Tag Archives: José Contreras

Iran 1-0 Venezuela – International Friendly (13 November 2017)

10am in Caracas, 3pm in Nijmegen, 5:30pm in Tehran. On a Monday. For those who were otherwise occupied, here is what happened…

International Friendly

Monday 13 November 2017 – Goffertstadion, Nijmegen, Gelderland, Netherlands

Iran 1-0 Venezuela

Video Highlights of Iran 1-0 Venezuela, International Friendly, 13 November 2017 (YouTube)

Goalkeeping Error Leads to Marginal Defeat for Spirited Venezuela

Due to a second-half goalkeeping error, Venezuela’s six-game unbeaten run came to an end in what was otherwise a decent run-out for Rafael Dudamel’s youthful side.

Though it was reported as being played behind closed doors, some pockets of Iranian fans were present in the largely empty Goffertstadion, home of Dutch side N.E.C. Nijmegen. No Venezuelan spectators could be spotted, with instead the miniscule number of domestic followers with an interest in this friendly watching an Iranian broadcast online, Venezuelan television channels having opted not to transmit the clash.

In the opening exchanges, it was the supporters of the Middle Eastern World Cup qualifiers – some of whom displayed an image of manager Carlos Queiroz – who were given more to cheer about. Within a minute, their side nearly scored as a cross bounced in from the right, but Reza Ghoochannejhad’s touch lacked the requisite deftness and instead the ball sailed over from close range. Subsequently, the Iranians saw more of the leather sphere and looked sharper, playing in testing crosses and hitting shots that admittedly, if they did creep through the crowded area, caused no real difficulty for goalkeeper Wuilker Fariñez.

Though on the backfoot to begin with, Venezuela did gradually come into the game and fashioned several attempts of their own. Firstly, in the 13th minute, Málaga midfielder Juanpi – playing his first international game since October 2016 and who was his side’s leading threat in the first half – knocked a ball forward to captain-for-the-day Salomón Rondón. The West Brom forward then spun on the edge of the area but his left-footed strike comfortably cleared the bar. Two minutes later, Yangel Herrera slid the ball to Juanpi outside the area, who fired a decent shot that the goalkeeper Alireza Beiranvand saved low. Midway through the first half, Juanpi had another opportunity when he struck a left-footed effort from just outside the area on the inside-left. However, though it was well-hit, it went a few yards wide of the far post.

Later on in the 31st minute, Salomón Rondón caused some sudden panic when, from some 30 yards out on the inside-right, he whacked an impressive left-footed shot a mere yard over the woodwork. Then, five minutes later, Venezuela came the closest to scoring that they would in the entire game. Here, Juanpi’s long-distance free-kick was poorly punched by the goalkeeper, leading to the ball being knocked into the path of left-back Rubert Quijada. Despite the inviting scenario, his instinctive first-time strike arrowed directly at the head of defender Morteza Pouraliganji, who cleared off the goal-line.

Though La Vinotinto occasionally asserted themselves in this manner, Iran still saw plenty of the ball and had a few further moments of note. In particular, in the 25th minute, a cross came over from the right and Ashkan Dejagah struck a fine left-footed cross-shot which narrowly evaded a team-mate in the goalmouth as well as the far post. Also, a couple of minutes before the interval, Ramin Rezaeian put in a very dangerous ball from the right. Had Vahid Amiri attempted to make decisive contact first-time, instead of taking an awkward touch on his chest which gifted the ball to Fariñez, he could well have scored.

To begin with at least, perhaps due in part to five substitutes being made at half-time (two for Venezuela, three for Iran), the opening minutes of the second half were a little more reserved. Darwin Machís’ run and low saved shot for La Vinotinto was the only real effort before a series of efforts up the other end, the goal-frame of which was now being occupied by José Contreras.

Indeed, first, in the 55th minute, he pulled off a sensational save when a corner was headed down from close range and he was able to instinctively turn the bouncing ball over his own crossbar. Then, within a minute of this, a nodded effort from Ghoochannejhad did bypass him, though this was ruled out for offside. However, soon afterwards in the 57th minute, his own head must have deserted him as he manically ran out of the area on the inside-right in order to intercept a through-ball. To his embarrassment, he was beaten by Amiri who passed it into the centre where Alireza Jahanbakhsh was able to tap the ball into an unguarded net. 1-0 to Iran.

Dudamel’s largely cautious approach of absorbing pressure, seeking to counter on the break as well as generally wear down the wherewithal of their opponents often looks and feels a little precarious. Today, with their otherwise commendable rearguard breached, the onus was suddenly on them to make the running up the other end. At first, they struggled, with the next chance of note falling to the Iranians as a long ball found substitute Sardar Azmoun just outside the area on the inside-left; though his shot dipped into the side-netting, it was a mark of his confidence that he attempted such a strike in the first place.

However, ultimately, though they also had to fend off some crosses and block various attempts, Venezuela were to see out the last 20-25 minutes with more moments of note than their opponents. The man primarily responsible for this shift in complexion was Juanpi’s 58th-minute replacement, Yeferson Soteldo, one of five 2017 Under-20 World Cup finalists to participate in the match. The Chile-based dribbler often galvanised his team-mates and spearheaded moves with his jinking runs. Ten minutes after his introduction, he weaved some magic on the left before crossing into the area, though Rondón’s header, from an awkward position, went harmlessly wide. In the 83rd minute, Soteldo had his best moment of the game, when he went on a central rampage, played a one-two with Rondón and then struck low from just outside the area, which required a good low stretched parry from substitute goalkeeper Mohammad Mazaheri, earning a corner. Later on, with a minute remaining, he also did well to cut onto his right foot on the edge of the area and force a low save.

Amidst these opportunities, Soteldo and his fellow attacking-midfielders Machís and Jhon Murillo were also involved in some moves which culminated in crosses narrowly evading meaningful contact in the goalmouth. That said, Venezuela’s best other chance came courtesy of Soteldo’s erstwhile Under-20 colleague Ronaldo Lucena, whose 86th-minute deceptively swerving free-kick was well-saved by the goalkeeper, who did well to track the trajectory of the ball and tip over.

Throughout all of this, Iran’s attacking threat was always lurking and they could well have doubled their lead in the 84th minute when Azmoun found himself in some space within the area. However, his low strike was well-blocked by the legs of Contreras.

Alas, when the final whistle blew in the eastern Netherlands, Dudamel’s squad again had to taste defeat, albeit for the first time at senior level in seven-and-a-half months. Still, better here than in a competitive match, they will surely reason. With a few familiar faces missing and the next friendly encounter not likely to take place until over four months from now, perhaps reading too much into any outcome was always going to be somewhat futile. Performances and the adaptation to the coach’s methods are surely what is paramount and, with some of the next generation impressing and the defeat against World Cup-calibre opponents occurring due to a hasty error by a back-up goalkeeper, Dudamel can not be too disappointed with his Dutch day out.

Team Selections

Iran (4-3-2-1): A. Beiranvand (M. Mazaheri, 46′); R. Rezaeian, M. Pouraliganji, J. Hosseini (O. Ebrahimi, 61′), E. Hajsafi; S. Ezatolahi (A. Imani, 46′), Ali Karimi, A. Dejagah (S. Ghoddos, 46′); A. Jahanbakhsh (K. Rezaei, 61′), V. Amiri; R. Ghoochannejhad (S. Azmoun, 61′).

Venezuela (4-2-3-1): W. Fariñez (J. Contreras, 46′); R. Hernández, J. Chancellor, W. Ángel, R. Quijada; Y. Herrera (A. Blondell, 87′), A. Figuera (A. Romero, 46′); J. Murillo, Juanpi (Y. Soteldo, 58′), D. Machís (R. Lucena, 75′); S. Rondón.

Darren Spherical

@DarrenSpherical

Ecuador 1-1 Venezuela – International Friendly (8 June 2017)

Again somewhat overshadowed by events in South Korea, Venezuela’s makeshift senior national side have nevertheless just concluded their two-stop American tour…

International Friendly

Thursday 8 June 2017 – FAU Stadium, Boca Ratón, Florida, USA

Ecuador 1-1 Venezuela

Video Highlights of Ecuador 1-1 Venezuela, International Friendly, 8 June 2017 (YouTube)

Moreno’s Magic Ends Things All-Square In Florida

Venezuela’s brief American tour ended with Júnior Moreno’s first-half goal earning them a second consecutive draw in a game which began fairly lively though petered out in the last half-hour.

Both sides had their moments in the early exchanges, with Venezuelan right-back Alexander González striking the top of the crossbar with a phenomenal 12th-minute strike from over 30 yards out on the inside-right.

However, the pacy and powerful Ecuadorians combined with more success during this period and were to enjoy the better of the opportunities. Indeed, in the 5th minute, Cristian Ramírez dinked in a cross from the left which Marcos Caicedo headed with great intent but too close to goalkeeper José Contreras who nevertheless did well to pull off a crucial close-range block. In the 20th minute, there were two moments of note: first, Caicedo ran forward before passing to Enner Valencia in a promising position on the left, yet his low ball into the rather spacious box was knocked away. Soon afterwards, a team-mate struck an effort from outside the area which Contreras comfortably got down to.

Then, three minutes later Ecuador had the ball in the back of the net after some fine flank-work from Caicedo on the left, following which he drilled in a low ball that Valencia stabbed home – only to be flagged offside. However, La Tricolor were not to be denied for long as, in the 28th minute, another low cross in from Caicedo ended up in the back of the net – that is, after being unfortunately converted by Venezuelan centre-back Mikel Villanueva for an own goal. 1-0.

Following this opener, Ecuador had a couple more half-chances, though Venezuela gradually got upfield more frequently, though most of their forays involved crosses, particularly from Rómulo Otero, which evading those in the middle by a whisker. Nevertheless, they managed to return affairs to level terms in the 42nd minute after another cross without contact went over to the right, where Arquímedes Figuera then passed to Júnior Moreno. From an inside-right position just outside of the area, the Zulia man impressed for his second successive Vinotinto game, by striking a fantastic right-footed effort that went in off the far post to make it 1-1.

Following the interval, most of the – rather limited – action was confined to the opening fifteen minutes or so. From the Venezuelan side of things, Salomón Rondón fluffed his lines a few times, thus continuing his rather underwhelming form in 2017 – just the one goal at international level plus another for West Brom so far. First in the 50th minute, after a fine run by Jhon Murillo down the right into the area which saw the Tondela loanee bypass a couple of opponents along the way, the ball was played back for Rondón in an inviting central position, but his shot was badly screwed wide. Similarly, five minutes later, the striker was found via a fine deep pass from González, yet somehow was unable to make a connection with the ball. Later on in the 61st minute, Rondón was again played through and had a partial sight of goal within the area. However, once more, he misdirected his effort wide.

In between as well as after this trio of chances, Venezuela goalkeeper Alain Baroja – who was substituted on at half-time, thus heralding his international return following an exile of over 14 months – made some decent contributions. First, in the 53rd minute, Valencia did well to nutmeg Villanueva on the left before coming into the area, one-on-one, yet his shot was blocked by the trailing arm/right-side of Baroja; Venezuela thus narrowly dealt with the resulting corner. Then, some seven minutes later, the goalkeeper did well to race out and beat an attacker who was threatening to reach the forward ball.

Otherwise, in the remaining 30 minutes, little of note occurred aside from the minor matter of Venezuela’s Andrés Ponce being slid through on the inside-right in the 72nd minute and taking a surprise shot that whistled a yard or so wide of the target.

Overall, whilst neither this nor the previous game with the USA will live long in the mind of any fan, perhaps acting manager Marcos Mathías and Under-20 World Cup finalist Rafael Dudamel, will have learned a thing or two. Indeed, with eyes very much on the future consideration of qualification for Qatar 2022, the international credentials of 23-year-old Júnior Moreno, in particular, have surely been bolstered.

Team Selections

Ecuador (4-2-3-1): E. Dreer; P. Velasco, D. Aimar, G. Achilier, C. Ramírez; P. Quiñónez, M. Oyola (F. Gaibor, 46′); Á. Mena (A. Preciado, 72′), J. Cazares (G. Cortéz, 79′), M. Caicedo; E. Valencia (J. Cifuentes, 88′).

Venezuela (4-4-2): J. Contreras (A. Baroja, 46′); A. González, J. Chancellor, M. Villanueva (Y. Osorio, 68′), R. Feltscher (R. Quijada, 84′); J. Murillo, J. Moreno (F. Flores, 63′), A. Figuera, J. Kouffaty (A. Ponce, 55′); S. Rondón & R. Otero (D. Machís, 77′).

Darren Spherical

@DarrenSpherical

USA 1-1 Venezuela – International Friendly (3 June 2017)

Somewhat overshadowed by events in South Korea, Venezuela’s senior national side have begun their two-stop American tour…

International Friendly

Saturday 3 June 2017 – Rio Tinto Stadium, Salt Lake City, Utah, USA

USA 1-1 Venezuela

Video Highlights of USA 1-1 Venezuela, International Friendly, 3 June 2017 (YouTube)

Youthful Venezuela Maintain Composure To Earn A Draw

As younger representatives of the two nations were preparing to face one another shortly afterwards at the Under-20 World Cup, the seniors of Venezuela and the USA played to a draw that the South Americans may come away happier with.

Indeed, fielding an XI featuring just two or three players who, based on recent encounters, could be described as regulars, they initially found themselves on the backfoot. In these opening exchanges, they were content to sit back and wait for potential counter-attacking opportunities as the Americans got forward. However, their CONCACAF opponents, in turn, were unable to really test goalkeeper José Contreras, instead only being able to cause some mild fright amongst the backline. To give the first of a few examples, in the 14th minute the creative Fabian Johnson appeared to have an opening on the edge of the area and thus played a neat through-ball towards Clint Dempsey, though this narrowly evaded the Seattle Sounders striker. Three minutes later, from a similarly promising position inside the area, Dempsey was unable to finish off a decent chipped forward ball, with centre-back Sema Velázquez instead getting in a foot to divert the ball towards Contreras. Then, shortly afterwards in the 19th minute, wonderboy Christian Pulisic received a cut back on the inside-left of the area, though his shot was always rising and went a few yards over.

Throughout all of this, Venezuela managed to get forward a couple of times, Darwin Machís’ 10th-minute stepover and blasted low cross being perhaps their most significant moment. That said, when they scored in the 29th minute, it was certainly against the run of play. This goal came as Junior Moreno’s corner was knocked back out towards him only for his header to send the ball straight back into the goalmouth where centre-back Velázquez instinctively stretched out a high leg to hi-yah the ball home for 1-0.

Subsequently, Venezuela had a couple more opportunities with impressive international debutant Moreno involved in both. The 23-year-old Zulia midfielder has some footballing pedigree as his father Carlos Horacio Moreno briefly managed the national side in 1989 (and was also sadly caught up in the nation’s seemingly never-ending cycle of violence late last year when he was shot – albeit thankfully not fatally). Here, in the 33rd minute, Moreno Jr. did well to find some space and strike a fine swerving right-footed shot from 30 yards, which required a good low save from goalkeeper Tim Howard. From the subsequent corner, Moreno’s ball was headed on and reached left-back Rubert Quijada, whose nodded effort was well-gloved by Howard onto the post.

Upon half-time, the USA – who wore shirts with rainbow-coloured numbers to show their support for the LBGTQ community – had to confront the fact that for all their early possession, they had encountered a well-organised makeshift Venezuela and would need to find more effective ways of breaking them down.

Three minutes after the restart, they had a half-chance when Dempsey rose well to a cross from the left, yet headed slightly wide of the near post. Up the other end in the 55th minute, Christian Santos was to curl an effort not too far over from the edge of the area, though six minutes later, his side were to be pegged back. Indeed, just after the hour-mark, Borussia Dortmund starlet Pulisic did well to evade a challenge on the inside-left before striking low with his left boot across goal and past the despairing dive of Contreras. 1-1.

The remaining half-hour was rather short on clear opportunities and/or any real rhythm as both teams struck a blow against competitive action by making six substitutions each. One of these, Venezuela’s Jefferson Savarino, was making his debut in front of the fans of his new club Real Salt Lake and, in the 74th minute just two minutes after coming on, impressively roamed into space. He got into a good position on the inside-right and played a decent chipped ball forward, though the otherwise quiet Salomón Rondón was unable to control this.

The USA, on the other hand, caused a minor scare when Michael Bradley’s 80th-minute low ball upfield had to be cleared by the onrushing Contreras and, at the death, had another moment of note when Omar González headed a couple of yards wide from a corner.

Overall, acting manager Marcos Mathías as well as the South Korea-residing Rafael Dudamel must be pleased with this outcome, particularly the defensive solidity and organisation that their men displayed, not to mention the attacking threat of Moreno. Unsurprisingly given the nature of the match, its timing as well as the mutual unfamiliarity of so many in the Vinotinto shirts, it was far from a classic, but if they can put in a similar shift on Thursday, then it will surely be considered a worthwhile journey.

Team Selections

USA (4-1-3-2): T. Howard; D. Yedlin (G. Zusi, 90+1′), G. Cameron (O. González, 46′), J. Brooks (M. Hedges, 56′), J. Villafaña; M. Bradley; F. Johnson (T. Ream, 63′), C. Pulisic, D. Nagbe (J. Morris, 70′); B. Wood, C. Dempsey (K. Acosta, 63′).

Venezuela (4-4-2): J. Contreras; P. Camacho, S. Velázquez (Y. Osorio, 56′), M. Villanueva, R. Quijada; J. Murillo (J. Vargas, 89′), J. Moreno (F. La Mantía, 83′), F. Flores, D. Machís (A. Romero, 67′);  S. Rondón (A. Ponce, 90+3′) & C. Santos (J. Savarino, 72′).

The second game of Venezuela’s American trip is on Thursday 8 June 2017 against Ecuador. For live updates on this match, please follow @DarrenSpherical and, for a full report with video highlights, do consider returning to Hispanospherical.com a day or so after the full-time whistle.

Darren Spherical

@DarrenSpherical

Venezuela’s Friendly Internationals – June 2017 Preview

At the end of April, two friendlies were announced to aid La Vinotinto‘s preparations for a more prosperous future, though now in early June, most Venezuelan minds are focused elsewhere. Here, the beleaguered @DarrenSpherical takes a quick look at the squad preparing to face the USA and Ecuador…

International Friendlies

Saturday 3 June 2017 – Rio Tinto Stadium, Salt Lake City, Utah, USA

USA vs Venezuela

Thursday 8 June 2017 – FAU Stadium, Boca Ratón, Florida

Ecuador vs Venezuela

marcosmathias

Venezuela assistant manager, Marcos Mathías (GettyImages)

Places Up For Grabs in the States

Since La Vinotinto‘s last pair of disappointing outings in March, the FVF have managed to cobble together two warm-up games before the team concludes their depressing World Cup Qualifying campaign later this year.

However, coach Rafael Dudamel will not be overseeing these two America-based encounters as he is currently in South Korea where he has led his remarkable Under-20 squad to the Quarter-finals of the World Cup. Indeed, the head-turning Sub-20 side have won all four of their games without conceding a goal and their do-or-die clash with USA’s youngsters shall commence barely two hours after the seniors of both nations have duked it out in Salt Lake City.

Thus, assistant manager Marcos Mathías will instead be leading this still-rather-youthful 27-man squad into battle in the States and will have to make do without the likes of Wuilker Faríñez, Yangel Herrera, Adalberto Peñaranda and Yeferson Soteldo. At least three, if not all, of these players – as well as some others currently in South Korea – have strong chances of being regulars in a future rebuilt Venezuela on the road to Qatar 2022 and there are several, more senior, players who have also not made the trip.

Most significantly, the captain Tomás Rincón will be somewhat preoccupied with the small matter of the Cardiff-hosted Champions League Final which his Juventus will contest against Real Madrid. One wonders how many Venezuelans will have the stamina to watch this game, plus the first senior friendly some five hours later and then the Under-20 knock-out tie.

There are again no places in the squad for the Málaga pair of Juanpi and Roberto Rosales. Regarding the former, who has recently been spotted in his home country participating in political demonstrations, he has had an injury-plagued 2017 though when he recuperates he will surely be welcomed back to the fold with open arms. However, this is something that is difficult to assert regarding Rosales – who has also made his anti-government sentiments known – as, though he is currently also carrying a knock, he was also surprisingly left out of March’s World Cup Qualifying double-header despite being fully fit.

Another absentee is forward Josef Martínez (Atalanta United), who was injured against Peru three months ago and has yet to resurface on a professional pitch – though he is apparently knocking on the door for a return at club level. Otherwise, as he was in March, goalkeeper Dani Hernández is again left out, though this is probably due to him still being involved in Tenerife’s vital promotion push. Also, possibly owing to some poor performances for the national team, there is no place for Terek Grozny’s Wilker Ángel.

One says “probably” and “possibly” because there has not been a great deal of press coverage for these two games, with Mathías/Dudamel’s plans shrouded in secrecy and/or a yawning cloud of indifference.

Still, what can be said is that there is a surprise return to the squad for Alain Baroja (Sud América, Uruguay, on loan from Cádiz CF, Spain) who, some two years ago had looked as if he could be Venezuela’s number one goalkeeper for the long haul yet, after some galling errors, was banished into international exile. This is his first-ever call-up in Dudamel’s 14-month reign.

There are also a fair few players in this squad who ply their trade in the domestic league, such as striker Edder Farías, who has scored 22 times in his last 37 league matches for Caracas FC. It would be greatly beneficial for Venezuela to have more options up top for when Martínez and/or West Brom’s Salomón Rondón – who has also been included – are unavailable. Farías could well provide one possible alternative though another possibility is 20-year-old Jefferson Savarino, a more versatile forward/attacking-midfielder, who was banging in the goals for Zulia until recently moving on loan to the MLS with Real Salt Lake. Who knows, for the USA game at the Rio Tinto Stadium, there may even be a few locals in the stands on hand to give him a wave, if not a cheer.

Otherwise, one can not help but feel these games are good opportunities for some of the more experienced-yet-still-relatively-young individuals to further entrench themselves in the coaching staff’s thinking following their appearances in March’s qualifiers. Perhaps chief amongst this crop are the likes of attacking-midfielders Darwin Machís (Leganés, on loan from Granada, Spain), Jhon Murillo (Tondela, on loan from Benfica, Portugal) and Rómulo Otero** (Atlético Mineiro, Brazil on loan from Huachipato, Chile).

Ultimately, though one is not anticipating a vintage set of clashes on American soil, with almost every first-team place seemingly up for grabs – barring Rincón’s and Rondón’s – these are undoubtedly good chances for these players to make it hard for Dudamel, Mathías and co. to overlook them come August.

To keep up-to-date with these two friendly encounters, please follow @DarrenSpherical on Twitter and check back to Hispanospherical.com for match reports and highlights.

Venezuela Squad

Goalkeepers

Alain Baroja (Sud América, Uruguay, on loan from Cádiz CF, Spain) & José Contreras (Deportivo Táchira).

Defenders

Pablo Camacho (Deportivo Táchira), Jhon Chancellor (Delfín, Ecuador), Rolf Feltscher (Real Zaragoza, on loan from Getafe, Spain), Alexander González (Huesca, Spain), José Luis Marrufo (Mineros de Guayana), Yordan Osorio (Tondela, Portugal), Rubert Quijada (Caracas FC), Jefre Vargas (Arouca, Portugal, on loan from Caracas), José Manuel “Sema” Velázquez (Arouca, Portugal) &  Mikel Villanueva (Málaga, Spain).

Midfielders

Arquímedes Figuera (Universitario, Peru), Francisco Flores (Mineros de Guayana), Alejandro Guerra (Palmeiras, Brazil), Jacobo Kouffati (Millonarios, Colombia), Francisco La Mantía (Deportivo La Guaira), Darwin Machís (Leganés, on loan from Granada, Spain), Júnior Moreno (Zulia FC), Jhon Murillo (Tondela, on loan from Benfica, Portugal), Rómulo Otero (Atlético Mineiro, Brazil, on loan from Huachipato, Chile), Aristóteles Romero (Mineros de Guayana) & Jefferson Savarino (Real Salt Lake, USA, on loan from Zulia).

Forwards

Edder Farías (Caracas FC), Andrés Ponce (Lugano, Switzerland, on loan from Sampdoria, Italy), Salomón Rondón (West Bromwich Albion, England) & Christian Santos (Deportivo Alavés, Spain).

**Please note that, according to renowned journalist Juan Sifontes, the following players will not be available for the clash vs USA: Alexander González, Jhon Chancellor, Rolf Feltscher, Arquímedes Figuera, Alejandro Guerra, Jacobo Kouffati and Rómulo Otero.

venezuelasquadjune2017

(Source: @SeleVinotinto)

Darren Spherical

@DarrenSpherical

Venezuela’s CONMEBOL Qualifying Campaign for FIFA World Cup 2018 – March 2017 Preview

Jornadas 13 and 14 of the CONMEBOL World Cup 2018 Qualifying Campaign have finally arrived and whilst Venezuela have long been out of the running, they’re now playing the long-term game. Here, @DarrenSpherical takes a look at the squad preparing to face Peru and Chile…

CONMEBOL Qualifiers for FIFA World Cup 2018

Thursday 23 March 2017 – Estadio Monumental de Maturín, Maturín, Monagas State

Venezuela vs Peru

Tuesday 28 March 2017 – Estadio Monumental David Arellano, Macul, Santiago

Chile vs Venezuela

josefmartinez2

Josef Martínez Celebrating in the Snow in Atlanta United’s 6-1 win away to Minneapolis United, MLS, 12 March 2017 (Image: josefmartinez17)

Dudamel Bids To Rejuvenate Venezuela’s Long-term Ambitions

A Youthful Injection

Four months on from their last two fixtures, Venezuela return to competitive action as they enter the final third of their 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign. Despite being bottom of the ten-team group and long since out of serious contention, manager Rafael Dudamel has said in the build-up that his men shall approach the games with Peru and Chile as if they are wilfully ignorant of the CONMEBOL table.

Well, what else could he say, really? Coasting it for the next six games was never going to be an option when there is a future out there to be won. Thus, as was also anticipated, Dudamel is looking to try out and integrate new faces to give La Vinotinto the best chance of fulfilling their collective potential by the time qualification for Qatar 2022 rolls around. This was partly expected as changes in personnel and/or tactics were clearly needed, but also because of the widely-celebrated success earlier this year of the World Cup-qualifying Under-20 national team, who Dudamel also manages. All of the three stand-out performers, Yeferson Soteldo, Yangel Herrera and Wuilker Fariñez, have made it into this 28-man squad and, having already debuted for the senior team, must fancy their chances of call-ups for the foreseeable future.

Admittedly, 5 feet 3 inch-dribbler Soteldo (Huachipato, Chile) will have his work cut out to earn a regular starting place in the unsettled attacking line behind the striker(s). Here, the front-runners in recent times have included Josef Martínez (Atlanta United, USA), Rómulo Otero (Atlético Mineiro, Brazil, on loan from Huachipato, Chile), Alejandro Guerra (Palmeiras, Brazil), Adalberto Peñaranda (Málaga, Spain, on loan from Watford, England) and the injured Juanpi. However, given the fluidity and rotation of the players in this area, Soteldo could well gain some minutes over the next week; if not, waiting in the wings are the marginally older yet similarly inexperienced internationals, Jhon Murillo (Tondela, on loan from Benfica, Portugal), Jacobo Kouffaty (Millonarios, Ecuador) and Darwin Machís (CD Leganés, on loan from Granada, Spain).

Under-20 captain Herrera, recently signed by Manchester City and shipped over to New York City FC, currently appears to have a much stronger chance of consistently seeing first-team action for the seniors. Indeed, Tomás Rincón (Juventus, Italy), captain of the big boys, could do with a consistent partner-in-crime in front of the back four. The likes of Renzo Zambrano (Real Valladolid, Spain) and Arquímedes Figuera (Universitario, Peru) have been tried but Herrera, a man not shy of a challenge (and a yellow card) who can also be a positive influence further upfield, may have more to his game. Momentum is on his side.

This can also certainly be said of Caracas FC’s Fariñez, even if is not yet clear if the universally acclaimed goalkeeper of the Sudamericano Sub-20 tournament will get the nod over domestic rival José Contreras (Deportivo Táchira). He is the favourite but if he loses out, he does nevertheless seem a safe bet for a run as first-choice at some point; time will tell if the sprightly 5-feet-9-incher can – to repeat a recurring theme – become a mainstay of future line-ups.

This goalkeeping issue as well as the inclusion of one other member of the Under-20 squad – Joel Graterol, who never featured between the sticks in the tournament and has hardly ever done so for domestic side Carabobo FC – leads into a less anticipated matter.

Surprise Omissions

First of all, there’s no place for Dani Hernández. He had reclaimed the No. 1 jersey at last year’s Copa América Centenario and, though the side has since leaked goals, accusatory fingers have rarely been pointed his way. Perhaps more pertinently, since the national side last convened he has been a vital component of Tenerife’s promotion push to return to the Spanish top-flight, contributing to an impressive defensive record. His absence has caught many off-guard and while there has been idle – though plausible – speculation that his club side may have requested he stay to play in their crucial domestic fixtures, there has been no explanation from Dudamel.

Also left out is experienced centre-back Oswaldo Vizcarrondo, virtually an ever-present for La Vinotinto who has earned over 80 caps. 33 in May, though Dudamel has stressed that the Nantes man hasn’t been put out to pasture just yet, he has also stated that he wishes to open up opportunities for others. That will have been news to the ears of 25-year-old Jhon Chancellor, who has recently moved to Ecuadorian side Delfin and may receive a rare opportunity. Alternatively, Wilker Ángel (Terek Grozny, Russia) and Sema Velázquez (Arouca, Portugal) had once looked the likeliest contenders to form a consistent partnership with Vizcarrondo or each other, though their performances, particularly that of Ángel, have often left much to be desired. Though they haven’t played themselves out of contention just yet, Vizcarrondo’s partner for the previous two games was instead Mikel Villanueva. Dudamel has said how he prefers to consider the Málaga man for a position in the middle, rather than at left-back, where he can also play; thus instead on this flank, it is Rolf Feltscher (Real Zaragoza, on loan from Getafe, Spain) and Rubert Quijada (Caracas FC) who will be competing for the manager’s approval.

Over on the right side of defence, however, is where the most surprising omission is concerned. Despite being Mr. Consistent at club level, a mainstay of Málaga’s defence for nearly three years now (which has included three clean sheets in five games against Barcelona) and easily one of Venezuela’s most high-profile performers, there is no place for Roberto Rosales. Given that he’s 28 years old, it’s a bit premature for him to be making way for a new generation. In justification, Dudamel has asserted that Alexander González of Spanish second-tier side Huesca has impressed by taking advantage of his opportunities since they first came his way following an injury to Rosales at last June’s Copa América Centenario. Yet whilst González has looked assured in glimpses, he has also played in several comfortable losses, though even if one is in accord with Dudamel’s viewpoint, champions of Rosales find his outright exclusion with Víctor García (Nacional, on loan from Porto, Portugal) as back-up hard to swallow. At best, this decision may instil a determination in Rosales not to be complacent for his nation, though if not matching club performances at international level were consistently enforced grounds for exclusion, none of this mob would survive three consecutive call-ups.

High-Profile Concerns…and Some Joy

With no Rosales, there shall be no Three R’s, leaving Salomón Rondón (West Bromwich Albion, England) and Tomás Rincón as the only two players in the current squad who can be classed as dead certs to be repeatedly named as starters. Naturally then, there are nevertheless some concerns about this pair, which have been aired in the Venezuelan media: with Rondón, it’s his goal drought in the Premier League since his hat-trick against Swansea City on 14 December; with Rincón, it’s his lack of match-time since his big move from Genoa to Juventus back in the January transfer window.

Rincón is one of ten players in the present selección who have moved club since the national team was last convened. One of these, Adalberto Peñaranda, has also struggled to make it onto the field, both for Udinese at the start of the campaign and, since January, new club Málaga. Though the Andalusian outfit twice managed the remarkable feat of fielding four Venezuelans in January, these have also been Peñaranda’s only two appearances. His stock has fallen somewhat since this time last year, when he was being hyped by football hacks as a potential superstar off the back of little more than a handful of observed appearances. However, as he is still a mere 19 years of age, Dudamel has included him in part so that support can be provided and spirits hopefully raised.

As always, there shall be much competition for one of the inner-channel/flank positions behind the striker(s) that the jinking Peñaranda is tailor-made for. One potential rival, who could also be moved elsewhere along the line or up front with Rondón, is 23-year-old Josef Martínez – another man who has recently moved clubs. By contrast, however, three games and five goals into his MLS career with Atlanta United, he has already been proclaimed a rip-roaring success; so much so, in fact, that Tata Martino’s club have just this week been able to make the loan deal from Torino a permanent one. Though a starting spot is not always guaranteed for him, he does tend to link up well with Rondón, either from behind or in tandem. As Rondón was injured last November, Martínez was afforded the rare opportunity of leading the attack alone and managed to notch a hat-trick against Bolivia. If, any time soon, the unthinkable happens and Rondón actually loses his place when fit, then the Atlanta new-boy – also his country’s top-scorer in qualifying with five – is easily the front-runner to displace.

Is It Even Possible To Pick Up Momentum?

Overall then, as always there is much speculation and few concrete certainties except the predominance of uncertainties. Several players are likely to be given new and/or rare opportunities over the upcoming two games and almost all of those who start can not feel too comfortable about this consistently recurring for the remainder of the campaign, let alone for the next few years. However, as the subsequent two qualifiers are not for another five months, one can not help but query in advance the weight that may be placed on the upcoming two matches in informing August’s squad. As evidenced by the justification behind Rosales’ omission, Dudamel is willing to overlook long-standing club form in favour of what he sees in these comparatively short spells when the men on his radar don the burgundy shirts. If this is the case, then Herrera, Soteldo and Fariñez will have more opportunities than most to sway his mind, given that he will be leading them to the Under-20 World Cup in two months’s time.

Nevertheless, despite the omissions and the new-look rearguard, there’s plenty of attacking talent in their ranks. A home win against Peru – who they should have beaten away in March 2016 but let a 2-0 lead become a 2-2 draw – is precisely the result a Venezuelan side challenging for World Cup qualification should attain; to do so would provide a significant boost to the hitherto underwhelmed faithful and subsequently decrease fears of another tonking from Chile. The last one came after the draw in Lima and turned out to be Noel Sanvicente’s last ever game as Venezuela manager; a year on, two more positive results against the same opposition would mark a symbolic shift in the right direction for Rafael Dudamel.

To read about how Venezuela get on against both Peru and Chile, please check back here and/or follow @DarrenSpherical on Twitter. 

Venezuela Squad

Goalkeepers

José Contreras (Deportivo Táchira, Venezuela), Wuilker Fariñez (Caracas FC, Venezuela) & Joel Graterol (Carabobo FC, Venezuela).

Defenders

Wilker Ángel (Terek Grozny, Russia), Jhon Chancellor (Delfin, Ecuador), Rolf Feltscher (Real Zaragoza, on loan from Getafe, Spain), Víctor García (Nacional, on loan from Porto, Portugal), Alexander González (Huesca, Spain), Rubert Quijada (Caracas FC, Venezuela), José Manuel ‘Sema’ Velázquez (Arouca, Portugal) & Mikel Villanueva (Málaga, Spain).

Midfielders

Arquímedes Figuera (Universitario, Peru), Francisco Flores (Mineros de Guayana, Venezuela), Alejandro Guerra (Palmeiras, Brazil), Yangel Herrera (New York City FC, USA, on loan from Manchester City, England), Jacobo Kouffaty (Millonarios, Ecuador), Darwin Machís (CD Leganés, on loan from Granada, Spain), Jhon Murillo (Tondela, on loan from Benfica, Portugal), Rómulo Otero (Atlético Mineiro, Brazil, on loan from Huachipato, Chile), Adalberto Peñaranda (Málaga, Spain, on loan from Watford, England), Tomás Rincón (Juventus, Italy), Aristóteles Romero (Mineros de Guayana, Venezuela), Yeferson Soteldo (Huachipato, Chile) & Renzo Zambrano (Real Valladolid, Spain). 

Forwards

Josef Martínez (Atlanta United, USA), Andrés Ponce (Lugano, Switzerland, on loan from Sampdoria, Italy), Salomón Rondón (West Bromwich Albion, England) & Christian Santos (Alaves, Spain).

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(Image: @SeleVinotinto)

Darren Spherical

@DarrenSpherical

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.

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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)

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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.

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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.*

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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

Racing de Avellaneda 3-2 Deportivo Táchira – 2015 Copa Libertadores Group 8 (14 April 2015)

Tuesday 14 April 2015

2015 Copa Libertadores Group 8

Racing de Avellaneda 3-2 Deportivo Táchira

 Estadio Presidente Juan Domingo Perón, Avellaneda, Buenos Aires

Goal Highlights of Racing de Avellaneda 3-2 Deportivo Táchira, 2015 Copa Libertadores, 14 April 2015 (courtesy of YouTube user xpertowinner)

Rare Venezuelan Optimism Cruelly Dashed Following Late Blunder

Despite already being out of this year’s Copa Libertadores, Venezuela’s Deportivo Táchira nearly pulled off a shock victory against the Argentine champions but were to ultimately be denied by a comeback painfully completed at the death.

Given the significance of seeding in the draw for the knock-out phase and the fact that the hosts had yet to confirm their position at the top of group, they certainly had good reason to go for victory here in their final group game. However, perhaps their 5-0 demolition of their opponents in San Cristóbal back in February was a little too fresh in their memories as while they enjoyed much of the ball in the first half, clear chances were in short supply. Indeed, although Iván Pillud on the right and, more centrally, the likes of Washington Camacho, Óscar Romero, Diego Milito and Gustavo Bou, played the ball around a lot in the final third, they tended to either lack the killer pass or were blocked off by a wall-cum-gauntlet of Táchira players. The closest they came in the first half-hour was when the competition’s top-scorer Bou was played through on 18 minutes but goalkeeper José Contreras raced out to block him off. He was, in any event, offside.

Despite the general flow favouring the group leaders, the humble visitors still managed to make their presence known in the early stages, gaining free-kicks in promising positions and enjoying attacks down the flanks led by Yohandry Orozco and José Alí Meza. It was to be the latter, who has started less than half of his side’s league games and is more often used as an impact substitute, who opened the scoring after 30 minutes. To everyone’s surprise, not least that of the player who had hitherto only managed to find the net in the Copa Venezuela, he profited from some slack marking around the halfway line. He gained some space, dribbled down the inside-right channel while holding off two defenders, before completing what amounted to a 360-degree turn and striking home from the edge of the area.

This most certainly was not in the script. Though it should have served as a wake-up call for the hosts, little changed in the immediate aftermath. Their first real chance to get back in the game occurred in the 37th minute when a cross from Romero on the right reached Milito on the stretch at the back post but he was in such an acute position that he could only head into the side-netting. Their next effort of note was their best of the half and occurred just before the break. Bou received a pass on the right within the area and slapped a fine shot low across goal that Contreras did well to tip onto the far post. The ball rebounded out, narrowly avoiding an attacker, with the Venezuelans just about escaping and heading into the break with their unanticipated lead in tact.

While half-time for both sides must have involved drastically contrasting team-talks, these no doubt required rapid re-thinks less than five minutes after the restart. Incredibly, following on from a pass by César González, Meza managed to find the net again, nimbly evading a challenge before striking home a low effort at Saja’s near post to make it 2-0. Even though Táchira were effectively playing for nothing and Racing’s position in the group made their attitude towards the game questionable, the Venezuelans were nevertheless in dreamland. Leading the full-strength Argentine champions by two goals on their own turf is certainly not to be sniffed at and even taking into account the caveats, this was shaping up to be one of the finest Venezuelan moments in the Copa Libertadores.

Alas, it was not to be. The fightback began in the 58th minute when the widely admired strike-force of Gustavo Bou and Diego Milito combined, with the former receiving a diagonal ball then hitting a cross into the goalmouth for the ex-Inter Milan marksman to tap in.

With their lead halved, manager Daniel Farías soon made changes, the first of which was the surprising replacement of Meza with the less mobile Uruguayan forward Pablo Olivera. Not only had Meza scored twice in what was arguably the game of his life, but by chasing long-range balls and dribbling at the opposition’s back line, he was often playing a leading role in relieving the strain on the defence. With his withdrawal went such moments.

Instead, Racing ramped up the pressure, pitching their tents in the Venezuelan half. In the 67th minute substitute Brian Fernández must have rattled some nerves as much as he shattered the crossbar with a ferocious strike from 25 yards that was hit with such velocity that it rebounded well over 30 yards away from the goal. Denied, but not for long as three minutes later Bou drew his team level. A combination of opposing players headed on a corner to the competition’s top scorer and following a low strike at the near post, he increased his tally to seven goals in six matches.

With twenty minutes still left on the clock and the momentum with the hosts, Táchira were to offer very little going forward, content instead to aim for the reduced glory of a draw. As time wore on, Farías enhanced his reputation for unadventurous and unpopular substitutions, firstly taking off César González, who played the crucial passes that led to both goals and replaced him with 37-year-old Jorge Rojas. Then, with a couple of minutes left, top scorer Gelmin Rivas came on for pacey Yohandry Orozco, who had been playing a role not entirely dissimilar to that of Meza and who was also taken off in an earlier Libertadores game with Club Guaraní to widespread dismay.

Nevertheless, when the 90-minute mark was reached, the game was still 2-2 and owing to a combination of the resilience of the visitors and the lack of urgency of the hosts, Racing had not done much to further threaten the opposition goal. However, just seconds later, disaster struck. On the edge of the area, Fernández dipped a shoulder and quickly got a shot away that should have been comfortable for Contreras. However, to what will be the goalkeeper’s eternal horror, he did not get enough of his body behind the ball and it went under him, trickling agonisingly over the line. Racing, in little over half an hour, had completed the turnaround whereas Táchira, having done so well to confound expectations, ultimately were to go away empty handed and, particularly in the case of Contreras, permanently scarred.

Thus ended the 2015 Copa Libertadores campaign of Deportivo Táchira. Despite impressively qualifying for the competition following an aggregate win over solid Paraguayan outfit Cerro Porteño, they were to underwhelm in the group stage, gaining just three draws and no victories from their six games. Quite where this leaves Daniel Farías remains to be seen as, despite being under pressure after a dreadful 11th-placed finish in the Torneo Apertura, they are currently second in the Torneo Clausura and, with a handful of games left, could well emerge victorious.

A more thorough look at Táchira’s shortcomings should appear on this website soon after all three Venezuelan sides have completed their group matches so be sure to either check back here and/or follow @DarrenSpherical on Twitter to find out about that and much more.

Darren Spherical

@DarrenSpherical