Tag Archives: Juan Falcón

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

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

CONMEBOL Qualifiers for FIFA World Cup 2018

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

Venezuela vs Paraguay

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

Brazil vs Venezuela 

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

Under-Fire Sanvicente Knows What the Fans Crave 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Post-Arango Era: Replacing the Irreplaceable

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

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

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

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

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

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

Team Preview: In Search of an Attack

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

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

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

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

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

Team Preview: Rincón’s Role Crucial

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

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

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

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

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

Venezuela Squad

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

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

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

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

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

Darren Spherical

@DarrenSpherical

Venezuela’s Friendly Internationals – September 2015 Preview

International Friendlies 

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

Venezuela vs Honduras 

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

Venezuela vs Panama

estadiocachamay

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

Getting the Gang Back Together to Prepare for the Greatest Challenge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saviour or Historical Footnote? The Wildcard on the Wing 

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

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

Venezuela Squad

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

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

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

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

Darren Spherical

@DarrenSpherical

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

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

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

Friendly International Double-Header

4 February 2015

Honduras vs Venezuela

Estadio Olímpico Metropolitano, San Pedro Sula 

11 February 2015 

Venezuela vs Honduras

Estadio Agustín Tovar, Barinas 

Less Prestigious Than Friendlies?

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

The Managers:

Any Preparation Time is Invaluable

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

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

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

Venezuela’s Players

A Rare Opportunity for the Majority

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

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

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

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

What to Look out for in the Venezuelan Side

How the Goalkeepers Perform

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

How the Defence Copes

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

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

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

Rómulo Otero’s Role as an Attacking Threat

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

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

How the Forwards Fare

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

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

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

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

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

Goalkeepers

Alain Baroja (Caracas FC)

Rafael Romo (Mineros de Guayana)

Defenders

Francisco Carabalí (Caracas FC)

Jhon Chancellor (Deportivo Lara)

Gabriel Cichero (Mineros de Guayana)

Juan Fuenmayor (Deportivo Anzoátegui)

Andrés Sánchez (Caracas FC)

Midfielders

Rafael Acosta (Mineros de Guayana)

Arquímedes Figuera (Deportivo La Guaira)

Argenis Gómez (Trujillanos FC)

Luis González (Deportivo La Guaira)

Óscar González (Deportivo La Guaira)

Franklin Lucena (Deportivo La Guaira)

Rómulo Otero (Caracas FC)

Luis Vargas (Zamora FC)

Forwards 

Manuel Arteaga (Zulia FC)

Richard Blanco (Mineros de Guayana)

Edder Farías (Caracas FC)

Jesús Lugo (Aragua FC)

Aquiles Ocanto (Carabobo FC)

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

Darren Spherical

@DarrenSpherical

Venezuela’s Friendly Internationals – November 2014 Preview

14 November 2014 – Estadio CAP, Talcahuano.

Chile vs Venezuela

18 November 2014 – Estadio Hernando Siles, La Paz.

Bolivia vs Venezuela 

How the Teams Rank

FifaRankings

FIFA Rankings Comparison Graph for October 2013-October 2014 (FIFA.com)

Venezuela come into this friendly double-header having been demoted in the FIFA rankings from August’s record-high 29th to a lowly 85th in the space of a mere two months. During this period, they played away in September to two Asian nations that featured at the World Cup, losing 3-1 to South Korea and drawing 2-2 with Japan.* A largely overseas-based contingent then spent October’s break at the Ciudad del Fútbol de Las Roza training complex in Madrid, after a total of four friendly matches had been scheduled and then cancelled for varying reasons (though presumed to be primarily financial in nature).

Given the lack of games played by the national side, it is certainly tempting to dismiss the rankings. Indeed, some Venezuelans – not least Noel Sanvicente, the new coach installed in July – may even glance at them with a wry smile, acknowledging that the historical placing of 29th was somewhat dubious, given that two months prior they were 40th and had only played one game in the entire year – a 2-1 away loss to Honduras.

Yet, however misrepresentative these rankings may be, they can not be ignored as the current placements were recently used to determine the seeding of the sides competing for next summer’s Copa América ahead of the upcoming draw. Venezuela, despite finishing 4th in 2011’s tournament and 6th out of the nine CONMEBOL sides in the 2014 World Cup Qualifying campaign, found themselves ranked 10th out of 12 sides, thus consigning them to the fourth and lowest-seeded pot with Bolivia and CONCACAF-invitees, Jamaica. Consequently, a slightly more difficult group than may have been anticipated looks to be on the cards for La Vinotinto.

Defensive bulwark Oswaldo Vizcarrondo as well as Sanvicente himself have both publicly criticised these organisational methods and their raw sense of injustice may well be harnessed by El Chita to instil a siege mentality into his troops ahead of their upcoming games against Chile and Bolivia.

Squad News: Absentees and Opportunities

Playing to, and galvanising, the emotions of his squad may be necessary for Sanvicente as much of his long-term tactical plans have been adversely affected by a long list of absentees, all of whom play outside of Venezuela and thus, it is not too disrepectful to say, are amongst their most important players.

Two key individuals to have succumbed to injuries are converted right-back Roberto Rosales (Málaga) and new captain Tomás Rincón (Genoa), both components of Sanvicente’s planned defensive-midfield pairing that was first given its debut against Japan. Also sidelined are Fernando Amorebieta (Fulham), Vizcarrondo’s regular partner in central defence under former coach César Farías, as well as Alejandro Guerra (Atlético Nacional). Furthermore, though Guerra’s fellow Colombia-based midfield colleague Luis Manuel Seijas (Santa Fe) will be reporting for duty, he is unlikely to play in the Chile game, having played less than 48 hours prior in his side’s Copa Colombia final defeat to Deportes Tolima.

Another player not making the trip is forward Juan Falcón (Metz) who has had a promising start in Ligue 1 (4 goals in 8 games) and would have hoped to quickly establish himself as a more common fixture of the national side with his former Zamora manager now at the helm. Following on with the problems in attack, perhaps the most internationally renowned player not joining up with his compariots is striker Salomón Rondón (Zenit St. Petersburg), who is suspended following a straight red card he received while on the bench against South Korea. In his absence, young prospect Darwin Machís (Granada), who has had several chances with the first team in La Liga this season, will unfortunately not be able to demonstrate what he can do up front, having picked up a lengthy injury in October that will likely rule him out until next year. Sanvicente’s attempts to find someone to partner Mario Rondón (C.D. Nacional) have been further thwarted as Germany-raised Christian Santos (NEC Nijmegen), the man the coach said he wanted to trial in this role, has been temporarily unable to join up with the national side due to documentation issues. Indeed, this is a similar situation former Barcelona and Spain Under-21 international Jeffrén Suárez (Real Valladolid) finds himself in, having finally agreed to commit himself to La Vinotinto last month.

With so many players unavaible, Sanvicente has called up a squad that while not lacking in quality, features more players from the domestic league than would ideally be the case (9 out of 23) as well as several who have been languishing on the bench of overseas clubs (i.e. of the five forwards, only Mario Rondón can be said to be a regular starter for his club). However, one morale-boosting inclusion is the return of the iconic Juan Arango (Xolos de Tijuana) who had asked not to be called up for Sanvicente’s first two squads as he attempted to settle in Mexico’s Liga MX.

Nevertheless, with several regular starters missing and a coach still attempting to implement his ideas on the squad, Venezuela can certainly expect some tough encounters against a largely full-strength Chile, followed by Bolivia and the altitude of La Paz. Thus, what is detailed next are several things to look out for from a Venezuelan perspective in these two games.

What to Look Out For

How the Team Copes Defensively

Early reports suggest that the probable starting line-up for the Chile game will feature five out of the seven defence-minded players (goalkeeper, four defenders and two defensive-midfielders) who began against South Korea. In this 3-1 reversal, La Vinotinto at times looked porous, being repeatedly overran in the middle with their left side also offering weak resistance and the organisation in the middle often disintegrating into chaos (as can be witnessed on the third goal).

Édgar Jiménez (Mineros de Guayana), who made a rare start partnering Rincón in front of the defence, came in for some criticism for allowing the likes of Son Heung-Min to routinely bypass him and was one of only two players to be dropped for the Japan game. Given the noted injuries in this position, he is said to be likely to be paired with club team-mate Rafael Acosta (Mineros de Guayana) and both men, along with the defence behind them, will surely have their work cut out in the first game against the direct, rapid attacks of Sánchez, Aránguiz, Vargas, Vidal and the Venezuela-born Valdivia. Indeed, they may well be best advised to try to force them wide at all opportunities and goalkeeper Dani Hernández (Real Valladolid) – another player to come in for some criticism, largely due to some questionable handling and decision-making – will be anticipating a busy night. Time will tell how he copes with such activity, following a season largely playing second fiddle in Spain’s Segunda División. Ultimately, the defence will want to come out of this game having conceded fewer than the five goals that South Korea and Japan collectively managed to get past them.

The Role of Juan Arango

It was noted last month that he has sometimes been allocated a less advanced role for Xolos in the centre, as opposed to the position he is more accustomed to further upfield either in the middle or, more commonly, on the left. It will be interesting to see if the 34 year-old will still be able to impose himself with as much attacking threat as he used to as, with the noted absences in the forward line, many will be counting on his his set-pieces, defence-splitting passes and/or long-range screamers. Given his advanced years (in footballing terms, at least) it is also common for him to complete less than 70 minutes for his club so he may well be withdrawn after a similar amount of time in these two games. If this proves to be the case, expect to see an injection of youthful pace and creativity from the likes of either Yohandry Orozco (Deportivo Táchira) or Rómulo Otero (Caracas FC), the latter of whom will be especially eager to take over set-piece duties.

The Role of Mario Rondón

Having not featured a great deal under César Farías, Mario Rondón was unquestionably the most notable performer on September’s Asian tour, having scored two goals and showing some potential in a future forward partnership with Salomón Rondón. Now the only Rondón in the side, he will be in the curious position of either playing in an attacking partnership with someone he is unlikely to feature regularly alongside in a competitive match or being moved back to one of the flanks, where he sometimes plays at club level. Either way, as his goals came from first a goalkeeping error (though was rather well-taken) and then a penalty, he will want to prove that he can be just as effective in regular open play and maintain the momentum he has built up.

Injuries

All Venezuelans will be hoping to avoid witnessing any more of these!

Surprises?

Ultimately, there will doubtless be plenty more aspects in these two games to look out for and yet with all the pessimism that has certainly prevailed in many quarters, this is just the right backdrop for La Vinotinto to spring a surprise or two. Indeed, irrespective of the Chile result, expect changes in the Bolivia game as this is still very much an experimental phase in the Sanvicente reign and with so many players receiving unexpected chances who knows what these new on-field partnerships and combinations will bring?

Whatever happens, Sanvicente will be eager for his Venezuela side to show the entire continent of South America that they can compete with the likes of Chile and have also moved on from being lumped in with the likes of Bolivia, regardless of what the rankings currently say.

Venezuela Squad

Goalkeepers

Dani Hernández (Real Valladolid) & Rafael Romo (Mineros de Guayana).

Defenders

Wilker Ángel (Deportivo Táchira), Francisco Carabalí (Caracas FC), Gabriel Cichero (Mineros de Guayana), Alexander González (FC Thun), Grenddy Perozo (Ajaccio) & Oswaldo Vizcarrondo (Nantes).

Midfielders

Rafael Acosta (Mineros de Guayana), Juan Pablo ‘Juanpi’ Añor (Málaga), Juan Arango (Xolos de Tijuana), Frank Feltscher (Aarau), Édgar Jiménez (Mineros de Guayana), Franklin Lucena (Deportivo La Guaira), Yohandry Orozco (Deportivo Táchira), Rómulo Otero (Caracas FC), Luis Manuel Seijas (Santa Fe) & Franco Signorelli (Empoli).

Forwards

Fernando Aristeguieta (Nantes), Nicolás ‘Miku’ Fedor (Al-Gharafa), Josef Martínez (Torino), Emilio Rentería (San Marcos de Arica) & Mario Rondón (C.D. Nacional).

Darren Spherical

@DarrenSpherical

*UPDATE: 15 November 2014 – The 2-2 friendly draw with Japan has since been changed by FIFA to a 3-0 victory for Japan due to Venezuela illegally fielding Salomón Rondón, despite having been sent off in the previous game. This fact went completely unreported in the Venezuelan media and was actually first reported on this site’s Twitter account.

Japan 2-2 Venezuela – International Friendly (9 September 2014)

Tuesday 9 September 2014

International Friendly

Japan 2-2 Venezuela

Although defensive shortcomings still creeped into view, Noel Sanvicente will have been buoyed by the improved attacking display he saw in Yokohoma’s Nissan Stadium as his side ended their Asian tour by twice coming from behind to finish with a respectable 2-2 draw.

Team Selection

(4-2-3-1): Hernández; González, Perozo, Vizcarrondo, Cichero; Rosales, Rincón (c); M. Rondón, Guerra, Seijas; S. Rondón.

Substitutions: Miku for Guerra (’66), Signorelli for Seijas (’76), Martínez for S. Rondón (’80) & Falcón for M. Rondón (’89).

The changes from last Friday’s game were Luis Manuel Seijas starting ahead of Josef Martínez and, in an attempt to avoid being overrun so frequently, Rosales surprisingly being moved forward to partner Rincón instead of Jiménez, with the right-back berth being given to the similarly versatile González. Franco Signorelli, as promised in the press by Sanvicente, made his international debut as a second-half substitute.

Further details of the two teams can be found here.

Match Report

First Half

Though they found themselves immediately on the back foot from the kick-off, Sanvicente’s men recovered and, for the second game running, had a golden chance to take the lead within three minutes, as Seijas’s left-footed ball from the right found Vizcarrondo completely unmarked but the Nantes man directed his header wide from close-range. A let-off for the hosts who certainly were not granted as much space as the Koreans and were given a further glimpse of the Venezuelan threat when, on 11 minutes, Rosales struck a curling left-footed shot from just outside the area that Kawashima palmed out for corner.

Javier Aguirre’s men, with the likes of Honda and Kakitani in their side, gradually showed more of the attacking options they had at their disposal, yet while they did cause some nervy moments, it was evident that the South Americans had learned from the first game, often appearing more organised with more men behind the ball, doubling up on attackers and conceding less space.

Venezuela had several chances in the first half, with both Seijas and Guerra getting decent shots away but it was the partnership of the two Rondóns that offered the most potential,  as they linked up to create the away side’s best chance of the first half after 29 minutes. Indeed, following some considerable pressing – a common feature of Venezuela’s display – the Japanese back line lost control of the ball 35 yards out and Salomón poked it forward to Mario who, on the edge of the area, turned Southampton’s Yoshida to find himself one-on-one against Kawashima. However, he could not quite shape his body enough to place it to the right of the goalkeeper, whose left shin saved his side as the ball went out for a corner.

The two Rondóns continued to create chances between them, yet one of their efforts in the 38th minute was sandwiched by two Japanese chances, the first of which was their best of the half as Kakitani ran onto a defence-splitting pass that Hernández was alert to, with his left leg blocking the Basel striker’s poke. The Valladolid goalkeeper saved the following attempt comfortably, bringing some composure to a hesitant area and overall, though he did indulge in at least one unnecessary punched clearance, he enjoyed a more assured performance than he did on Friday.

Second Half

Despite all of the improvements, the two goals Venezuela conceded exposed some weaknesses that had been highlighted in the South Korea game. The first one came after 51 minutes following an attempted clearance from Perozo, whose header from the edge of his area was gratefully picked up by the youngster Muto just inside opposition territory and, with three defenders standing off him, he was allowed to charge forward, shape to shoot and then bury a left-footed shot from 20 yards out.

Deflating as this must have been, little more than five minutes had passed when Guerra intercepted a loose ball in his own half and embarked on an exuberant run all the way up the inside-right channel and into the Japanese area, where his left leg was taken away from him by Mizumoto to earn a penalty. Mario Rondón stepped up to level from the spot with a low shot straight down the middle that was identical to the one he scored in his last league match and ensured that his contribution to the team will be remembered as one of the highlights of this tour.

Although the experienced Venezuelan back line knows not to get complacent following a moment of elation, this did not stop them looking rather porous in the aftermath as just a few minutes later, a right-footed cross from the left by Inter’s Nagatomo was swung into the area where two players were completely unmarked, with Okazaki’s stabbed volley going just wide of the far post. A let-off, but not for long, as in the 66th minute with González out of position, Japan countered down the left with Okazaki speeding away just inside the area and crossing for the wide-open Shibasaki to arrive late and confidently strike home a half-volley on his international debut.

Four minutes later, Japan, ranked 44th in the world to Venezuela’s 29th, nearly matched 57th-placed South Korea’s scoreline when Honda’s low curling free-kick swerved around the wall but, mercifully for the beaten Hernández, hit the post and came out.

However, out of nowhere and with Venezuelans fearing that their back line may succumb to their opponents’ increased confidence, Cichero popped up a minute later on the inside-left with a strike from over 30 yards out that should have been bread and butter for Kawashima. However, the experienced Standard Liège goalkeeper failed to catch the ball, instead embarrassing himself with a hot potato routine and fumbling it over the line to cap off a fairly poor exhibition of goalkeeping that has been on display in the two tour matches.

With Japan temporarily humiliated and their momentum abruptly halted, Venezuela found themselves back on level terms and were not to yield from this position for the rest of the game as a few changes that inevitably took something out of the game were made, the most notable of which was Empoli’s Signorelli making his international debut in the 76th minute. Thus, Sanvicente’s team looked assured as they held on for a creditable draw against World Cup opposition, salvaging some pride when a repeat of their Korean encounter loomed and providing fans with some optimism – most notably, the integration of Mario Rondón into the set-up and his link-up play with Salomón – ahead of next summer’s Copa América.

*UPDATE: 15 November 2014 – This 2-2 friendly draw with Japan has since been changed by FIFA to a 3-0 victory for Japan due to Venezuela illegally fielding Salomón Rondón, despite having been sent off in the previous game. This fact went completely unreported in the Venezuelan media and was actually first reported on this site’s Twitter account.