Tag Archives: Jonathan Copete

Venezuela’s Participation in the 2015 Copa Libertadores – Review

With the three Venezuelan teams, Zamora, Deportivo Táchira and Mineros de Guayana, having recently completed their Copa Libertadores campaigns, Hispanospherical.com inhales deeply and looks in detail at what was a largely dispiriting experience for all concerned.

zamoraflores

Bright Start: Following a sensational goal in their opening game, Zamora’s Arles Flores leads a well-choreographed celebration that received attention far outside of South America. Sadly, such Venezuelan joy was rarely to be seen in the remainder of the group stage (Imagery courtesy of the Metro and the Daily Mirror from this video).

Copa Libertadores 2015: Review of the Venezuelan Participants

18 games, 13 defeats, 4 draws and, following the very last match whose outcome will have thwarted the pre-planned narratives of obituary writers everywhere, 1 win. That was the record in this year’s Copa Libertadores group stage of the three Venezuelans sides, Zamora, Mineros de Guayana and Deportivo Táchira. A derisory performance even for the representatives of this nation of perennial outsiders and one that certainly stakes a claim to be their worst in the current format of the competition. Indeed, while the average number of points gained per match this year (0.3888) was marginally superior to 2012 (0.3333) and 2010 (0.25), the scale of their collective failure is unrivalled in recent history. This was, after all, the first time in eleven attempts that the team in the qualifying round (in this case, Táchira) successfully negotiated their way into the group stage, thus bringing the Venezuelan contingent to a dizzying three. Yet, having another six games to endure only appeared to prolong the misery as not only was it clear before the halfway point that none of the teams were likely to progress but that, between them, they ended up conceding a jarring 46 goals.

It was all a far cry from, say, 2007 when Caracas FC won at home and away against River Plate or, more significantly, 2009 when they and long-standing rivals Táchira gained 19 points between them, with the capital’s finest ultimately unfortunate to go out to Grêmio in the quarter-finals on away goals. Back then, while Venezuela’s footballing reputation was in the ascendancy, a far greater number of its talents remained at domestic clubs with some foreign suitors still maintaining their scepticism regarding their adaptability – something that has been decreasingly the case in recent years. Indeed, as with most successful sides in South America, their key personnel is always in the shop window, a factor that particularly disadvantaged the 2013/14 champions Zamora this time around. Given the well-documented problems of improving the competitiveness and quality of a league outside of the European elite, one can not help but fear that this year’s poor results – not entirely dissimilar to those in 2012 and 2010, albeit with an additional team – are part of a trend that is set to continue.

Nevertheless, what follows are summaries of the campaigns and most noteworthy performers of the three Venezuelans clubs who competed in this year’s Copa Libertadores, starting with the side most affected by the aforementioned issues. (Please note: to read match reports and view video highlights of every single game, click here or on the relevant links in the text below)

zamoralibertadoregraphic2

El Blanquinegro, from Hugo Chávez’s home state of Barinas, came into the tournament as reigning two-time champions and were also leading the Torneo Clausura which, with just over a week to go, they still have a slight chance of winning (*Update: they did following their Libertadores exit but that is no longer the case – see footnote at the bottom for an update on the domestic situation). However, their second successive championship win in May 2014 was to swiftly be met with the departures of key individuals which were to have a significant impact on their showing in the Libertadores. Indeed, playmaker Pedro Ramírez – nicknamed by some as the ‘Venezuelan Messi’ largely for a mazy dribbled goal – joined Switzerland’s FC Sion, leading goalscorer Juan Falcón signed for Ligue 1’s FC Metz and defender Jonathan España opted to try his luck with Cyprus’ AEL Limassol. Other players, particularly those crucial to the rearguard, were to leave (more on them later) but the most keenly felt loss of all was undoubtedly that of manager Noel Sanvicente to the national side.

‘Chita’, to give him his affectionate moniker, not only won both titles with this club, but also brought home five championships between 2002 and 2010 for Caracas FC, where he also led their impressive Libertadores campaigns. His successor Juvencio Betancourt was to last just six league games and things were to get worse before they could get better under his replacement Julio Quintero, who was to take his charges to the foot of the Torneo Apertura in October before turning things around for a 12th-placed finish. Yet, while he has done well domestically in this year’s Clausura, with his side having been rarely out of the top three, he has achieved this largely with the remnants of last year’s squad along with one or two new faces who are simply not of the calibre of their predecessors.

Thus, to match last year’s respectable showing of seven Libertadores points was always going to be a tall order though, having been drawn into a group with Boca Juniors, Montevideo Wanderers and Palestino, the possibility of sneaking second spot behind the Argentines did not seem out of question. However, Zamora were to be all but ruled out of contention after just two games.

Indeed, they kicked things off with an opening-day visit to the Uruguayan capital in a game that was undoubtedly one of the highlights of the group stage, yielding five goals, five red cards and a memorable bowling-themed celebration that featured on news outlets based all over the globe. Things began promisingly with 19-year-old starlet Jhon Murillo firing the then ten-man visitors 1-0 up on the counter and even with 15 minutes left on the clock, they were leading 2-1 on what at that point had become a level playing field. However, the dream start was not to be as Panamanian international Luis Ovalle received his marching orders after conceding a penalty that was duly converted which, in turn, was swiftly followed up with what proved to be the winner.

Losing was a bitter enough pill to swallow but Murillo’s injury-time dismissal (two-game suspension) as well as those of two defenders (one-game suspension each) gave lollipop-licking Quintero future selection issues that he struggled to negotiate. The largely full Estadio Agustín Tovar crowd nevertheless carried into the Palestino game some optimism which was to be dashed as 17-year-old Yeferson Soteldo was to both impress and frustrate by missing a hat-trick’s worth of chances (hitting the woodwork twice) in a 1-0 loss. Even at this early stage, the Venezuelan champions looked to be heading out as not only did they have no points but their next two games were against the unanimous group favourites, Boca Juniors.

Expectations were matched, as both encounters were unmitigated disasters. The trip to La Bombonera ended 5-0, a scoreline that could have been easily doubled had the Argentines took all of their chances, with Dani Osvaldo, a man in thrall to the concept of flamboyance, particularly wasteful. That the Southampton-loanee was afforded such space to repeatedly attempt to score the kind of goal that would be permanently etched into the retinas of every bostero spoke volumes about Zamora’s defensive performance. This was to be little better in the reverse fixture despite having been ostensibly aided by the Argentines’ decision to leave several top stars, including Osvaldo, in Buenos Aires. Indeed, though the returning Murillo was to give the Venezuelans a surprise first-half lead, the Xeneizes swiftly shifted out of first gear after the interval and were to leave 5-1 winners and with their 100 per cent record in tact. Zamora captain Luis Vargas added to his side’s woes by being their fourth player to be red-carded in the competition, which was compounded by Montevideo Wanderers earning a draw in Chile, thus bringing their tally to seven points and eliminating the Venezuelans.

Their two remaining group games were played with a weary sense of obligation, as they were thrashed 4-0 at the hands of a driven Palestino, before being dispatched 3-0 at home by Wanderers in a lacklustre encounter that saw the Uruguayans snatch a knock-out spot. Judging by the paltry crowd at this final match – believed to be well under 1000 – there was little desire amongst the fans of La Furia Llanera to see their side restore some pride in either of these reverse fixtures by demonstrating that their two opening losses were not entirely fair reflections on the overall play.

When all was said and done, Zamora had lost every one of their six games – the worst record of any Venezuelan side to have participated in the current format of the competition. Particularly galling was their goal difference of -18, having shipped 21 goals that were only offset by a mere 3 strikes at the other end. This was in stark contrast to last year’s more even statistics, when 6 goals were both scored and conceded, from what was a markedly more difficult group, comprising of then-holders Atlético Mineiro of Brazil, Colombia’s Santa Fe and Nacional of the Paraguayan variety. A brief comparison of the positive results they achieved in this group serves to highlight the deficiences that were witnessed this year. Indeed, not only were they led by serial winner Sanvicente but the departed Juan Falcón also scored all four of his goals in these games, netting the decisive goal in the 2-1 home win over Santa Fe, as well as both in the 2-2 draw in Colombia and the opener in the 2-0 victory in Barinas over Nacional. This year, Zamora did not possess an adequate replacement for their erstwhile marksman, with the only striker brought in being January-recruit Santiago Bello from the Uruguayan second-tier, who was to feature in four games in this edition – three times from the bench – without finding the net.

Last year, Pedro Ramírez also chipped in with a goal and some creativity, something that was also noticeably lacking this time around. However, arguably the most significant change from the previous campaign was to be found at the back, as the majority of those who featured regularly in 2014 left at the end of the season. Indeed, goalkeeper Yáñez Angulo as well as the defenders Hugo Soto, Javier López, Layneker Safra and Jonathan España have all since moved on, with most, if not all, of those filling their boots this year evidently not up to scratch. Having two defenders sent off in the first game – including Ovalle, who actually played five times in last year’s group stage – and the subsequent suspensions certainly did not help either.

Ultimately, if anything positive can be extracted from this season’s experience it will soon again be taken away from them. Jhon Murillo, the temperamental, dribbling winger who often drifts into more central positions, scored twice in his four appearances and has long been linked with a move abroad, with Torino and Celta Vigo the most recently touted destinations. Yeferson Soteldo, at just 17, could well follow suit in the not-too-distant future as though he may not have taken the chances that came his way, he was a lively presence and has become a regular starter in the league. That he has done so may instead prove in the long run to be further evidence of his club’s lack of depth at this particular time and given their rather humble means, fans must be wondering whether the good times enjoyed under Sanvicente will even be able to return anytime soon.

tachiralibertadoresgraphic

Much enthusiasm from both domestic scribes as well as casual observers from afar greeted Táchira’s history-making 4-3 aggregate win against Paraguay’s six-time semi-finalists Cerro Porteño. For the first time since the current format was introduced in 2005, there were to be three, not two, Venezuelan sides to follow in the Copa Libertadores group stage. Drawn into a group containing another Paraguayan side, Guaraní, as well as Peruvians Sporting Cristal, a Round of 16 berth appeared eminently attainable. Seemingly bolstering their chances was the retention of the vast majority of the side that finished third in the 2014 aggregate table coupled with some useful additions, such as goalkeeper Alan Liebeskind and veteran international Jorge Rojas – the latter of whom scored a bona fide golazo in the first leg against Cerro.

The first game soon punctured this optimism, as a full-capacity Pueblo Nuevo was to witness a comprehensive 5-0 thrashing led by the superb partnership of Diego Milito and Gustavo Bou for Argentine champions Racing, the undisputed top dogs in the group. Immediately following this rude awakening, doubts that before the Cerro games had been regularly expressed resurfaced and at a higher volume. Indeed, in the Torneo Apertura, Táchira had contrived to throw away a commanding mid-point lead, not winning in their final eight games and finishing 11th, rendering manager Daniel Farías virtually a dead man walking. Furthermore, even the most partisan follower of Los Aurinegros would have to confess that their side rode their luck in the second leg against Cerro. Thus, in light of the car-crash performance against Racing, their response would be crucial.

For their second game, they travelled to Lima to face Sporting Cristal. Few lessons appeared to have been learned as the Peruvian champions took a first-half lead and were to comfortably dominate the play. However, with under five minutes remaining, they were made to pay for their profligacy as César González stepped up to curl a 25-yard free-kick into the back of the net. Grippingly for the neutral, there was to be further drama, though not a twist, as Renzo Sheput stepped up deep into stoppage-time to take a penalty but was to be spectacularly denied by Liebeskind as the Venezuelans held on.

Perhaps not the most deserved of points, but Táchira at least exhibited some backbone, essential ahead of their journey back to Asunción where this time they faced then-Apertura leaders Guaraní. Initially, despite conceding an early goal things appeared promising as ‘Maestrico’ González scored again to level up the score at 1-1 after just 17 minutes. However, they were to be blitzed by three goals in six first-half minutes and were to ultimately walk away smarting from a 5-2 defeat. Subsequently, the following week Zamora were to receive their second five-goal bashing from Boca and these games, along with Táchira’s comparable experiences here in Paraguay and against Racing, were to do sizeable damage to the reputation of Venezuelan domestic football on the continent.

Pessimism thus returned to the side representing the Colombia-bordering state of the same name. Progression began to feel like a fantasy from another age and next up was more potential embarrassment in the home fixture against Guaraní. However, to the relief of many, Farías’ men were to put in a far more respectable showing and could well have won it. A 21st-minute penalty was converted by experienced international González, thus providing him with his third goal in four matches. Lady Fortune appeared to be on their side when, after 32 minutes, Federico Santander’s spot-kick was saved by Liebskind which, at that point, was remarkably his fourth penalty stop since joining the club from Portuguesa just two months prior. However, nine minutes later, he was unable to improve on this statistic as Julián Benítez took command of a similar situation and buried the ball from the 12-yard spot. Despite being pegged back, Táchira were to have the better of the second half, though with just over 15 minutes to go Farías was to unintentionally abdicate any chance of winning the game by replacing his side’s most consistent threat, winger Yohandry Orozco. Consequently, ‘Fuera  Farías’ and ‘Farías hijo de puta’ were just two of the chants that were to be voiced by the home support and clearly captured for home-viewing around the continent up until the final whistle confirmed a 1-1 draw. As if to vindicate the angry hordes, the awarding of the Man of the Match prize indeed went to Orozco, a diminutive individual who just a few years ago was considered the next big thing of Venezuelan football.

At this point, Táchira were all-but-out and a 0-0 home draw against Cristal removed the miniscule and unvoiced doubt. Though overall it was as enthralling an encounter as it sounds and played in front of a ground well under half full, the hosts did have chances to pick up their first win. Indeed, firstly at the beginning of the second half, Orozco curled a fine free-kick against the post that was converted on the rebound by Uruguayan forward Pablo Olivera from an offside position (where he was to lurk wth frustrating frequency). Not long afterwards, Olivera was to receive a gilt-edged opportunity from a low cross by Orozco, yet from little more than six yards out he was to somehow direct it wide.

With their final game being away to Racing, the opportunity to give their fans at least something to smile about appeared to have been missed. Yet, remarkably, with 50 minutes on the clock, José Alí Meza, a regular impact substitute who was starting only his second Libertadores game this year, was to put Táchira into a shock 2-0 lead. Irrespective of the caveats involved, this was shaping up to be one of the most impressive results in the history of Venezuelan participation in this competition. Alas, it was not to be as, with twenty minutes remaining, the Argentine champions were back on level terms. In response, Farías, having already withdrawn Meza on the hour-mark, was to further enhance his reputation for unambitious substitutions with the removal of González and Orozco in the closing stages. Yet, with the score still at 2-2 when regulation time was up,  this was still shaping up to be a credible point. However, seconds into stoppage-time, 20-year-old goalkeeper José Contreras (who had played in the previous match as well), committed a calamitous error that may just haunt him for the rest of his career, as he let a relatively tame effort from Brian Fernández slip under him and inch over the line.

A gutting loss, every bit as soul-destroying as the reverse fixture was humiliating. Although their overall record may not have told the full story, Táchira had nevertheless failed to win, picking up as many draws as defeats and conceding 15 goals along the way. Aside from having scored two more goals this time around, this record was otherwise identical to the last time they reached the group stage – 2012 – not to mention a marginal improvement on the two points gained the previous year. However, it was a far cry from the nine-point haul of 2009, not to mention the remarkable undefeated group stage performance and run to the quarter-finals in 2004, a year that had a slightly different format that granted Venezuela three automatic entries.

If the Libertadores is considered to be a platform to advertise a player’s talents, quite where such a disappointing campaign leaves Táchira’s leading lights is difficult to surmise. Wilker Ángel, a 22-year-old centre-back who last year made his international debut and was rumoured to be interesting teams in South America and Europe, will not have done himself any favours by being on the field in both five-goal reversals. Yohandry Orozco, 24, had his creative moments and unsettled at least some of the defenders he ran at, yet while a move to another side on the continent does not seem out of the question, one does not anticipate another European side of note to be clamouring for his signature after his forgettable two-year spell at Wolfsburg. Gelmin Rivas, the club’s top scorer whose two goals in Asunción ensured their advancement to the competition proper, had been attracting attention from Belgium but, though he has 20 league goals, he could not find the net once in his three group game starts. Two of the most impressive performers, César González and, with some qualifications given the number of goals conceded, Alan Liebeskind, are both in their thirties and unlikely to be top of the lists of those looking for long-term value.

Ultimately, although this campaign was no worse than the last two occasions they reached this phase, Táchira will surely still be rather disappointed at the two hidings that they endured as well as not getting more out of at least two of the three games that they drew. Nevertheless, they must now dust themselves off as, with the Clausura ending on 3 May, they retain a significant chance of winning the title and thus securing another opportunity to right some wrongs in next year’s Libertadores.*

  minerospage2

Comfortably the worst-performing Venezuelan side in the league going into this competition, Mineros were to end their Libertadores campaign with the most respectable results, the most points and, at the very last opportunity, the only win. This, despite never reaching the group stage in the present format (two qualifying round losses in 2005 and 2008 were the closest that they had come), sacking a second manager of the season during the competition and ending their participation as still comfortably the worst-performing Venezuelan side in the league. Indeed, though Richard Páez, former national team manager (2001-07) led them to finish top of the 2013 Torneo Apertura and the 2013/14 Aggregate Table as well as end up as the overall runners-up, he was out of the door by late September. His first six games of the season had been deemed unsatisfactory, but his replacement Marcos Mathías had little joy attempting to return his charges to their former level. Instead, they finished the Apertura in 6th and commenced their participation in the Libertadores while occupying a mediocre mid-table position in the Torneo Clausura.

It has been something of a quandary attempting to decipher what precisely is wrong in Puerto Ordaz as while they did lose a star from last season in the form of international midfielder Alejandro Guerra (more on him later), that alone can not account for their slump. Indeed, they had also brought in some quality players at the beginning of the Apertura, such as first-choice international left-back Gabriel Cichero. At the start of the Clausura, they also added two key members of Trujillanos’ Apertura title-winning team, defender Edixon Cuevas and striker James Cabezas.

Nevertheless, given their underwhelming form, they entered their first game away to Argentina’s Huracán as firm underdogs. Yet, though they were on the backfoot for at least two-thirds of the match, some of the considerable experience in their ranks came to the fore as they frustrated the Copa Argentina winners before ultimately coming within a minute of emerging victorious. Indeed, against the run of play, Colombian forward Zamir Valoyes gave them a 22nd-minute lead from a free-kick and though they were pegged back, come the final thirty minutes, their absorption of Argentine attacks had appeared to exhaust the hosts of ideas. Subsequently, they started to make a go for it and, remarkably, after some close scrapes, Valoyes netted again from a penalty (of admittedly dubious origin). Alas, not for the only time in this year’s competition, a Venezuelan side was to shoot themselves in the foot as a last-minute spot-kick was conceded and then converted as the honours ended even.

Even so, a point in Buenos Aires can never be sniffed at and so going into their home game against Club Universitario de Sucre – champions of Bolivia, whose teams are not renowned for travelling well – there were ample reasons to anticipate victory. Instead, what transpired was a largely dreary, horror show of tedium that was short on chances, enlivened only by an appalling fumble by Mineros goalkeeper Rafael Romo that gifted the visitors the only goal and the first Bolivian Libertadores win in Venezuela since 1994. Having also made a rather glaring error in the Huracán game, as well as some recent miscalculations in the league, the home supporters were in an unforgiving mood and proceeded to boo the international’s every touch until the end of the match. To make matters worse, several minutes later, the preceding week’s two-goal hero Valoyes was given a straight red card for an excruciating midfield challenge, ruling himself out of the next game. Capping off a tension-filled night, when the final whistle was blown there were plenty of calls for the head of manager Mathías. While the fans did not get their wish immediately, two weeks later following a mid-March 5-2 domestic thrashing by Táchira, they did, with assistant Tony Franco instead handed an opportunity until the end of the season.

His first task a couple of days after taking the reins could hardly have been greater. A home match against Brazilian champions Cruzeiro would be daunting for almost any side yet, though they were to ultimately lose 2-0, they actually acquitted themselves rather admirably and could come away with their dignity in tact. After Leandro Damião opened the scoring in the 12th minute, Mineros immediately fought back and created many opportunities throughout the game, looking like they may sneak a draw until Marquinhos sealed the win with seven minutes remaining. The reverse fixture in Belo Horizonte was to reflect not quite so favourably on the Venezuelans as two superb goals early on from Giorgian De Arrascaeta and Damião opened up the possibility of a trouncing of the magnitude Táchira and Zamora both twice endured. However, though Henrique got a third in the 73rd minute, Mineros can perhaps feel some contentment in their relative resilience – something their compatriots could perhaps learn from in preparation for future Libertadores clashes.

Despite these credible performances, they were nevertheless losses and their fifth game, away to Club Universitario in the high altitude of Sucre, is where their already faint hopes of making it out of the group evaporated. In a game somewhat more entertaining than the reverse fixture, a goal at the end of each half gave the Bolivians the victory and put them in with a strong chance of qualifying from the group. However, on the final matchday they were to face a trip to Brazil, whereas another of their rivals, Huracán, travelled to Venezuela, with the Bolivians knowing that if they lost and the Argentines won, they would be eliminated.

Yet, though they were to succumb to Cruzeiro 2-0, they were to owe a huge debt of gratitude to Mineros de Guayana who, in the very last group game contested by a Venezuelan side this year, surprised some by claiming the first – and only – victory for their nation. Indeed, as in Buenos Aires, while Huracán were to enjoy plenty of time on the ball, they were to struggle to create clear-cut chances with the Mineros defence largely blocking them off. Valoyes was to repeat his Argentine feats here by scoring another two goals – this time both before the half-time whistle – with international midfielder Rafael Acosta getting a third in the second half. Huracán’s players and coaching staff as well as many in the international media were visibly stunned at this 3-0 reversal, yet one can not help but feel their opponents were unjustly underestimated. While Mineros were playing without four or five first-team regulars and were already out of the competition, they did nevertheless achieve a 2-2 draw in February against the Argentines, who in turn, should perhaps be considered a second-tier Argentine side, given they sit 25th in the bloated 30-team domestic top-flight. Indeed, that all of Mineros’ five goals and four points came against Huracán should cause the men from Parque Patricios to pause to ponder in order to avoid heading back to the second division they were playing in last season.

Given the standard of this opposition, Mineros’ status as the best-performing Venezuelan side can easily be criticised. Indeed, even with their relatively respectable results against Cruzeiro, one has to bear in mind that the Brazilian giants have only scored more than three goals in any competitive game once since last August (and that occurred against Mineiro State Championship side Villa Nova who, nationally, compete in Série D). Nevertheless, it could be that the experience many players in this team possess of playing in the Libertadores as underdogs in the past for other Venezuelan sides facilitated their occasional strategic recognition of their shortcomings and defensive approaches. Indeed, at the back, the thirtysomethings Gabriel Cichero, Julio Machado and Edixon Cuevas as well as 41-year-old Luis Vallenilla all brought considerable know-how to this area of the pitch. Highly decorated Edgar Jiménez, who played for Caracas FC from 2003-2012, also certainly knew his way through such games while, in his case, sitting in front of the back four. Thus, while their goal difference was nothing to celebrate, their concession of a comparatively respectable ten goals was considerably better than the defences of Zamora and Táchira fared and may owe something to their experience and organisation of these players.

However, most of these individuals will not be anticipating life-changing foreign transfers as, like 29-year-old top scorer Valoyes, age is not really on their side. For the Colombian striker, a minor move at some point to his homeland to the west may not be entirely out of the question, but if any major scouts witnessed his side’s games, their attention may have instead been directed towards two of his younger team-mates. Indeed, Ángelo Peña, 25, whose jinking runs, diagonal balls and incisive passes often caught the eye, has already played in Brazil and Portugal and if he can be more consistent in his form then he may well depart for a third overseas adventure. In the long-term, 18-year-old left-sided midfielder Luis Guerra may well prove to have the brightest future, though it is difficult to tell at this early stage. Currently in his debut season, he only really came to prominence in the final game against Huracán – his first Libertadores start – but he put in a noteworthy performance, particularly with his role in the second goal which involved a run up the flank that bypassed three players.

Whether he turns out to be yet another winger of the week remains to be seen but as much as the fans will have gained some confidence from his side’s final game, this has been a season to forget for Mineros. Their fall from grace has been rather depressing to witness and despite having gained this rare opportunity to show the continent what they are capable of, their domestic position ensures that they will not be granted a second bite at the cherry next year. If there is a saving grace, however, it is that they possess a higher budget than most of their rivals. Indeed, despite their poor Apertura showing, they were still able to snap up Cabezas and Cuevas, two of the star men of the winners, Trujillanos. Though such purchases can not be said to have been a success thus far, the agitated Mineros fans will be hoping, if not demanding, that their resources are utilised with more acumen ahead of next season.

Down But Not Entirely Out: Venezuelans Abroad Flying the Flag 

Although all three Venezuelan teams have been eliminated, there still remains a Venezuelan interest in the tournament as attention will now solely be on their compatriots at two teams from their westerly neighbours, Colombia. Indeed, starting with the 2014 Finalización winners Santa Fe, left-sided international midfielder Luis Manuel Seijas currently plies his trade here and is often a first-team regular. Unfortunately, he has recently had problems with injuries and so could only make two brief appearances in his side’s group games – both of which were victories over Atlas of Mexico. However, though Santa Fe lost both of their games against Atlético Mineiro, they twice defeated Chilean champions Colo-Colo to end up winners of Group 1 with 12 points. Through to the Round of 16, they – and hopefully a fully fit Seijas – will now face Argentina’s Estudiantes de La Plata, with the first leg taking place in the Buenos Aires Province on 5 May and the reverse fixture in Bogotá on 12 May.

Also through to the knock-out stage is Alejandro Guerra, who may be able to pass his Vinotinto team-mate some notes as his side Atlético Nacional (2014 Apertura champions) finished top of Group 7, ahead of Estudiantes. In all, he featured in five games – only missing the 2-2 opening matchday draw away to Paraguay’s Libertad – and made his most notable contribution as an acrobatic goalscoring substitute in a 2-1 win away in Guayaquil against Barcelona. While he also started in an entertaining 3-2 home reversal inflicted upon them by the Ecuadorians, he had more positive experiences in a 1-0 away win and a 1-1 home draw against Estudiantes, as well as a 4-0 home thumping over Libertad, which sealed their progression. Furthermore, Jonathan Copete, a Colombian by birth but who has played at length in Venezuela and has been in talks to represent the nation, scored the last goal in this game. Both he and Guerra now look forward to a two-legged tie with Barcelona’s Clásico del Astillero rivals Emelec, returning to Guayaquil for the first leg on 7 May before taking the Ecuadorians back to Medellín on 14 May.

Drawn in eminently winnable match-ups, Venezuelans will be hoping that their leading representatives on the continent will be able to continue to fly the flag in this premier competition for some time yet.

*Torneo Clausura Update (17 May 2014): As this article was written when most domestic teams had 2-3 games remaining, hopefully readers will find an update on the league situation helpful. After a breathtakingly dramatic climax, Táchira claimed the title, with Caracas a very narrow 2nd and Zamora in 3rd. Subsequently, Táchira beat Trujillanos in the Gran Final to be crowned the overall 2014/15 champions of Venezuela. 

Darren Spherical

@DarrenSpherical

Copa Libertadores Preview: Deportivo Táchira Join Zamora and Mineros de Guayana on the Grandest Stage

Tonight (17 February) may see Europe’s Champions League return for its knock-out phase, but in South America (and Mexico), attention will be very much on the inauguration of the Group Stage of the 2015 Copa Libertadores, the premier club competition.

Interest will be particularly high in Venezuela, the nation whose clubs have historically made the least impact in this tournament. For the first ever time since the round of play-off qualifiers was introduced in 2005, the continent’s traditional underdogs will be represented by their full quota of three teams, as Zamora (2013-14 champions) and Mineros de Guayana (2013-14 runners-up & Apertura winners) will be joined by Deportivo Táchira (3rd in 2013-14 aggregate table, behind the other two qualifiers).

Highlights of Cerro Porteño 2-2 Deportivo Táchira (3-4 aggregate), 11 February 2015, Copa Libertadores First Round.

(Video courtesy of YouTube user: Enfermos X el fútbol)

Deportivo Táchira’s Asunción Ascension

Táchira, who as well as making four appearances at this stage in the past ten years have also been unsuccessful in each of the three previous times that they have contested the play-off round, finally overcame this hurdle last week when they defeated Cerro Porteño. Perhaps being rivalled only by Palestino of Chile knocking out Uruguay’s three-time winners Nacional as the biggest surprise of the preliminaries, the side from the eponymous state on the Colombian border drew 2-2 in Asunción, thus claiming a memorable 4-3 aggregate victory

Before the first leg was contested on 4 February, the six-time semi-finalists from Paraguay were considered comfortable favourites to progress. Táchira, however, gave short shrift to the supposed script as it took no more than 12 minutes for 34-year-old Argentine Javier López – a recent recruit from Zamora FC – to head in the fine set-piece delivery of 32-year-old erstwhile Venezuela international César ‘Maestrico’ González. Rather than sitting back, San Cristóbal’s finest absorbed and were further invigorated by the raucous atmosphere of a well-populated Pueblo Nuevo and seven minutes later, the fans were to witness a goal that undoubtedly lived up to the significance of the occasion. Maintaining the theme of experience, this came from the much-travelled 37-year-old Jorge Rojas, a recent acquisition from one of the capital’s smaller sides, Metropolitanos, as well as being La Vinotinto‘s third highest-capped player of all-time. Upon receiving a throw-in, Rojas demonstrated why he is known as ‘El Zurdo’, as he let the ball roll into his stride and unleashed an unstoppable left-footed strike from over 30 yards that fizzed in the air before going in off the underside of the crossbar.

A goal surely fit to grace any stadium in the world and a fine example of the strength in depth that exists in this competition. Not to be outdone, five minutes after the restart Cerro were to get what proved to be their consolation and seemingly vital away goal, with a strike that left many impartial observers unsure as to which was the finest of the game. This was a swerving 30-yard free-kick from Jonathan Fabbro, an Argentina-born Paraguay international who has represented clubs in six countries within Latin America and who, at 33 years of age, was well on-message with this game’s theme.

Thus, with an away goal to their name and home advantage for the decisive tie on 11 February to look forward to, Cerro returned to the Paraguayan capital confident that a group berth awaited. When, with 40 minutes on the clock, Fabbro again got on the scoresheet – this time via a dubiously awarded penalty – many home nerves dissipated as now Táchira were compelled to attack in order to avoid elimination, thus leaving them vulnerable on the counter. Yet, while at times the Venezuelans rode their luck, from the very first minute they always looked like they were capable of posing a threat, not to mention a surprise or two, the first of which they delivered on 55 minutes. Gelmin Rivas, the club’s leading goalscorer with 11 goals in 17 league games, followed up the good work of Pablo Olivera – recently acquired from Uruguay’s second tier – to hold off defenders and adeptly side-foot home.

The onus was thus back on the hosts and to their credit, they required little more than five minutes to regain the lead with that man Fabbro again involved in the goal, albeit this time as supplier. He did well on the right of the area to shrug off some challenges before chipping a fine cross into the area that local youngster Cecilio Domínguez chested and dispatched with a consummate ease that belied his 20 years.

However, as the Asunción crowd began pondering whether or not extra-time would be necessary, Rivas abruptly rendered any such musings academic, stunning the home faithful within a minute of the restart. The striker, who was linked with a possible move to Standard Liège or Club Brugge in January, picked up the ball 30 yards out and evaded a challenge to hit a low bouncing shot from the right edge of the area into the bottom far corner. 2-2, the local scoreboard now alarmingly read. Although the goalkeeper Rodolfo Rodríguez probably should have parried this shot away, any anger felt by the home fans had to be suppressed as this sensationally swift turn of events meant that their side now had to frantically get their act together and score twice in just under half an hour.

As it panned out, while Cerro did have the bulk of the remaining chances, Táchira were to resist and hold on, thus not only qualifying for the group stage but also managing to avoid defeat against a side that had reached this very phase in four of the past five years.

Although it is unlikely that fans of Táchira’s El Clásico foes Caracas FC share the following sentiments, it must be said that as this second leg victory was immediately followed by the national team’s second successive win over Honduras in a week, for many Venezuelan football fans this was certainly a day to be savoured.

Previews of Venezuela’s 3 Teams in the 2015 Copa Libertadores

deportivotachira

Deportivo Táchira

With the confidence gained from their impressive win against Cerro Porteño coupled with their return to form in the early stages of Venezuela’s Torneo Clausura, Los Aurinegros should feel that advancing from Group 8 (of 8) is not beyond their capabilities. Indeed, while the encounter with Argentine champions Racing and their strike-force of Diego Milito and Gustavo Bou may cause the most butterflies, their games against Peruvian champions Sporting Cristal and another Paraguayan side, Guaraní, now seem, by comparison, manageable.

Coach Daniel Farías will certainly be hoping his side does not experience a similarly disastrous decline in form that befell them in the 18-team Torneo Apertura when they contrived to fall from 1st at the midway point to a final position of 11th.  To avert this, the form of various key players will be crucial: goalkeeper Alan Liebeskind, who has made a strong impression since joining at the beginning of the Clausura; young centre-back Wilker Ángel, who can chip in with more than his fair share of goals from set-pieces and who may well be heading abroad later in the year; playmaker César González, whose set-pieces and link-up play will be vital, as will be those of Jorge Rojas, though how much of the campaign the latter will feature in at his age remains to be seen; another dead-ball specialist, albeit one surely not concerned with stamina issues is young, creative livewire Yohandry Orozco, a man who will want to use this opportunity to display to a wide audience some of the talent that gained him recognition four years ago; the service of the likes of Orozco, Rojas, González and, to an extent, Pablo Olivera, will need to be spot-on in order for striker Gelmin Rivas to have a prosperous tournament, being as he is in the main a penalty-area predator.

zamorafc

Zamora FC

Before Táchira get their campaign underway with a home game against Racing, the 2013-14 champions of Venezuela will be ushering in their nation’s participation in the tournament with an away game against Montevideo Wanderers. Their Uruguayan opponents will be hosting this encounter at Parque Central, the home of their more illustrious cross-city neighbours, Nacional, whose qualifying-round conquerors Palestino – a Chilean side originally set up by Palestinian immigrants – are the third side in Group 5. The final team is Argentine giants Boca Juniors who, having raised eyes and expectations with the recruitment of Uruguayan international Nicolás Lodeiro, Málaga midfielder Pablo Pérez and striker Dani Osvaldo, promise to be the dominant threat.

Zamora may have won last season’s championship but, as is often the case in South America, they were victims of their own success. Consequently, key individuals were swiftly snapped up by all and sundry, such as midfielder Pedro Ramírez (FC Sion), leading goalscorer Juan Falcón (FC Metz) and, most significantly, manager Noel Sanvicente (Venezuela national team). They thus began the Torneo Apertura campaign in August disastrously, not picking up a win in their first 11 games and finding themselves rooted to the bottom. However, their form was to undergo a remarkable U-turn as their final six games ended with five wins and a draw, salvaging some pride with a final position of 12th. This reversal in fortunes has impressively and, with the reputation of Venezuelan football on the continental stage in mind, thankfully, continued into the second half of the domestic season, as they currently sit 1st in the Torneo Clausura, with four wins and two draws – unbeaten in a total of 13 games.

Key to continuining this impressive transformation under coach Julio Quintero will be the performance of the defence, which has four clean sheets in the past six games and now features some new faces as well as the likes of Panama international Luis Ovalle and the long-serving Moisés Galezo. Other players whose roles will be crucial include deep-lying playmaker, set-piece taker and occasional shield Luis Vargas, as well as fellow midfield stalwart Arles Flores; with his dribbles down the flanks as well as the inroads he makes infield, temperamental-yet-gifted 19-year-old Jhon Murillo – who had an unsuccessful trial with Basel last year – will certainly be hoping to make an impression, as well as chip in with some goals; the man who has been on target the most for the champions and who was the catalyst behind their return to form is attacking midfielder/support-striker Pierre Pluchino, whose elegant creativity and finishing will be crucial; lastly, Santiago Bello, a striker with an impressive record recently brought in from the Uruguayan second tier in advance of the Libertadores – so far yet to start a game, but from whom goals are anticipated.

Minerosdeguayana

Mineros de Guayana

The 2013 Torneo Apertura winners and overall runners-up for 2013-14 have thus far had a rather mediocre season, sacking Richard  Páez (the well-respected former national team manager from 2001-07) and ending the most recent Apertura in 6th place. Their uninspiring form has continued into the Clausura as they sit in 11th place, having played six games – one, and in some cases, two, more than the vast of majority of the sides around them.

Thus, of Venezuela’s three representatives, Mineros are currently heading into this tournament with the worst form. However, they may be able to boost morale ahead of their official entrance into the competition as they will be involved in another league game before they play their opening Libertadores match next week on Tuesday 24 February away to Argentine side Huracán (Update 24/2/15: this game against Estudiantes de Mérida did not take place due to the tragic death of club captain Carlos de Castro. Mineros now find themselves 12th in the table). This newly promoted club – who qualified by virtue of winning the Copa Argentina – will certainly be no pushover, as evidenced by their comfortable 4-0 play-off round win over Peru’s Alianza Lima. The other two sides that will be contesting Group 3 are champions of their respective countries: Club Universitario of Bolivia and Cruzeiro of Brazil, the latter of whom, despite some post-season departures, will be firm favourites and who now count Leandro Damião and Uruguayan prospect Giorgian De Arrascaeta amongst their ranks.

The success or otherwise of Mineros will depend largely on players who have mostly performed at a standard markedly lower than they did last season suddenly raising their game, however unlikely that may seem. Their side consists of many individuals who regularly receive call-ups to the national squad, such as goalkeeper Rafael Romo who, judging by his inaction in the recent Venezuela friendlies, finds himself demoted from second to third choice; Gabriel Cichero who, though certainly not without his critics, is Venezuela’s first-choice left-back and who also possesses attacking qualities, particularly on set-pieces; the two defence-minded midfielders Rafael Acosta and Édgar Jiménez also have their attacking merits, but when playing for the national side have largely been panned, particularly when they were both regularly left for dead in November’s 5-0 thrashing handed out by Chile; striker Richard Blanco recently played and scored a tap-in against Honduras but, as this was a squad of home-based players, he is unlikely to get a regular call-up; depending on form, the Colombian duo of Zamir Valoyes and James Cabezas may well find themselves sidelining Blanco; Cabezas was brought in from recent Apertura winners Trujillanos (where he scored 10 goals in 16 games), along with defender Edixon Cuevas, yet rather than boost the squad, both have thus far struggled to replicate the form they displayed at their old club. As a final consideration, it will be interesting to see how former Venezuela international defender Luis Vallenilla copes against the pace of the likes of Cruzeiro, given that he turns 41 in March.

Venezuelans Flying the Flag: More Bonuses

If following the three clubs was not enough for Venezuelan football fans, there are also some other compatriots who will be competing in this year’s edition for Colombian sides. Luis Manuel Seijas, a left-sided attacking midfielder who features regularly for the national side will be playing for 2014 Torneo Finalización champions Independiente Santa Fe. They have been drawn in Group 1 and their very first match comes tonight away to Mexico’s Atlas after the second game of interest – Táchira’s – has finished – a long night is thus in store for all. The two other teams in their group are 2014 Copa do Brasil winners Atlético Mineiro and last year’s Chilean Clausura winners, Colo-Colo.

In Group 7, Colombia’s 2014 Apertura winners Atlético Nacional should field another Venezuelan international midfielder, Alejandro Guerra. Also in their ranks is Jonathan Copete, a Colombian in origin but who has been in talks for some time now with Venezuelan national boss Noel Sanvicente about naturalisation and who could well feature in future national team squads at some point this year. Irrespective of how his international aspirations pan out, both men come into this competition with strong continental experience, having been part of their side’s run to the final of December’s Copa Sudamericana, in which they were runners-up to River Plate. Their first Libertadores match will be on Thursday 19 February and will be possibly their sternest test, being as it is against Paraguay’s 2014 Apertura and Clausura winners, Libertad. Their other two opponents are Ecuador’s championship runners-up Barcelona and Argentina’s Estudiantes de la Plata, whose President regular Argentine football fans will know is club legend Juan Sebastián Verón. While this is a far from straightforward group to negotiate, Guerra and Copete will fancy their chances of qualifying for the knock-out stage.

Although the general consensus is that the two Colombian sides featuring Venezuelans have more chance of progressing than the three domestic teams, one can not help but feel that no matter what happens, many memorable moments will occur this year for Venezuelan football fans to recall fondly for some time afterwards. It is going to be an enthralling tournament which should be covered as much as possible from a Venezuelan perspective on this site.

Now, that is more than enough talking – let’s get the caffeine ready and prepare for some long nights of top-level action!

Darren Spherical

@DarrenSpherical

Review of the Title Race in the 2014 Venezuelan Torneo Apertura

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Torneo Apertura 2014 Title Race Review:

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

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

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

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

venfinal

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

Three Copa Libertadores 2015 Qualifiers:

Two Never Challenged, One Faltered at the Halfway Stage 

zamorafc
  Zamora FC

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

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

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

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

Minerosdeguayana

Mineros de Guayana

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

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

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

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

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

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

deportivotachira

Deportivo Táchira

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Three Copa Sudamericana 2014 Qualifiers:

All Three Were in the Hunt Until the Final Day

caracasfcfc

Caracas FC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DLG

Deportivo La Guaira

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

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

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

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

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

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

truj23

Trujillanos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Darren Spherical

@DarrenSpherical