Tag Archives: Franklin Lucena

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

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

CONMEBOL Qualifying Stage for FIFA World Cup 2018

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

Venezuela 1-3 Ecuador

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

Match Report

Contrasting Fortunes in Puerto Ordaz

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sanvicente’s Future/Venezuela’s Regression

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

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

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

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

Venezuela Also Disconcerting off the Field

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

Team Selections

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

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

Darren Spherical

@DarrenSpherical 

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

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

CONMEBOL Qualifiers for FIFA World Cup 2018

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

Bolivia vs Venezuela

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

venezuelabolivia

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

Players to Keep an Eye Out For

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

venezuelavsbolivialineup

Full Venezuela Squad

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

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

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

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

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

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

Darren Spherical

@DarrenSpherical

Venezuela 0-1 Paraguay – CONMEBOL Qualification Stage for FIFA World Cup 2018 (8 October 2015)

Having witnessed La Vinotinto’s 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign get off to a calamitous start against La Albirroja, Hispanospherical.com offers up some thoughts on the game.

CONMEBOL Qualifying Stage for FIFA World Cup 2018

Thursday 8 October 2015 – Estadio Cachamay, Puerto Ordaz, Ciudad Guayana, Bolívar State.

Venezuela 0-1 Paraguay

Video Highlights of Venezuela 0-1 Paraguay, CONMEBOL Qualification Stage for FIFA World Cup 2018, 8 October 2015

Late Venezuelan Embarrassment Turns Mediocre Night into Disaster
Match Report

36,650 fans turned up to a damp Estadio Cachamay seemingly willing to put their experience-derived doubts to the backs of their minds and instead provide some vocal support to help Noel Sanvicente’s men get off to the successful start the coach considered essential. Whilst the uneven and bobbly playing surface was not conducive to free-flowing football, the aficionados in attendance always knew this was going to be at a premium. The familiar unsophisticated, unimaginative and toothless Venezuela was very much on display yet as the game wore on, the volume steadily rose. In the second half, the boys in burgundy seemed the more likely to break the deadlock, even if the majority of their efforts were tame or off-target, struggling as they did open up the defence and gain clear sights of goal.

Although an underwhelming goalless draw would have still been below the boss’ expectations, a rare clean sheet – only two in the previous 13 games – is not something that can easily be passed up. Alas, with around five minutes remaining, an horrific, rank amateurish error deprived them of this and gifted the game to Ramón Díaz’s men. Thus, ground has already been ceded to one of the other outsiders seeking to defy the CONMEBOL odds.

Despite the bulk of the match being as wearily woeful as anticipated, Hispanospherical.com had already mentally – yes, in that sense of the word – signed a contract with itself to provide some thoughts on this and every Venezuela encounter for the foreseeable future. As this game exemplified many of the traits common to performances under Sanvicente since his arrival in July 2014, one will try not to labour too many points. There can, however, only be one place to start.

The Incident: Vizcarrondo/Baroja Confusion Gifts Paraguay the Win

For those hitherto residing in a state of blissful ignorance – or perhaps, having instead watched the likes of Colombia and Argentina or been sanely wrapped up in bed – here is how the game was won: In the 85th minute, a diagonal Paraguayan ball was hoisted forward, where it bounced centrally just before it reached Venezuelan defensive stalwart Oswaldo Vizcarrondo several yards outside his own area. Hauntingly, he tamely chested the ball to where he assumed goalkeeper Alain Baroja to be, only to turn to see the AEK Athens stopper suddenly scramble over to his left in vain; he had not been as central as the Nantes centre-back thought. Dynamo Kyiv’s Derlis González pounced, beating the keeper to the ball and tapping home, ultimately winning the game against the run of play.

The usually reliable ‘Vizca’ became an instant villain; social media was rife with anger, horror and mockery. There were, however, some who switched the blame over to Baroja, citing his poor positioning and/or presumed lack of communication. Upon reviewing the footage, there is some credence to this. It appears that the keeper was anticipating the ball to drift through to his grateful arms, yet had he stayed in line with Vizcarrondo, he would have been near enough to grab the ball before González’s arrival. Did he give his colleague a shout to let him know he was claiming it? Baroja said afterwards that there was no communication. On the other hand, some feel the defender could have attempted to clear the ball if he was unsure of Baroja’s whereabouts.

Post-game, public scapegoating was not on Sanvicente’s mind. ‘We continue committing the same errors of 20 years ago’, he sighed dejectedly, adding that ‘[t]here was confusion for both sides, [and thus] responsibility for both.’ Diplomatic to an extent, but largely accurate. Two days later, the ever-reflective El Estímulo was still struggling to come to terms with what had unfolded, opening an article by proclaiming that the memory of the mix-up was tormenting the minds of fans on a loop à la Groundhog Day. Elsewhere in the immediate aftermath, however, there was a fairly universal consensus over who was the culprit:

                       liderendeportesvizcarrondo   paraguayvizcarrondo

Front covers of the Venezuelan Sports Daily Líder en Deportes and Paraguay’s Diario Extra.

Otherwise, A Decent Defensive Display Against Low-Ranking Opposition

The goal aside, however, the visitors could not manage a shot on target. Indeed, while Paraguay were never likely to offer the sternest of tests, Sanvicente, if/when he unslumps his shoulders, will surely be quietly content with the efforts from his rearguard. With the exception of The Incident, there were only a handful or so of relatively minor defensive concerns.

Early on in the frenetic, composure-free exchanges, there were a couple of breaches at the back that came to nothing. The visitors were largely resigned to a few speculative off-target efforts, though late on, they did waste a gilt-edged chance that will never get the exposure it would warrant in different circumstances – not that Édgar Benítez will be complaining. Soon after taking the lead, with the Venezuelan back-line in disarray, a ball was lofted over to the Querétaro attacker who rounded Baroja only to miss what was an open goal. While some camera angles are more generous to him than others, he should certainly have done better. Alas, with the hosts failing to even up the score, there will be no tortuous mental Groundhog Day for Paraguayans.

Otherwise, there was not too much to concern Sanvicente. He could not significantly fault the two players under most threat in this area: the much-maligned left-back Gabriel Cichero and 34-year-old Franklin Lucena, more accustomed to being on defensive-midfield standby, who was preferred over Andrés Túñez to start alongside Vizcarrondo at the back. However, with Fernando Amorebieta returning from suspension for the upcoming Brazil game, a decision now has to be made. According to reports, rather than coming in for Cichero, the Championship defender is instead likely to replace Lucena at centre-back, his strongest position. Here, he can attempt to rediscover a partnership with Vizcarrondo that was regularly deployed during the last qualifying cycle.

Ultimately, despite the performance in this area, Sanvicente will be acutely aware that Paraguay, for all their merits, do not possess one of the region’s most testing attacks. Bigger challenges await around the corner; lapses in concentration can easily multiply and be punished accordingly.

New Personnel But Same Old Problems in Attack 

Nevertheless, the defensive display combined with the work of the likes of Tomás Rincón and Luis Manuel Seijas edging possession in midfield regularly put La Vinotinto marginally in pole position to nick a narrow win. Alas, to what should have been the surprise of no-one, not only did they fail but they showed little teamwork and collective understanding in the final third. They barely troubled opposition goalkeeper Antony Silva, rarely found space to run at – let alone past – defenders and often had to resort to long-ball and/or hit-and-hope tactics.

The recent retirement of Juan Arango necessitated a change in this area, though Sanvicente seemed keen on revolution over evolution. The Copa America triumvirate fielded behind Salomón Rondón consisting of Alejandro Guerra, Arango and Ronald Vargas was completely overhauled. Instead, in a 4-4-2 formation, Rondón was partnered by Juan Manuel Falcón, with the experienced César González on the left side and newcomer Jeffrén Suárez on the right. Though ‘Maestrico’ González has played many times with Rondón at international level, the other two are, in terms of experience on this stage, virtually strangers to all those around them (pre-game, Falcón possessed less than a handful of caps; Jeffrén, a mere 30 minutes gained from a forgettable friendly last month). Given these selections for this already vital game, only the eternal optimists could have had high hopes that everyone would instantly gel on-the-job.

All the same, despite not setting up any chances, often struggling to beat his man and failing to get a shot on target, ex-Barcelona man Jeffrén has since received some praise from various Venezuelan journalists. In fairness, he was not fully fit and playing his first competitive fixture, but was still able to show a few glimpses of admirable composure and willingness to make things happen. Yet the subsequent appraisals seem out-of-kilter with events on the pitch and seem to speak more of a clamouring for new heroes and positives on a night when frankly, there were slim pickings to be had.

Nevertheless, irrespective of what it says about Jeffrén and his competition, Sanvicente was implicitly taken by what he saw. Indeed, a few days after the game, he said that he would be prepared to wait ‘until the last hour’ to see whether the injury-prone KAS Eupen winger will be fit for the Brazil match. However, with several hours to go, it appears that he has conceded defeat on this front. Instead, according to the most reliable sources, in Fortaleza, there will again be wholesale changes in the area behind and to the side of Rondón: Guerra and Vargas are predicted to reprise their Copa roles on the flanks with the more central spot filled by Christian Santos, a man with a comparable amount of international experience as Jeffrén.

Curiously, none of these players were substituted on against Paraguay, with instead Josef Martínez and Jhon Murillo the two receiving minutes in the closing stages. The search for an effective offence shows little sign of going away any time soon.

Wanted: a Competent Set-Piece Taker  

Lastly, particularly in the first half on the wet pitch that was fighting a losing battle against the elements, spectators were treated to a variety of sports, though only rarely did these include the one that they had paid money to see. The challenging conditions facilitated some midfield duels and aimless forward forays that resembled some rather tedious ping-pong and head-tennis exchanges. Diving, a cynic might say, was taken as a given. Then, 25 minutes in, ‘Maestrico’ threw in a topical reference when he blazed a free-kick well over the bar. Not to be outdone, five minutes later Rondón spooned one at least 30 yards above the woodwork. To momentarily engage in a bit of Dad humour, one would like to enquire as to why Venezuela are not represented at the Rugby World Cup?

There was not a significant improvement in the majority of set-pieces in the remainder of the game. While the turf may have been partly to blame and, of course, no-one expected Juan Arango’s heir-apparent to announce himself in the first encounter following El Capi’s retirement, Sanvicente will be keen to see some progress in this area as soon as possible. Given his side’s evident shortcomings from open play, dead-ball situations could well offer a lifeline or two. Indeed, no matter how Brazil may, according to their standards, be struggling, Venezuela will need all the weapons in their armoury if they are to gain a result against the one CONMEBOL nation they are yet to beat in a competitive match.

Feel free to return to Hispanospherical.com for coverage of that particular match. 

Team Selections  

Venezuela (4-4-2): Baroja; Rosales, Vizcarrondo, Lucena, Cichero; J. Suárez (Murillo, 81′), Rincón, Seijas, C. González (Guerra, 62′); Falcón (Martínez, 74′), S. Rondón.

Paraguay (4-4-2): Silva; B. Valdez, Da Silva, Aguilar, Samudio; D. González, Ortigoza, Ortiz (Cáceres, 63′), Benítez; Barrios (Fabbro. 86′), Santander (Bobadilla, 72′).

Darren Spherical

@DarrenSpherical 

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

With Venezuela set to begin their latest quest to qualify for their first-ever World Cup, Hispanospherical.com looks at the burden of expectation carried by manager Noel Sanvicente, the loss of the talismanic Juan Arango and provides an overview of those likely to take to the field against Paraguay and/or Brazil.

CONMEBOL Qualifiers for FIFA World Cup 2018

Thursday 8 October 2015 – Estadio Cachamay, Puerto Ordaz, Ciudad Guayana, Bolívar State.

Venezuela vs Paraguay

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

Brazil vs Venezuela 

sanvicenteturineseVenezuela manager Noel Sanvicente speaking on the eve of the Paraguay game (Via: Humberto Turinese)

Under-Fire Sanvicente Knows What the Fans Crave 

‘I’m not here to win Copa América, I’m here to get us qualified [for the next World Cup]. If not, it’s a failure’. Back in June just days before the Chile-hosted tournament kicked off, Venezuela manager Noel Sanvicente forcefully set out the terms on which he believes his tenure will be judged.

In the four months that have since passed, the rod ‘Chita’ appears to have built for his own back has only enlarged. True, there was the expectation-escalating euphoria of mugging Colombia 1-0 on that frenetic opening sunday in Rancagua, but just seven days later La Vinotinto were booking their flights home. Having been vanquished by both Peru and Brazil, Venezuela’s group-stage exit marked their worst performance in the competition since 2004. However, when the squad was reconvened last month for two home internationals, the largely identical line-ups that were fielded had the chance to vindicate the views of many fans; namely, that in June they had merely been unfortunate victims of a tough draw as well as a certain refereeing decision/one player’s moment of ill-discipline (depending on who you talk to and on which day of the week).

Such sentiments were soon to evaporate, which is more than can be said for the rain at Estadio Cachamay, home of Mineros de Guayana. Indeed, following an eyebrow-raising 3-0 trouncing meted out by Honduras, the subsequent online storm that it sparked was paralleled in the weather conditions at this deceptively photogenic ground. Subsequently the second game against Panama had to be delayed for over 20 minutes before commencing in what were rather A & E-friendly circumstances. Swashbuckling, it was not, though both teams were not short of opportunities to make a splash. Two opposition players had to be substituted off within the first 25 minutes and had Salomón Rondón not tapped in an injury-time equaliser, he and his compatriots may have opted against emerging from the swamp.

Before these encounters, Sanvicente and several others in the camp had emphasised the importance of winning their home games, given the lengthy distances and varied playing conditions they will face in CONMEBOL qualifying. This week, as well as pointing favourably to the example of Ecuador last time around, he has voiced a similar outlook ahead of his country’s opening World Cup qualifying match with Paraguay: ‘For any team, the first match is all-important. To qualify, this match must be won.’ Such comments grant him little room to manoeuvre should things have gone awry just 90 minutes into a two-year campaign. However, they do testify to both his winning mentality (seven domestic titles as coach) as well as the expectations that now come with the job.

His predecessors have a lot to answer for. The cumulative work from 1999-2013 of José Omar Pastoriza, Richard Páez and, in particular, César Farías enabled Venezuela to belatedly emerge as a force within the region, regularly attaining ever-greater heights. Under Farías, they recorded their best ever Copa América performance (4th in 2011) as well as, positionally at least, their highest finish in a World Cup qualifying campaign (6th of 9 teams for Brazil 2014).

Given this backdrop of rapid transformation, any deviation from the seemingly inevitable march of progress runs the risk of provoking the collective ire of fans. The early Copa exit, compounded by the subsequent friendly defeats, has raised significant doubts in the minds of many as well as given further ammunition to those with long-standing grievances with the team’s displays since Sanvicente took over in July 2014. Midfielder Luis Manuel Seijas acknowledged this disgruntled element after the Honduras debacle, though was evidently not keen on any kind of rapprochement: ‘We’re surely getting crucified, but let’s hope that in October, when we win in the first match, they won’t get in the victory bus with us’. Alternatively, if worst comes to worst, they should withhold their home-made torture devices for the time being and then ‘[c]rucify us in October if things don’t go well for us.’ Two straight losses against Paraguay and Brazil and the mob will not need any encouragement.

One of the consistent complaints during Sanvicente’s reign has been the lack of effective attacking play and, as a consequence, goals. Overall, just 13 (15 unofficially) have been scored in as many games. However, apologists for the current regime will be keen to recall that things were no better during Farias’ reign, with the team only managing to score 14 in the 16 games of their admirable 2014 World Cup qualifying campaign. Yet, Sanvicente has got a task on his hands if he is to even match that tally, particularly as one key architect and supplier of those goals has recently confirmed that he will not be there to assist on the road to Russia 2018.

The Post-Arango Era: Replacing the Irreplaceable

Video of all but one of Juan Arango’s goals in World Cup Qualifying games (YouTube). His final one against Bolivia can be viewed here.

A 15-minute run-out at the Estadio Cachamay on the night of the Panama game was no way to end the 16-year international career of the most-capped, highest-scoring and, quite simply, greatest player in Venezuela’s football history. Alas, that  was, by choice, the end of the road for Juan Arango, the man who future generations should easily be convinced into believing inspired the cliché ‘cultured left foot’. In the next two years there will be far fewer left-footed pearlers gliding through the air, far fewer pinpoint set-pieces and far fewer nonchalant flicks and exquisite through-balls. Some doom-mongers fear there could even be none of the above; this is something no convert to the CONMEBOL cause wishes to hear.

Aside from the goals and assists, the departure of La Zurda de Oro also deprives the side of a certain confidence and appeal to outsiders that is difficult to find elsewhere in the squad. This is, after all, the man who blithely informed German newspaper Bild that he is, in fact, a better free-kick taker than Cristiano Ronaldo; an assertion backed up by many observers, including one of the most august global football sources. Appreciation for his talents is such that even the Bundesliga’s official YouTube channel temporarily removed its impartiality cap to endorse El Huracán del Caribe as their favourite player in a much-viewed video of all his goals at Borussia Mönchengladbach (2009-2014). Furthermore, earlier this year, one of his team-mates from this period, a certain Marco Reus, paid tribute to him in an interview; he is far from alone in his admiration.

Following the dismal day out at the waterpark with Panama, his Vinotinto companions joined him at a teary-eyed press conference and soon afterwards were quick to express their gratitude and respect for El Capi, at times approaching idolatry with their praise. Arango had announced that he had been mulling over retirement for a while and that, ultimately, he did not possess the motivation for another lengthy campaign and it was time to give others a chance.

Talk of the post-Arango era has steadily increased ever since his 2014 move back to Mexico with Xolos de Tijuana following a decade in Europe shared between Spain and Germany. Undoubtedly, he was slowing down, tracking back less and being less of a decisive factor in games. However, as he remained an on-field influence right up until his last competitive game, the claims that his iconic status combined with his diminishing mobility made him a hindrance to reshaping the national team’s attack still needs some visible supporting evidence – this may take some time to emerge. Indeed, though Venezuela could only manage two goals at Copa América, Arango played a major part in both. Against Colombia, it was his hooked cross on the turn that Alejandro Guerra nodded across for Rondón to head in and against Brazil it was one of his trademark free-kicks – one of only a few he was actually allowed to take – that was parried back for Miku to halve the deficit late on and cruelly get everyone’s hopes up. .

Furthermore, in the last qualification cycle, he scored three goals – including this stunner against Ecuador – and set up some other memorable ones, including Fernando Amorebieta’s history-making winner against Argentina and Rondón’s late equaliser away to Uruguay.  Who then, could possibly fill his boots?

Team Preview: In Search of an Attack

No-one, is the gut reply. Instead, it seems Sanvicente will attempt to ensure that those in the attacking positions can combine to offer something different which adds up to more than the sum of their individual parts. Guerra and Ronald Vargas were the two wide-men who flanked Arango in June, though based on Sanvicente’s press comments as well as sources close to the side, they may not be reprising their roles against Paraguay. Indeed, renowned journalist Humberto Turinese, who regularly travels with the squad, has stated that Venezuela will line-up in a 4-2-2-2 formation, Rondón being joined up front by Juan Falcón with César González and Jeffrén Suárez playing in the space behind.

While the formation may well alter during – if not before – the match, if the personnel changes are accurate then this is a wholesale supplanting of the Guerra-Arango-Vargas triumvirate that began behind Rondón in all three Copa games. Long-time followers of the national side will be aware that despite the lack of recent success in this area, it is the most competitive in the squad, yet no-one in the current crop has been able to claim a regular spot supporting the West Bromwich Albion striker for any sustained period of time. Nevertheless, for any newcomers, here is a brief overview of some of the other attackers who may feature:

Falcón, a forward at Metz who was not even in the Copa squad, won some praise for his lively display against Panama after he came on as a first half-substitute for Christian Santos, the NEC Nijmegen attacker who is also in this squad and is currently one of the top-scorers in the Eredivisie with 5 goals in 8 games. 33-year-old González, a regular under Farías who had to make do with being a substitute in June, appears to have won a start off the back of his scintillating domestic form with Deportivo Táchira – 7 goals in 8 games. Jeffrén, by contrast, only made his international debut last month just as Arango was departing. One in, one out, some might say. The 27-year-old graduate of Barcelona’s La Masia academy and erstwhile Spain youth international finally agreed to play for the country of his birth and is doing well rebuilding his career at Belgian side KAS Eupen following some injury setbacks.

Needless to say, if such an attack does emerge from the tunnel then it is quite a bold risk from Sanvicente, who has named very similar line-ups for the past five games. While Turinese is a respected figure, it must be noted that other outlets, such as the popular Twitter account Mister Vinotinto, are anticipating a different line-up. Whatever the reality, should Sanvicente opt otherwise or perhaps need to make further adjustments after the first whistle has been blown, then along with Santos, Guerra and Vargas, there are at least two other options at his disposal. For one, there’s Josef Martínez, a slippery. versatile attacker who many in his homeland feel is a definite star for the future but who has struggled to really nail down a regular place at Torino. A second possibility is another much-vaunted prospect, 20-year-old Jhon Murillo, who is on loan at Tondela in the Portuguese top-flight from Benfica. The Lisbon giants signed him on a five-year-deal following two eye-catching seasons at domestic club Zamora.

Over the course of two years, observers can expect to see at least a few different organisational and personnel changes in this area of the field. Outside of the current squad, there is a handful of other players who could well be in with a chance, with two names in particular standing out as long-term prospects. Firstly, the injured Rómulo Otero, a jinking playmaker/wide-man whose set-pieces have at times drawn comparisons with those of Arango; a few months back he made his long-awaited move away from Caracas ending up, somewhat surprisingly, at Chilean outfit Huachipato. There is also 21-year-old Juanpi who, to the chagrin of some, Sanvicente feels needs a bit more first-team club experience. Indeed, while he may not always be named in the Málaga line-up, he does already have substitute appearances at the Bernabéu and Camp Nou under his belt this season. Time will tell whether he is best-suited to an attacking-midfield or a more reserved, deep-lying role.

Team Preview: Rincón’s Role Crucial

Despite the focus on the forward problems, the defence is certainly not without its flaws, conceding at a rate of two per game under Sanvicente. However, although they have been porous in non-competitive encounters, they only let in three in as many matches at Copa América, with the clean sheet and solid, disciplined performance against Colombia earning them plaudits around the world. While there are still some debates to be had here, things are, at the moment at least, a little more settled in this area. Against Paraguay, Alain Baroja will definitely be in goal, with Málaga’s tenacious Roberto Rosales at right-back and Sion’s Gabriel Cichero at left-back (though the suspended Fernando Amorebieta could return for the Brazil game). In the centre of defence will be the towering Oswaldo Vizcarrondo of Nantes, though Thailand-based Andrés Túñez may lose his spot to 34-year-old Franklin Lucena, if Turinese’s reporting is accurate. If this is the case, Túñez may be paying for his roles in the goals of Brazil’s Thiago Silva and Roberto Firmino – both of whom, incidentally, are not in the Seleção squad – in June as well as some errors in September’s friendlies. On a related note, the defence as a whole should also be pleased that Robinho – who had a great game three-and-a-half months ago, setting up the first goal – has not been called up; Chelsea’s Willian, however, who jinked past Rosales to cross in for Firmino to tap in the second, is.

In front of the back four will surely be the usual partnership of Seijas and new captain Tomás RincónMany will be looking to El General, currently with Serie A side Genoa, to assert his character on all his colleagues and instil within them the determination and mental toughness that he has long displayed, most notably in the run to the semi-finals of 2011’s Copa América. He has worn the armband on many occasions in the past and now with the official designation, he can be proclaimed with firmer justification to be the most important player in the Venezuelan ranks. Indeed, while Rondón may ultimately grab more headlines, with goals not anticipated to fly in with any regularity, Rincón’s leading role in repelling attacks and communicating with the defence-minded players around him will be key. To have any chance of prospering in this qualifying campaign, similar tactics, work-rate and organisation to those witnessed against Colombia will surely be essential. If Rincón and co. can successfully thwart, the onus will be on Rondón and whoever is immediately behind him to capitalise.

Ultimately, to state the blindingly obvious, it is not going to be easy for Noel Sanvicente. As well as the issues raised here, he must contend with the quality of the CONMEBOL region being arguably at its strongest in living memory as well as the additional problem of having Brazil return to the qualification trail to compete for what are potentially five World Cup places.

Indeed, their south-easterly neighbours, now managed by Dunga, are the only team left in the confederation that Venezuela have never beaten in a competitive match. Only the eternal optimists are considering this record to be broken next Tuesday. For now, the attention in the camp is narrowly focused on Paraguay, against whom in the same fixture the campaign for Brazil 2014 officially ended following a frustrating 1-1 draw in westerly San Cristóbal. That occurred on Venezuela’s final matchday; if Sanvicente’s pre-game words are to be taken at face-value, a failure to beat La Albirroja this time around could mean he feels their quest for Russia 2018 is all-but-over at the first hurdle.

Such an outcome would be disastrous for morale and the pressure on the coach and players would undoubtedly increase. Still, as long-time followers of football in this continent know, if a week is supposedly a long time in football, then try two years. Players can gradually emerge, teams can belatedly gel and circumstances can change. Whatever happens this week, it is going to be quite the long-distance assault on the senses. Hispanospherical.com hopes you manage to remain in one piece and stick around to see it to its conclusion.

Venezuela Squad

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

Defenders: Fernando Amorebieta (Middlesbrough, on loan from Fulham), Wilker Ángel (Deportivo Táchira), Gabriel Cichero (Sion), Alexander González (Young Boys), Roberto Rosales (Málaga), Andrés Túñez (Buriram United), Oswaldo Vizcarrondo (Nantes).

Midfielders: Rafael Acosta (Mineros de Guayana), Arquímedes Figuera (Deportivo La Guaira), César González (Deportivo Táchira), Alejandro Guerra (Atlético Nacional, on loan from Mineros de Guayana), Franklin Lucena (Once Caldas, on loan from Deportivo La Guaira), Jhon Murillo (Tondela, on loan from Benfica), Tomás Rincón (Genoa), Luis Manuel Seijas (Santa Fé), Ronald Vargas (AEK Athens).

Forwards: Juan Falcón (Metz),  Josef Martínez (Torino),  Salomón Rondón (West Bromwich Albion), Christian Santos (NEC Nijmegen), Jeffrén Suárez (KAS Eupen).

Note: Fernando Amorebieta is suspended for the first game against Paraguay.

Darren Spherical

@DarrenSpherical

Venezuela’s Friendly Internationals – September 2015 Preview

International Friendlies 

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

Venezuela vs Honduras 

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

Venezuela vs Panama

estadiocachamay

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

Getting the Gang Back Together to Prepare for the Greatest Challenge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saviour or Historical Footnote? The Wildcard on the Wing 

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

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

Venezuela Squad

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

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

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

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

Darren Spherical

@DarrenSpherical

Talking Points of Colombia 0-1 Venezuela, plus a Preview of Peru vs Venezuela

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. 

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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.

Alain Baroja

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)

Attacking Midfielders

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.

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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).

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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

Darren Spherical

@DarrenSpherical

Colombia 0-1 Venezuela – 2015 Copa América Group C (14 June 2015)

2015 Copa América Group C

Sunday 14 June 2015 – Estadio El Teniente, Rancagua, Chile

Colombia 0-1 Venezuela 

Highlights of Colombia 0-1 Venezuela, 2015 Copa América Group C, 14 June 2015, (Video courtesy of YouTube user Lukas Buretzek).

Team Selections

Colombia (4-2-2-2): Ospina; Zúñiga, Zapata, Murillo, Armero (Martínez, 82′); Sánchez (Cardona, 63′), Valencia; Cuadrado, Rodríguez; Falcao, Bacca (Gutiérrez, 72′).

Venezuela (4-2-3-1): Baroja; Rosales, Vizcarrondo, Túñez, Amorebieta; Rincón, Seijas (Lucena, 74′); R. Vargas (C. González, 78′), Arango (Cichero, 85′), Guerra; S. Rondón.

Rondón Rocks Colombia to Give Resilient Venezuela Remarkable Opening Day Win 

Match Report

With his first goal for his country since September 2013, Salomón Rondón headed La Vinotinto to a euphoric opening day victory, immediately allowing Venezuelan hopes escalate from the modest to the stratospheric in the space of ninety minutes. 

Click Here to Listen to Venezuelan Commentary of Salomón Rondón’s Match-winning Goal

Given the noted difficulties manager Noel Sanvicente has had to contend with since taking over in July 2014 as well as Los Cafeteros’ recent form and much-acclaimed history-making performances at the last World Cup, Venezuela were justifiably made rank 7/1 outsiders for this game by most bookmakers. Indeed, irrespective of Venezuela’s remarkable run four years ago, as they have conceded 18 goals (19 officially) in Sanvicente’s eight preceding games in charge while only netting 12 (10 officially) – with none of the scorers starting this game – make no mistake, this was a turn-up.

Before their representatives kicked off Group C, both sets of fans overran the city of Rancagua, some 54 miles south of Santiago, adorning the streets outside Estadio El Teniente with the yellow, blue and red common to both nations’ flags. However, once the anthems had been proudly belted out, it was apparent that the majority of the 14,000-capacity ground were backing the favourites of this pair of northerly neighbours. Played amidst a picturesque backdrop of snow-capped peaks at the home of Chilean top-flight side O’Higgins – named after the independence leader of Irish-Spanish heritage – there was to be little let-up in the frenetic atmosphere, with the sunny clear blue sky somewhat belying the fact that it was reportedly 12-13 degrees celsius on this winter day.

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Colombian and Venezuelan fans in and outside Rancagua’s Estadio El Teniente (Three images courtesy of @munirancagua; the third one – of famous Colombian supporter El Cole – comes via  @)

Indeed, despite the actual temperature, within this first ten minutes of this encounter, sweat was seen dripping off the foreheads of many of the players, particularly those in the burgundy shirts. Venezuela, very much applying one of Sanvicente’s favourite words, ‘trabajo‘ (work), were labouring away, sitting deep while regularly doubling up on attackers, allowing them little space in the final third. The only moment of minor concern in the early stages came when James Rodríguez received a short pass centrally but he had little time or space to squeeze a shot through and his effort deflected harmlessly wide.

Instead, the first real opening was to fall to La Vinotinto as Cristián Zapata’s lazy pass was cut out, allowing Rondón to suddenly stride forward. He laid it to his left to the overlapping Alejandro Guerra who, inside the area, could not quite guide his dinked ball, but at least won a corner. Six minutes later, AEK’s new signing Ronald Vargas beat his man on the right, sliding in a low ball that Guerra lunged for but could not quite reach, with instead goalkeeper David Ospina collecting. Such moments offered optimism that Sanvicente was not looking solely to contain, with instead his side gradually asserting themselves, both on and off the ball. Indeed, interspersed with some rather robust challenges, two Venezuelans were to go in the book, firstly Luis Manuel Seijas on 18 minutes and then left-back Fernando Amorebieta seven minutes later. With the former playing a key role next to Tomás Rincón providing additional cover to the back four and the latter – who had been regularly exposed in this role at club level all season – having to contend with the fleet-footed Juan Cuadrado, there were genuine fears that Venezuela would not finish with as many that they started with.

It was soon after Amorebieta’s booking that ex-Mexican President Felipe Calderón (2006-12) piped up on Twitter to condemn Venezuela’s alleged rough play, attempting to score some political points by suggesting they must have been trained by the nation’s polarising President, Nicolás Maduro. His comments were widely shared on social media, as were those in response.

Back to the pitch, though politics are never far away when Venezuela play, just two minutes later they were to continue their occasional forward forays, generating what turned out to be the clearest chance of the half. Rincón, momentarily on the left, nudged the ball to Guerra on the flank who came inside to pass to Juan Arango on the edge of the area. With instinctive awareness, the iconic veteran held up the ball before releasing Vargas to the left of the goal with an exquisite reverse pass that the winger, under a bit of pressure, poked with his outside-right to draw a decent one-handed save from the Arsenal goalkeeper. To an extent, this move typified the attacking midfield three throughout the game, combining the industrious Guerra, with the casual elegance of Arango and the energy of Vargas, who often drifted infield from his right-sided starting spot.

For the rest of the half, while the Colombians saw more of the ball, they struggled to find a way through the opposition’s well-organised and close-knitted defensive lines. When, for example, Guerra carelessly got dispossessed in the middle third, while Sevilla hotshot Carlos Bacca temporarily had some space in which to charge, he was quick to get closed down by several players, thus deflating the majority of the crowd. Furthermore, the many free-kicks and corners that José Pékerman’s men won were routinely headed away by the likes of centre-backs Oswaldo Vizcarrondo and Andrés Túñez, as well as even Rondón on occasion. Conversely, Venezuela, though often on the back foot, comfortably had the best chances before the interval, adding another on 42 minutes. This time, from the right, Rincón passed a short diagonal ball that Vargas dummied just inside the area, leading Guerra to tee himself up for an acrobatic vollley. While it may have been lurching slightly wide, Ospina nevertheless made the parry for a corner.

When the Uruguayan official whistled for the break, much Venezuelan apprehension regarding their nation’s chances in this tournament had already dissipated. The team was displaying admirable commitment, defensive solidity and, dare one utter it, a slightly greater probability of opening the scoring. Given the fitness levels required to track their opponents so assiduously the main question on the mind of many was, could they keep it up?

The opening exchanges of the second half were not entirely encouraging in this regard. Indeed, while to call it dominance would be a stretch, the Colombians nevertheless largely had the ball in the opposition territory for the first ten minutes. However, again, confronted with a largely packed final third, the best they could muster from their crosses and corners was, from a loose ball, an instinctive shot from Aston Villa’s Carlos Sánchez on the edge of the area that pinged a few yards over.

After this pressure subsided, the tide gradually turned. Capitalising again on some hesitant Colombian defensive play, Rondón nabbed the ball and played it out on the left to Guerra. These two were to combine well several times in the game and here, the Zenit St. Petersburg striker ran into the area and met his colleague’s cross, looping a header onto the crossbar. However, before it made contact with the woodwork, the referee blew to penalise the striker for a foul of dubious justification. Nevertheless, not long after Vizcarrondo’s penalty area stretch denied Valencia (who was, in any case, offside) a chance from a dangerous Falcao knock-down following a Rodríguez cross, Rondón would not be denied a second time.

Just before the hour-mark on the right, the tenacious Málaga right-back Roberto Rosales quickly took a throw that Arango, with majestic nonchalance, hooked into the area where it bounced before the left-sided Guerra who, sensing an opportunity, sprung a diving header towards Rondón. Demonstrating admirable neck muscles, he instinctively contorted back to power the ball towards the far corner, where it bounced in what felt like slow motion, before crossing the line. Puncturing the atmosphere in the majority of the ground, some fans at home must have had a delayed response to this, with the distant Venezuelan cheers granting the green light for euphoria. Soon after reeling away, the achievement and the occasion suddenly overwhelmed the man they call Salo, as he stopped in his tracks and fell to the ground. Having netted his first international goal for 21 months and put himself back on course to one day be his country’s all-time top goalscorer, elated team-mates were quick to bundle him.

In the aftermath, while Colombia certainly already knew that they had a task on their hands, as with the preceding sixty minutes, they were to struggle to find any way to surmount it, continuing to put in crosses and attempt direct attacks that were blocked. The arrival of River Plate’s pacy livewire, Teófilo Gutiérrez, in place of the ineffectual Bacca on 72 minutes, appeared to be an acknowledgement by Pékerman that his side could do with some speed and it almost had an immediate impact. Indeed, Rodríguez picked up a loose ball in a central area and played a smart pass to Gutiérrez, yet while he appeared to have a sight on goal, by the time that he adjusted himself for the shot, centre-back Túñez came over to act as an effective shield.

A minute afterwards, the first of three defence-minded Venezuelan changes occurred, all of which involved experienced players who had been regulars at the history-making 2011 tournament. 34-year-old Franklin Lucena replaced Seijas to renew his erstwhile first-choice partnership with Rincón, though before he could do so he contrived to get himself booked before even crossing the touchline, having knocked the ball away from an opponent looking to take a throw. Four minutes later, Vargas was taken off for the more reserved, yet nevertheless creative, right-sided midfielder César González, 32. Lastly, with five minutes remaining, left-back Gabriel Cichero, 31, who had played in all but one of Sanvicente’s warm-up games, came on for Arango, with the back four becoming what appeared to be a back five.

Despite these moves, Venezuela were still managing to get forward during and after this period, with Arango gracefully turning and spraying balls out wide and Rondón chasing and hustling defenders, often giving his own rearguard some respite with his hold-up play.

Nevertheless, Colombia still needed a goal and their collective frustration appeared evident in an effort from Rodríguez with little more than ten minutes remaining. With his side having barely had a chance inside the area, the Real Madrid man opted to lash a left-footed strike from around 20 yards that goalkeeper Alain Baroja did well to parry out strongly before also quickly getting up to put a hand to substitute Edwin Cardona’s rebound. Following this, much praise was lavished upon the Caracas FC goalkeeper which, given he would have likely been criticised had he conceded, perhaps is testimony to both how little trouble he had hitherto faced as well as the significance of the occasion for him and his country. Indeed, playing in his first ever competitive international since making his debut against Honduras in February, he has had a remarkable domestic season and his prominence in this tournament is likely to facilitate a move abroad in the near future.

Subsequently, from a corner that came after the previous one was knocked back out, Colombia arguably had a better chance to score. This time, Rodríguez headed on the cross towards Zapata who was in space at the back post, but the AC Milan defender could not quite wrap his leg around it and the ball instead bobbled out.

From a Colombian perspective, the remainder of the game proceeded with no discernible difference. They continued to be thwarted by the little room they were afforded, winning the occasional, ultimately unsuccessful set-piece and having a half-chance, this time when Cardona’s nice work on the right led to a cross for fellow substitute Jackson Martínez to head down, albeit slightly behind Cuadrado, who directed his close-range effort well wide.

Such meagre sightings of Baroja’s goal were to subsequently decrease in number and, upon the goalkeeper’s clearance upfield after five-and-a-half minutes of stoppage-time, the final whistle blew. It was all over. Despite all the pre-tournament doubts about the team’s seeming lack of preparation and the international form of its leading players, Venezuela had accomplished something truly historic that will have sent confidence levels skyrocketing. Remarkably, this was the first ever win for the nation in their opening Copa América game and now they can genuinely dream of reaching the knock-out stages to once again defy some more expectations. It was to prove all too much for goal-hero Rondón to take in, with his response to the final whistle no doubt summing up most of his compatriots’ feelings.

Despite the well-documented problems that exist in the country – some of which were visibly displayed by fans in Rancagua – jubilation was allowed to temporarily reign in the homes, bars and public spaces across Venezuela. Although the country may be renowned for traditionally being more partial to baseball, huge numbers will tune in to watch La Vinotinto. So many in fact that President Maduro and some of his inner circle have utilised the team as a symbol of national unity by often being seen in public wearing the same striking yellow, blue and red tracksuit that is more commonly sighted on Sanvicente and his staff. This follows on from the late Hugo Chávez’s enthusiastic social media support of the team in 2011 which, endearingly or otherwise depending on your political persuasion, fans on Twitter mined during the Colombia game. Indeed, many of his four-year-old tweets were retweeted at choice moments on sunday, including this one that originally appeared towards the end of the epic 3-3 group stage draw with Paraguay:

Looking ahead, if the nation and the team manage to come back down to earth, they will need to be prepared for what could well be an altogether different challenge and set of tactics on Thursday in the form of Peru. In the meantime, keep an eye out on this site for an article that looks back at this game, expanding on some points raised above, as well as taking into consideration the different task that is anticipated to be posed by Los Incas.

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Left: Fans watching the game in a public area in Caracas (Source: @UNoticias).              Right: Jubilant Venezuelan fans outside the ground in Rancagua, celebrating inside a goal-cum-bus-stop (Source: @munirancagua). 

Darren Spherical

@DarrenSpherical