Champions League group stage – that is, when he was not appearing somewhat peripheral to the actual game. This latter issue was not necessarily always his fault, but manager André Villas-Boas is reportedly not entirely convinced by him and rumours that he is set to be offloaded have abounded in the past several months. Internationally, he had previously failed to register in his four games under Sanvicente, experiencing some of the problems he had encountered in continental competition at club level.
Nevertheless, there are few bigger stages on which he can perform and against his nation’s western neighbours, not only did he score a header that many other marksmen would have struggled to guide so accurately into the corner, but he also played a useful team role. Indeed, rather than being anonymous and waiting for a pass that may never come, he often picked up the ball 10-20 yards outside the area and held off the centre-backs like the consummate reference point Venezuelans know him to be. Driving forward and/or towards the flanks he, like the wingers, played their part in relieving the pressure on their defensive colleagues and, as noted, he also showed a good understanding with Guerra. While one anticipates any further goals Venezuela to score to be shared around the side, there lies ample possibility that Rondón may receive at least a few opportunities to increase his tally against Peru (more on this later).
Salomón Rondón celebrates, Colombia 0-1 Venezuela, Copa América Group C, 14 June 2015 (Image courtesy of EFE)
One Particular Response
The author of this piece did not wish to include this. Really, he didn’t. Scout’s honour and everything. However, with English-language coverage of Venezuelan football, one can not always be so picky with what one deems to be of interest to the insomniacs, online gamblers and contrarians that routinely click onto this site before immediately closing the window. Thus, in the video below, Yuvi Pallares, a Venezuelan presenter of Desnudando la Noticia keeps her pre-tournament promise by taking off her clothes to celebrate the triumph over Colombia. Given that the title of the show translates as ‘Stripping the News’, readers will be unsurprised to learn that this is neither the first, nor will it be the last, time that this sort of thing occurs.
Desnudando la Noticia, 16 June 2015 (Video courtesy of Lugois)
Matchday 2 Preview
Peru vs Venezuela
Looking ahead to the encounter with Peru on Thursday 18 June, thankfully for those who appreciate the element of surprise, one can not be entirely sure what to expect. While Venezuela pulled off the biggest surprise of the first round of fixtures and may be many people’s sudden favourites, Peru put in a fine account of themselves against Brazil and were desperately unlucky to lose 2-1. Los Incas really need to get at least a point but no doubt will be going for all three, as will Venezuela who will already be through if they gain them – a situation far preferable than possibly requiring a history-making win against Brazil in order to ensure qualification.
One should not read too much into the 1-0 Venezuelan win achieved over Peru back in March, as while nine of La Vinotinto’s starters from that day are again likely to be named in a line-up unchanged from the Colombia match, the same can not be said for their opponents. Indeed, only four players from that day – goalkeeper Pedro Gallese, defenders Carlos Zambrano and Luis Advíncula as well as holding midfielder Josepmir Ballón – started against Brazil, due in part to the friendly encounter being Argentine manager Ricardo Gareca’s first game in charge. He lacked some important first-choice players who have caused Venezuela problems in the past and who, coupled with Christian Cueva – an early substitute in the friendly – could come to throw Group C even wider open.
Before noting the potential opposition threat, however, one has to wonder how much Sanvicente will deviate from the defensive approach against Colombia. Though the Peru game is expected to be more open, it is hard to envisage just how much more space, as well as the noted key Venezuelan defensive weakness of pace, will be exploited by Gareca’s men. Nevertheless, if much ground is conceded then Flamengo new-boy Paolo Guerrero will certainly look to use his strength to get in behind the back-line, to add to the hat-trick he scored against Venezuela to clinch the Third Place Play-off of Copa América 2011. Furthermore, the two wide men who enjoyed much room to roam against Brazil – Alianza Lima’s Christian Cueva and, most prominently, Schalke 04’s Jefferson Farfán – will be hoping for a repeat of conditions that the first game afforded them. If so, anticipate Farfán – who scored both goals in a 2-1 World Cup Qualifying win against Venezuela back in September 2012 – on the right to give the likely left-back Amorebieta a torrid time. However, to avoid such an occurrence, one would have thought Sanvicente will want to repeat some of the doubling-up tactics for at least a substantial part of this match.
Update (pre-match 18 June 2015): Farfán is reportedly injured and will miss this match – a welcome boost for La Vinotinto.
Regarding how Chita will look to create chances against Peru, if, as seems quite probable, Peru play at times as openly as they did against Brazil, then with the increased space, Venezuela should win significantly more set-pieces in the final third than they did against Colombia. With players such as Arango, Vargas and Seijas more than capable of swinging in a testing ball, the likes of Rondón, Vizcarrondo, Túñez and Amorebieta should be chomping at the bit to get on the end to nod or knock home. Furthermore, if the Peruvian centre-backs go as AWOL as they did at times in their first game defending crosses – particularly for Neymar’s goal – then Rondón, in particular, could well be looking at becoming the outright top scorer in his group. For those who like omens, his last international goal before the one on sunday came in a 3-2 win in September 2013 in the reverse World Cup Qualifying fixture against, of course, Peru. One other possible way of opening up the opposition could see Venezuela put Sanvicente’s desired pressing tactics into practice, as Peru often looked hesitant on the ball in the middle of the park in their first game, frequently being dispossessed and having to chase back.
Lastly, as noted, Venezuela should go into this game with the same line-up that faced Colombia, but they will have one additional member in their ranks: Benfica new-boy and hot young prospect, Jhon Murillo. He had been banned from the first match due to an unsavoury incident that occurred at the Sudamericano Sub-20 tournament back in January but if Sanvicente needs some extra pace or creativity, the talented if volatile winger-cum-forward could well make his mark. Alternatively, in such a scenario, he may well call upon Torino’s 22-year-old attacker Josef Martínez – scorer of the solitary goal in March’s fixture between the two nations