Tag Archives: Lionel Messi

Argentina 1-3 Venezuela – International Friendly (22 March 2019)

On a refined stage in the Spanish capital, La Vinotinto superbly displayed the potential that all followers knew was lurking somewhere. Here, @DarrenSpherical provides a match report of this breakthrough result…

International Friendly

Friday 22 March 2019 – Estadio Wanda Metropolitano, Madrid, Spain

Argentina 1-3 Venezuela

Video Highlights of Argentina 1-3 Venezuela, International Friendly, 22 March 2019 (YouTube)

Dynamic Venezuela Dazzle and Destroy

A fired-up Venezuela put in an exhilarating performance to deservedly defeat their more illustrious opponents for only the second time in their history.

To most neutrals, the game held at the home of Atlético Madrid was perceived as “Lionel Messi’s somewhat-anticipated Albiceleste comeback”, but not long after kick-off, a different, more captivating, story began to emerge.

Barely five minutes into the game, mask-wearing Roberto Rosales – situated on the left of defence, with U20 World-Cup runner-up Ronald Hernández over on his more customary right side – took the Argentine back-line by surprise with a sublime diagonal ball from the half-way line. It was received by Salomón Rondón who, with an aesthetically-pleasing blend of panache and aplomb, evaded his marker Gabriel Mercado, athletically controlling the incoming pin-point pass and striking the ball home with the outside of his right boot to give Venezuela the lead.

Behind, Lionel Scaloni’s side were spurred into action, with their no. 10 often attempting to orchestrate attacks by spraying balls to the flanks and weaving inside. However, it was never one-way traffic and for the following twenty minutes, the Argentines struggled to direct any meaningful attempts on target, with the opposition rearguard instead compact and regularly on cue to thwart. Despite this absence of genuine goalmouth action, it was nevertheless a keenly contested encounter that often required the referee to intervene: by the end of the night Venezuela would also go on to win the yellow cards battle, 6-2.

When Argentina did finally make the opposition goalkeeper work, it was worth the wait. This occurred at the half-hour mark when Messi jinked his way past three opponents before crossing a left-sided ball into the area that Lautaro Martínez powerfully headed. Many assumed that it was a certain goal but the Inter striker’s erstwhile Under-20 foe Wuilker Faríñez spectacularly managed to get a hand to it and divert the ball over.

This electrified the crowd and ushered in a chance-laden final 15 minutes of the first half. In the 35th minute, Venezuela could easily have made it two after Jhon Murillo played a ball through the middle to Darwin Machís who, virtually one-on-one with a defender scrambling over towards him, had his low effort saved by the feet of goalkeeper Franco Armani.

It was a let-off for Argentina, who two minutes later had a somewhat speculative Messi effort tipped over, but soon afterwards, their own goal was once again under threat. This time, Machís tenaciously evaded some challenges to nudge the ball to Hernández, who crossed the ball to the back post where Rondón’s header went past his marker Juan Foyth, goalkeeper Armani and, agonisingly, the back post. In the centre, Murillo voiced his displeasure at the lack of a knock-back.

However, the Tondela winger was to soon forget about that. Indeed, on the left side of the pitch just before half time, the alert Rosales quickly passed a free-kick to Murillo who, on the edge of the area, cut past Foyth and onto his right to curl an absolute pearl into the far corner. A fantastic way to cap off an eye-grabbing 45 minutes from La Vinotinto.

Following the interval, Argentina understandably resumed the game with three different players on the pitch. However, for the first 13 minutes of the second half, although Scaloni’s men won the possession stats battle, they did not give Faríñez much to do. This changed suddenly in the 59th minute when a rapid counter-attack saw Messi spray the ball to Giovani Lo Celso who, in turn, split the Venezuelan defence with a pass to Martínez, who swept the ball home.

With the deficit reduced, there was much anticipation that Argentina would at least get back on level terms. Yet, although they caused a fright soon after the goal with a knock-back across an uncertain area and there was also audible expectation whenever Messi was on the ball, they did not seriously test the goalkeeper’s gloves in the remaining thirty minutes.

Not that much more could be said for Dudamel’s men, but then, they were not the ones chasing the game. They stayed strong and defiant, never looking too flustered; they also made a couple of substitutions. It was to be these two reinforcements who were to play the leading roles in striking the knockout blow. Indeed, in the 74th minute, Yeferson Soteldo slid a ball into the area for Josef Martínez who – some may feel the forward engineered the contact – was adjudged to have been obstructed by the hapless Foyth. Subsequently, in his patented, gravity-defying manner, as seen multiple times before in the MLS, the Atlanta United hotshot stepped up to confidently dispatch.

With the game very much heading their way, in the 80th minute the thousands of Vinotinto fans present began to “olé” every pass. It was that kind of a night. Aside from two Messi free-kicks over the crossbar, there was little else for them to be concerned by. Just before the 90 minutes elapsed on this unforgettable night for Venezuelan football, another historic moment took place as recent U20 starlet Jan Carlos Hurtado made his senior debut and even found time to squeeze in one of his bustling, rampaging runs.

When the final whistle blew, although Argentina had huffed and puffed, nobody could dispute that this was a well-deserved victory for their northerly counterparts. Perhaps it was not a triumph from completely out of the blue, but given Venezuela’s mixed run late last year after ten months without any games, it was certainly not wholly anticipated either.

Many  things can and will change before June, but may this wonderful night of composed, confident and deadly effective football serve as a launchpad and clarion call for a more prosperous future. The countdown to the Copa América begins here.

Aftermath

Unfortunately, it must be briefly noted that the result has been somewhat marred by politics. Prior to kick-off a photograph was published online of Dudamel and his side being officially received by Antonio Ecarri, the ambassador to Spain for the partially-recognised – that is, by millions of citizens as well as dozens of leading nations – President Juan Guaidó. The manager has since stated that, although it has been “politicised”, for him there was nothing partisan about this meeting, highlighting the fact that in the past he has also met with ambassadors of the current Miraflores Palace-occupant, President Nicolás Maduro. Evidently frustrated at the awkward tightrope he is currently navigating, he has thus offered his resignation to the country’s football federation (FVF). He is still set to take charge of Monday’s game with Catalonia – for which, Xavi will now sadly not be available – but what happens afterwards is currently anyone’s guess.

Team Selections

Argentina (3-4-2-1): F. Armani; J. Foyth, G. Mercado (W. Kannemann, 46′), L. Martínez (D. Blanco, 46′); G. Montiel, G. Lo Celso (R. Pereyra, 78′), L. Paredes, N. Tagliafico; L. Messi, G. Martínez (M. Suárez, 46′); L. Martínez (D. Benedetto, 70′).

Venezuela (4-3-2-1): W. Faríñez; R. Hernández, Y. Osorio, M. Villanueva, R. Rosales; J. Moreno, T. Rincón, Y. Herrera (Y. Soteldo, 64′); D. Machís (J. Añor, 79′), J. Murillo (J. Hurtado, 89′); S. Rondón (J. Martínez, 72′).

Darren Spherical

@DarrenSpherical

Venezuela’s Friendly Internationals – March 2019 Preview

Four months after a pair of Asian draws, Rafael Dudamel has convened his latest squad who once again find themselves in Spain to confront a challenging friendly double-header. Here, with the Copa América already less than three months away, @DarrenSpherical has a look at the current batch hoping to stay within the manager’s plans.

International Friendly

Friday 22 March 2019 – Estadio Wanda Metropolitano, Madrid, Spain

Argentina vs Venezuela

Unofficial International Friendly

Monday 25 March 2019 – Estadi Montilivi, Girona, Catalonia, Spain

Catalonia vs Venezuela

wandametropolitano

View of the Wanda Metropolitano, Madrid. (Wikipedia)

Considerable Clashes Await Copa-eyeing Vinotinto

Perhaps not the most exciting, but certainly the most eye-catching name on manager Rafael Dudamel’s 25-man squad list is that of 32-year-old veteran Luis Manuel Seijas.

With an emphasis on youthful potential being nurtured and developed very much the order of the day, the international career of the Colombia-based Santa Fe midfielder had long seemed over. Indeed, even before the Under-20s reached the final of the 2017 World Cup, Seijas appeared to have parted ways with the national set-up, following talks with Dudamel. These statements came hot on the heels of his last and most infamous appearance in a Vinotinto shirt: 18 June 2016, Quarter-final of the Copa América Centenario. On this day against Argentina in Foxborough, Massachusetts, he made himself the object of global ridicule when his weak, sub-Panenka chipped penalty was easily caught by goalkeeper Sergio Romero.

Given this unforgettable embarrassment, many people – if they gave him any further thought at all – came to assume that he had been excommunicated indefinitely. Evidently not. Nearly three years on, where will he fit in? Although he can play on the left of midfield, a role in front of the defensive line seems more likely; alternatively, owing to the ongoing uncertainties at left-back, an experiment there does not seem entirely out of question either. All this being said, it is hard to envisage him being much more than a back-up in any of these positions but, at the very least, his 67 caps of experience could provide a mental boost in the changing room.

Elsewhere in the squad, creative midfielder Juanpi – currently loaned out by Spanish second division side Málaga to top-flight strugglers Huesca, where he plays alongside Yangel Herrera – is also set to put on the burgundy shirt for the first time in a while. November 2017 against Iran was the 25-year-old’s last outing and he will be seeking to re-establish himself as part of the long-term plans, thus delivering on the potential that some of his early club and country outings indicated.

Although cultivating the abilities of youngsters is going to be key with regard to the underlying aim of qualifying for the 2022 World Cup, only one player from the most recent crop of Under-20 talents makes it into this squad. Perhaps this is due to their ultimately unsuccessful qualifying campaign earlier this year or maybe it is simply not yet their moment. Either way, Jan Carlos Hurtado (Gimnasia y Esgrima La Plata, Argentina) could well soon become a useful squad member. Indeed, the striker – who was actually also a part of the 2017 Under-20 World Cup squad – gained many plaudits at Chile 2019, due to his bustling runs, forward play and, especially, his two goals in the 2-0 win over Brazil. Although Salomón Rondón (Newcastle United, on loan from West Bromwich Albion, England) is the undisputed leading man – with Atlanta United hotshot Josef Martínez sometimes, but not always, joining him in attack – Hurtado could well develop into a more-than-capable deputy. Another man vying for this status within the current squad is the more experienced Fernando Aristeguieta, who is having a superb season in Colombia with América de Cali, so far netting 9 goals in 10 league games.

Regarding the other six, more involved, members of the 2017 silver generation squad who are present here, diminutive dribbler Yeferson Soteldo is the most noteworthy inclusion, having not played internationally for 16 months. This has not been due to any dip in form – even if he did divide opinion at Universidad de Chile, he now wears the hallowed No. 10 shirt at Santos in Brazil – but instead a combination of visa and family issues which prevented him from joining up with the most recent squads. With Adalberto Peñaranda, Romúlo Otero and Jefferson Savarino all having been omitted, he, along with Sergio Cordóva (Augsburg, Germany), will be looking to regain one of the ever-competitive attacking-midfield positions.

Their erstwhile youth-level team-mates who have also received call-ups are: versatile midfielder Yangel Herrera, right-back Ronald Hernández (Stabaek, Norway), centre-back Nahuel Ferraresi (CF Peralada-Girona B, Spain, on loan from Club Atlético Torque, Uruguay) and undisputed first-choice goalkeeper, Wuilker Fariñez (Millonarios FC, Colombia).

The coaching staff will be hoping that these young players as well as the many others who are in their early-to-mid twenties will gel effectively with the more experienced internationals, such as Rondón, captain Tomás Rincón (Torino, Italy) and right-back Roberto Rosales (Espanyol, on loan from Málaga, Spain). Perhaps it bodes well for the team that all three of these individuals are currently enjoying above-average goalscoring seasons with their respective clubs.

In press comments made on the eve of the first game, Dudamel curiously stated that “We are not experimenting at all. [That] stage has already passed”. Possibly he was referring to tactical systems (with a three-man midfield having been his most notable trial last year), although it is also true that the vast majority of players in this current squad also received call-ups in 2018. Thus it seems that the coach has an ever-crystallising conviction as to who will make the cut in June, albeit one that does not preclude a few latecomers from staking a claim.

Whoever gets picked and whoever ultimately shines, Venezuela have two significant confrontations on the horizon, the first of which comes on Friday when they face Lionel Messi and co. at the majestic home of Atlético Madrid. Argentina are never an inconsiderable proposition, although perhaps their dubious World Cup displays as well as the pair of draws that Venezuela achieved against them in the Russia 2018 qualification phase will offer La Vinotinto some encouragement. Then, on Monday, they will be at the home of Girona to face the non-FIFA-affiliated Catalan national side, who can count Xavi, Gerard Piqué and a host of primarily La Liga players in their ranks. With a 4-2 defeat against another autonomous region of Spain – the Basque Country, in October 2018 – still fresh in the memory, Dudamel’s men will be striving to use their superior collective preparation to their advantage. That’s certainly not something that can be said often.

Venezuela Squad

venezuelamarch2019squad

(@SeleVinotinto)

Goalkeepers

Wuilker Faríñez (Millonarios FC, Colombia) & Rafael Romo (APOEL FC, Cyprus).

Defenders

Jhon Chancellor (Al-Ahli, Qatar), Nahuel Ferraresi (CF Peralada-Girona B, Spain, on loan from Club Atlético Torque, Uruguay), Alexander González (Elche, Spain), Ronald Hernández (Stabaek, Norway), Luis Mago (Palestino, Chile), Yordan Osorio (Vitória Guimarães, on loan from Porto, Portugal), Roberto Rosales (Espanyol, on loan from Málaga, Spain) & Mikel Villanueva (Gimnàstic de Tarragona, on loan from Málaga, Spain).

Midfielders

Juan Pablo “Juanpi” Añor (Huesca, on loan from Málaga, Spain), Sergio Córdova (Augsburg FC, Germany), Arquímedes Figuera (Deportivo La Guaira), Yangel Herrera (Huesca, Spain, on loan from Manchester City, England), Darwin Machís (Cádiz, Spain, on loan from Udinese, Italy), Júnior Moreno (DC United, USA), Jhon Murillo (Tondela, Portugal), Tomás Rincón (Torino, Italy), Luis Manuel Seijas (Santa Fe, Colombia) & Yeferson Soteldo (Santos, Brazil).

Forwards

Fernando Aristeguieta (América de Cali, Colombia), Jhonder Cádiz (Vitória Setúbal, Portugal), Jan Carlos Hurtado (Gimnasia y Esgrima La Plata, Argentina), Josef Martínez (Atlanta United, USA),  Salomón Rondón (Newcastle United, on loan from West Bromwich Albion, England).

Darren Spherical

@DarrenSpherical

Argentina 1-1 Venezuela – CONMEBOL Qualification Stage for FIFA World Cup 2018 (5 September 2017)

The sixteenth jornada of La Vinotinto’s 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign saw Rafael Dudamel’s embryonic side make history on a monumental stage in Buenos Aires. Here, Hispanospherical.com provides a full match report and some thoughts…

CONMEBOL Qualifying Stage for FIFA World Cup 2018

Tuesday 5 September 2017 – El Monumental, Buenos Aires

Argentina 1-1 Venezuela

Video Highlights of Argentina 1-1 Venezuela, CONMEBOL Qualifying Stage for FIFA World Cup 2018, 5 September 2017 (YouTube)

Venezuela Battle to Defy the Odds in Buenos Aires

A wholehearted and committed display garnered Venezuela a historical first-ever point in Argentina, as for the second time this international break Rafael Dudamel’s nascent rebuilding project provided another welcome dose of encouragement for Qatar 2022.

For the first 25 minutes or so, things felt markedly different. Indeed, Jorge Sampaoli’s men seemed determined to breach the considerable, if often stretched, Venezuelan rearguard as many times as possible, with 19-year-old goalkeeper Wuilker Fariñez once again emerging as a bona fide prospect for the visitors.

The sprightly Caracas FC stopper impressed from the off. With less than four minutes on the clock, his trailing leg denied Mauro Icardi, whose low shot could have otherwise quite easily found a way through. Two minutes later, though play was ultimately called back for offside, the goalkeeper – as well as his ever-increasing band of admirers – was none-the-wiser when he pulled off an eye-catching close-range save. This came as an elevated ball was bustled into the direction of another Serie A forward, Paolo Dybala, who lashed a well-struck volley from barely six yards that the alert Fariñez did well to instinctively parry out with both gloves.

Also in this period, La Albiceleste, in particular Lionel Messi, regularly sought to exploit their opponents’ weaknesses on the flanks, with the Barcelona wizard often spraying balls out wide for team-mates to gain space and/or get in crosses. Ángel Di María was the most threatening wide man, giving right-back Victor García a torrid time. In the 10th minute, he bypassed a couple of burgundy shirts before whacking a ball into the centre; a tap-in looked on the cards, but the cluster of Venezuelans who congregrated there somehow averted this seeming inevitability. A few minutes later, García was again exposed when Messi chipped a fine ball to Di María inside the area; the PSG man volleyed a first-time cross into the centre yet, agonisingly for the majority inside River Plate’s home edifice, Icardi’s goalmouth lunge narrowly evaded the ball.

Although their defensive lines were breached, Venezuela survived that scare and in this early stage, the blank scoresheet was mostly attributable to the sheer number of bodies in the centre who blocked and thwarted attempts. If, however, even these were unequal to the tasks that kept coming their way, there was always, of course, Fariñez. In the 21st minute, he did well to stop Icardi’s shot which, once again, owed a debt to a left-sided cross from Di María.

Soon after this, however, Argentina’s early spell of goal-less dominance was brought to an abrupt end as Di María picked up an injury and had to be replaced after 25 minutes by Marcos Acuña. Things were never quite the same again.

As well as his right-sided counterpart Lautaro Acosta, the Portugal-based replacement did catch the eye on occasion, with his most notable contribution occurring after 32 minutes; here, he slid the ball back to Dybala, with the 20-yard left-footed shot of the Juventus man dragging wide of the far post. However, with their chances of qualification starting to feel as if they may be in jeopardy, the home crowd began voicing their disgruntlement, as the team who have averaged just one goal per qualifying game – a record worse than that of bottom-boys Venezuela – began to look low on ideas.

Messi, who was largely seen characteristically roaming in a vast deep zone, became visibly frustrated with this state of affairs, taking it upon himself to search for a way through with the minimum of assistance. Indeed, he had the three most notable remaining chances of the first half: in the 38th minute, he attempted to weave his way past several Venezuela players – a scenario reminiscent of the famous Maradona vs Belgium 1982 photograph – before striking low past the near post from inside the area. Four minutes later, he curled a much-anticipated free-kick wide, but clearly his best attempt occurred two minutes into stoppage time. Here, he picked up the ball 25 yards out on the inside-left and arrowed a well-hit shot that looked like it may creep inside the post, but which Fariñez did well to parry wide, thus allowing his side to enter into the break still on level terms.

If Sampaoli’s half-time team-talk involved elaborating upon a new approach to undo this annoyingly persistent opponent, there was to be little evidence of this. In fact, any second-half masterplan was tossed away just five minutes after the restart when Venezuela took a surprise lead. Despite having never seriously threatened Sergio Romero’s goal in the opening 45 minutes, Dudamel’s men were able to do what every fear-ridden, fulminating Argentine feared: hit them on the break. Immediately after a home move broke down, the visitors sought to proceed rapidly upfield. One pass was briefly intercepted but momentum was instantly regained as another found Bundesliga youngster Sergio Córdova. Further enhancing what has been a meteoric – and, to many, slightly unanticipated this time last year – ascension, he played a well-weighted through-ball to Jhon Murillo. Centre-back Javier Mascherano was never going to be in the race with the pacy ex-Zamora man – himself having recently done well to ensure he will be in the manager’s long-term thinking – and he, in turn, bore down on goal before deftly dinking it over the shoulder of the Manchester United goalkeeper.

Silence in the stands, pandemonium virtually everywhere else on the continent, this was exhilarating, monumental, game-redefining stuff – for all of four minutes.

That’s all it took for Sampaoli’s charges to momentarily lower the heat on them back down to a state of mere simmering. The equaliser came as García was beaten a little too easily in a speed battle by the purposeful Acuña, whose low cross from the left deflected off defender Rolf Feltscher and into the back of the net. 1-1. Was this to be the galvanising green light for carnage that the hosts needed?

Well, subsequently, some jitters were observable in the Venezuelan ranks, but for all the hosts’ renewed vigour and forays towards the edge of the area, they were only able to cause one further genuine scare in the game. This came on the hour-mark when the home fans were adamant that they should have been awarded a penalty when Icardi, the odds-on favourite to poke a strike goalwards, appeared to have been upended by centre-back Mikel Villanueva. However, replays suggest that, having managed to narrowly evade the challenge, the Inter Milan forward’s rapid adjustment of footing led to him tripping himself up.

Thus, though Argentina still saw more of the ball owing to their increasing desperation for a winner, there grew the genuine possibility that they could be undone by a second lethal break. Particularly in the final 25 minutes, the counter-attacking Venezuelans found themselves in space high up the park and on at least three occasions they won free-kicks in promising positions off a stretched Argentine defence. Just before and after the 70th minute, Salomón Róndon took the first two of these. Alas, the first curled past the wall but was comfortably saved by Romero and the much-anticipated second – which was won after the WBA striker was fouled following Arquímedes Figuera’s lofted ball into very dangerous territory – was fired straight at the ‘nads-grabbers.

Around the 90th-minute mark, having absorbed some more Argentine pressure, Venezuela made their last getaway – the hosts must have feared the worse. Once again, Jhon Murillo chased a ball, finding some space before passing to a team-mate who was fouled on the edge of the area. This time, substitute Josef Martínez stepped up, though to the relief of the majority, the only thing his dead-ball strike troubled was the fans behind the goal – as well as, perhaps, the phones being used to vent considerable spleen to a wider audience.

Such was the malevolent atmosphere whenever a home attack broke down that one suspects more than a few doomsayers secretly hoped Venezuela could nab a late winner solely in order to further amplify their apocalyptic post-match assessments.

Alas, it ended 1-1 and, though some of the dejected home fans may not wish to hear it right now and their nation’s performances have given cause for genuine concern, with two games left, their chances of World Cup qualification are in fact still very much in their own hands.

Conversely, Venezuela, of course, have long since been out of the running and are almost definitely going to finish bottom of the ten-nation pile. However, with a memorable, historical point to add to the one they gained last week against Colombia, Dudamel can feel cautiously optimistic about his nation’s footballing future. With the aid of several fresh faces, including a few plucked from his Under-20 World Cup finalists, his senior side has once again proved that when they are disciplined and able to follow through on instructions, they can be a tough nut to crack.

With their two remaining fixtures next month pitting them against Uruguay at home and Paraguay away, though it may prove a tall order, gaining from these a second victory of the campaign would certainly get many more believing that the road to Qatar 2022 will be a journey well worth hopping aboard for.

Team Selections

Argentina (3-4-2-1): S. Romero; J. Mascherano, F. Fazio, N. Otamendi; L. Acosta, G. Pizarro, É. Banega, Á. Di María (M. Acuña, 25′); L. Messi, P. Dybala (D. Benedetto, 63′); M. Icardi (J. Pastore 75′).

Venezuela (4-2-1-2-1): W. Fariñez; V. García, J. Chancellor, M. Villanueva, R. Feltscher; A. Figuera, J. Moreno; Y. Herrera (J. Colina, 77′); J. Murillo, S. Córdova (S. Velázquez, 89′); S. Rondón (J. Martínez, 82′).

Darren Spherical

@DarrenSpherical

Venezuela 2-2 Argentina– CONMEBOL Qualification Stage for FIFA World Cup 2018 (6 September 2016)

The eighth matchday of La Vinotinto’s 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign yielded one point more than anticipated yet two less than many Venezuelans felt attainable at half-time. Here, Hispanospherical.com provides a full match report plus thoughts…

CONMEBOL Qualifying Stage for FIFA World Cup 2018

Tuesday 6 September 2016 – El Estadio Metropolitano de Mérida, Mérida State

Venezuela 2-2 Argentina

Video Highlights of Venezuela 2-2 Argentina, 6 September 2016, CONMEBOL Qualifying Stage for FIFA World Cup 2018 (YouTube)

Mixed Emotions for Both Sides as Juanpi Announces Himself on the International Stage

Match Report

‘Bottom versus top’ could have been mistaken for ‘seventh versus eighth’ as what began as a tepid affair ended as a slugfest with Venezuela being denied a famous victory.

La Vinotinto went into the game with just one point, having just been comfortably dispatched 2-0 by neighbours Colombia, yet really needing to raise the morale of their compatriots in the Andean city of Mérida. Pace-setters Argentina were thus hardly the ideal opponents. However, the hosts were far from overawed in the opening half and with each passing period of play, the pre-game predictions of a pounding proved increasingly preposterous.

Indeed, the first threat they had to contend with – the closest Edgardo Bauza’s men came all half – occurred in the 16th minute. Inter Milan new-boy Éver Banega received a pass centrally, quickly turned and from 25 yards out struck a low drive that went just wide of the far post. Banega often appeared to be one of his side’s likeliest catalysts for a goal as at times he enjoyed plenty of midfield space in which to roam before searching for a key, incisive pass – though this latter, crucial phase largely proved elusive.

Ángel Di María, with his tormenting runs down the wing and balls into the area, was a more noticeable threat in the first period. Just after the 20th minute, he crossed in a fine ball for Lucas Pratto, but the Atlético Mineiro striker – playing in part due to the absences of several more high-profile strikers – stretched but could not make a meaningful connection. He certainly did, however, in the 32nd minute, when he met Di María’s cross but his solid header was a little too close to goalkeeper Dani Hernández, who managed to get his body behind it.

The hosts’ early chances were hardly much more threatening. Rafael Dudamel’s men sometimes resorted to pumping long balls towards star striker Salomón Rondón, but this rarely proved propitious, even if it was a cunning way of bypassing Javier Mascherano. The West Bromwich Albion forward did nevertheless have his country’s first opportunity of note when, after 21 minutes, he received the ball just outside the area. However, although some space opened up for him, it was not enough to warrant the headlines that must have been swirling in his head; he may have shaped up with intent but his tame shot trickled goalwards for goalkeeper Sergio Romero to gratefully collect.

One Venezuelan causing more problems for the Argentine back-line was Rondón’s strike-partner, Josef Martínez. He regularly beat defenders for pace, causing uncertainty as well as winning throws and corners. In the 23rd minute, he was especially of concern when he received a pass in the area and soon hit the deck, but his penalty claim was waved away.

The other leading attacking threat for the hosts in this half was the man who was to break the deadlock. The profile of Juan Pablo ‘Juanpi’ Añor has been rising since he made his Málaga debut two years ago, with last season’s exploits really helping him emerge to prominence in La Liga. Aiding his cause in particular during that campaign were three goals in consecutive weeks (including one against Barcelona) and he is already off the mark for 2016/17. With the experienced Alejandro Guerra and Luis Manuel Seijas not part of this particular squad, he has been provided with opportunities to bolster his claims for a first-team spot in midfield. Overall, he has taken them.

Yet though he is capable of pinpoint accuracy from dead-ball situations, thankfully his largely wayward set-pieces throughout this half are unlikely to be used as arguments against future starts. Indeed, it is more the events in the 35th minute that shall be uppermost in most people’s minds when the line-up for the trip to Uruguay in October is being mulled over.

As befitting a largely listless half, it came almost out of nowhere. Rondón’s low cross in from the right was cut out before being immediately knocked back to the edge of the area, where it fell to the feet of Juanpi. Two players quickly tried to close him down yet somehow he bundled his way through them, before making some space for himself on the right corner of the area. Judging by the reaction of at least one Argentine defender, they did not consider him a serious threat from this position. Big mistake. Before anyone could get near enough to him, he unleashed a phenomenal strike that scorched past Romero and nearly burst the top corner of the net. The crowd erupted and the 22-year-old diminutive Málaga maestro was mobbed by his team-mates, both starters and subs alike. His first international goal, his formal arrival on this stage; aficionados of this balletic young man’s career will have been aware that it bore more than a slight resemblance to his first ever club goal against Levante in January 2015. Now, all Venezuelans know that no matter how bleak their nation’s prospects often seem, there will always be reason to keep an eye on them so long as the likes of Juanpi are in embryo.

Just four minutes later, Dudamel’s men nearly enhanced the euphoria in the ground to unprecedented levels. Rondón helped the ball on to Alexander González on the right inside the area. The Huesca right-back quickly slid the ball into the goalmouth where Josef Martínez was waiting and the goal was a-gaping, yet the Torino striker was narrowly beaten to the ball by Pablo Zabaleta, who managed to clear.

Thus, when the half-time whistle blew, the hosts had to resign themselves to being just 1-0 up against the No. 1 ranked side in the world. In the ever-bewildering and screen-throttling social media world, more than a few were quick to denigrate Venezuela’s lead by pointing out that Lionel Messi was missing and that this was a ‘depleted’ Argentine team. Risible claims, as aside from two attacking players, this was virtually a first-choice Albiceleste XI and, as no Venezuelan was staggered to observe, the hosts had problems of their own. Indeed, they made four changes from the Colombia loss, all of which were forced upon Dudamel: three of the four defenders were out (two due to suspensions, one due to injury) and one of the defensive-midfielders (suspended) was also unavailable. Such absences made their lead and hitherto ability to repel trouble all the more impressive.

Yet when the second half kicked off, the visitors returned with more intent to extricate themselves from the mire that they had slipped in. Much anticipation greeted Banega’s free-kick in the 50th minute, but when he finally took it, the ball sailed comfortably over. The hosts were nevertheless able to withstand such pressure and not long afterwards they broke free up the other end where Rondón nearly fed in Martínez, but the latter had his run abruptly blocked off.

However, shortly afterwards in the 53rd minute, the same combination sent the stands into raptures. The nation’s talisman robbed a hapless defender flailing in the Mérida rain and strode into the area, where he slipped a short pass to his Serie A-based partner who, with the visitors on the back foot, was afforded acres of space. Had he desired to, Martínez would have had time to whip out the day’s paper and read his horoscopes before pulling the trigger; regardless of what it would have said, the Torino man certainly would have felt it was his lucky day when his well-placed shot hit the back of the net. 2-0.

Over the next 20 minutes or so, the hosts celebrated their dizzying lead by going immediately on the defensive as Argentina raised their game and/or Venezuela pondered the ‘2-0 is the most dangerous lead in football’ cliché for a bit too long. Given such a change in approach, it came as little surprise when the visitors halved the deficit in the 58th minute. Here, Erik Lamela was gifted plenty of space to slide the ball through to Pratto in the area. Despite having left-back Mikel Villanueva and centre-back Sema Velázquez seemingly on his case, it seemed a little too easy for him. He nudged the ball forward and it ricocheted off Villanueva back to him in slightly more space and he simply toe-poked it goalwards past the possibly blindsided Hernández. 2-1. Game well and truly on.

Bauza’s men thus went on the hunt for an equaliser. Some more shaky goalkeeping from Hernández from a corner was to follow not long afterwards and the visitors were not too far from catching him out in the 66th minute. Here, Banega, on the inside-left just outside the area, went for a cross-shot which rebounded kindly off a defender, thus necessitating the Tenerife goalkeeper to scramble over to ensure his near post was covered. He got there just in time to block out the resultant shot that Di María fired from an acute angle from inside the area on the left.

One rare reprieve from the pressure came after 74 minutes when the much-touted 19-year-old Adalberto Peñaranda burst forward and gave a rare glimpse of why he made so many headlines at Granada last season. In a characteristically direct run, he passed through a few Argentine shirts before being cynically fouled not far from the area. This bought his nation some time, though the free-kick was duly squandered.

With the clock not ticking fast enough, Dudamel made some changes yet his second, replacing Martínez with Ecuador-based Jacobo Kouffaty, unfortunately did not reap the desired dividends. Indeed, officially he lasted no more than three minutes before succumbing to an injury and being replaced by Yonathan Del Valle in the 81st minute.

Compounding Kouffaty’s misery, as he was walking dejectedly along the sidelines, Di María whipped in a low corner which was clinically struck into the back of the net to level things up. Manchester City’s Nicolás Otamendi beat his centre-back counterpart Velázquez to the ball and restored some pride for his nation. Now, they were favourites to snatch all three points.

Ultimately, although they certainly put the jitters up their hosts, it was in fact Venezuela who came closest to emerging victorious in a five-goal thriller. First, with five minutes remaining, Juanpi curled in a free-kick from the right with his left boot which Romero went to catch but was easily beaten in the air by Rondón – unfortunately for the latter, his header also comfortably cleared the crossbar when it seemed as if with a bit more direction, he could well have won the game.

It was a let-off for the Manchester United goalkeeper and yet with a minute of regulation time left, he somehow had time to emerge relatively unscathed from an even greater howler. This time, Juanpi’s central free-kick from range bounced harmlessly through to the out-of-favour stopper, yet perhaps his rustiness affected him, as he was slow in anticipating the ball’s trajectory. Instead of catching it, the ball caught him by surprise and bounced off his chest and straight to Villanueva. The 23-year-old Atlético Malagueño left-back instinctively struck at the ball in textbook centre-forward fashion; he had Romero well beat but unfortunately his effort cannoned straight back off the near post.

Alas, the final whistle soon blew and it was greeted by both sides with a mixture of emotions. The visitors’ comeback could not mask the fact that they had once again struggled to contend with the absence of Messi and had been displaced from their perch, now finding themselves 3rd in the CONMEBOL standings. For the hosts, while it is a credible point, they will surely feel that they could have added a little more dignity to their campaign by gaining their first victory.

With Peru having beaten Ecuador 1-0, Venezuela now find themselves five points adrift at the bottom on a paltry two points. Although ten games still remain, as Dudamel’s men are 11 points away from the play-off spot (5th), sights are undoubtedly now set on Qatar 2022 and not Russia 2018. Building a new team with the likes of Juanpi at its core will be uppermost in the manager’s thoughts. After all, next month will involve a trip to Uruguay (1st) and a home clash against Brazil (2nd); Rome was indeed not built in a day.

To keep up-to-date with the Venezuelan football world, feel free to follow @DarrenSpherical on Twitter. 

Team Selections

Venezuela (4-4-2): D. Hernández; A. González (V. García, 71′), O. Vizcarrondo, S. Velázquez, M. Villanueva; Juanpi, T. Rincón,  A. Flores, A. Peñaranda; S. Rondón & J. Martínez (J. Kouffaty, 78′) (Y. Del Valle, 81′).

Argentina (4-2-3-1): S. Romero; P. Zabaleta, N. Otamendi, R. Funes Mori, M. Rojo (N. Gaitán, 83′); J. Mascherano, L. Biglia (L. Alario, 71′); E. Lamela (Á. Correa, 67′), É. Banega, Á. Di María; L. Pratto.

Darren Spherical

@DarrenSpherical

Argentina 4-1 Venezuela – Copa América Centenario Quarter-Final (18 June 2016)

Copa América Centenario Quarter-Final

Saturday 18 June 2016 – Gillette Stadium, Foxborough, Massachusetts, USA

Argentina 4-1 Venezuela

Video Highlights of Argentina 4-1 Venezuela, Copa América Centenario Quarter-Final, 18 June 2016 (YouTube).

La Vinotinto Outshone in the USA but Exit with Spirit of Renewal

Venezuela’s head-turning run in Copa América 2016 was brought to a shuddering halt, as Rafael Dudamel’s men were outclassed in Foxborough.

Tata Martino’s men set out with intent and took the lead with less than eight minutes played. 40 yards out, Lionel Messi picked up the ball on the right and, with his left boot, rapidly arced a sublime ball  over Oswaldo Vizcarrondo’s head which Gonzalo Higuaín exquisitely converted home with a stretched half-volley.

Although La Vinotinto did not sit back following the goal, they nevertheless continued to be largely on the back-foot against their more illustrious counterparts. Amongst several scares, they somehow avoided conceding a penalty in the 19th minute when, upon receiving a pass in the area, Messi looked to be clumsily fouled by Arquímedes Figuera. However, the Mexican referee thought otherwise.

Not that La Albiceleste were to be deterred in the slightest. Nine minutes later, Figuera was to succeed in gifting his opponents a goal as his suicidal back-pass went straight to Higuaín, who rounded goalkeeper Dani Hernández before slotting home for his own and his country’s second.

To his credit, Figuera went some way towards redeeming himself in the 33rd minute, as he robbed Javier Mascherano some 30-odd yards from goal. Salomón Rondón picked up the ball and, benefitting from Josef Martínez’s run that left a defender in two minds, was able to drive into space before striking hard from the edge of the area. Unfortunately for the West Bom marksman, Sergio Romero was alert and his right glove was to thwart as the ball came straight back out, before it was hastily cleared. Six minutes later, Rondón was to come much closer as he used his impressive neck muscles to direct Alejandro Guerra’s corner goalwards past the static Man United goalkeeper, only to be denied by the far post.

Venezuela were to continue their impressive attacking spell. Just two minutes later, a loose ball fell to roaming left-back, Rolf Feltscher who tried his luck from just outside the area, seeing his shot deflect off a defender and nearly loop above and beyond the goalkeeper. However, Romero did well to backtrack and tip over for a corner.

Finally, in the 42nd minute, Venezuela’s pressure paid off as Rondón creeped in a low cross from the right to find his strike-partner Martínez. Romero seemingly undid some of his good work by rashly racing towards the ball and bringing down the Torino forward for a clear penalty.

Yet, Brazil-based Luis Manuel Seijas stepped up and instantly made himself a figure of ridicule on social media the world over. His dinked, Panenka-style penalty went straight down the middle and into the grateful gloves of Romero. The Venezuelan will indeed not be allowed to forget this in a hurry, with one commenter on The Guardian‘s website suggesting that in the future when such audacious efforts go awry, they should be universally known as a ‘Seijas’.

Having spurned this opportunity to get back into the game just before the break, optimism in the Vinotinto ranks must have been on the wane. The match was nearly settled within a minute of the restart following a dangerous low ball that caused many jitters in the box.

It definitely was all done and dusted on the hour-mark. In another instance of poor Venezuelan concentration, Vizcarrondo passed the ball straight to Nicolas Gaitán  some 40 yards out. He rapidly passed it forward to Higuaín, who then laid it off to Messi, with the Barcelona superstar quickly finding Gaitán who had rushed towards the inside-left edge of the area. It was all clinically and stylistically executed, with the Benfica attacker returning the pass to Messi, who poked home with consummate grace.

Dudamel’s men were not go out entirely with a whimper, however. Indeed, in the 70th minute, Guerra cut onto his right on the left and curled in a perfect inswinging cross which Rondón – benefitting from some defenders dreaming of the next round – leaped up high to meet and head home.

The few seriously contemplating whether this meant ‘game on’ were soon stopped mid-thought as Argentina went up the other end to get their fourth. This time, following some more rapid interplay, Messi fed substitute Erik Lamela who hooked a shot goalward that appeared to catch Hernández off-guard as he struggled to stop what should have been a relatively comfortable save. Instead, he added to his country’s goalkeeping woes as the ball trickled past him and Argentina marched into the semi-finals.

Thus ended Venezuela’s otherwise promising 2016 Copa América, a tournament in which they had nevertheless defied all expectations. They came to the USA bottom of their World Cup qualification group and with a new manager who had not won in his opening four matches; in these friendlies, they did not appear to have had enough time to work out the best system and personnel. However, their defensively solid opening day win against Jamaica gave rise to considerable optimism and when they beat Uruguay with a similar approach to virtually seal qualification with a game to spare, a sizeable amount of pride had returned amongst Venezuelan football fans. Subsequently, though they had to settle for a draw, when they led against pre-tournament dark horses Mexico, it was hard not to get a little carried away.

Alas, if some realism did not enter the minds of all Venezuelans after the end of that match, then it certainly has now. This could well turn out to be little more than a brief summer fling with euphoria to be crushed by the slog of the World Cup qualifying campaign – a battle that some feel was lost a long time. However, there was plenty on display in the USA to suggest that Venezuela can go some way to getting back on track and, though making it to Russia seems a tall order, at least rebuilding and nabbing a few more scalps over the next year or so seem entirely plausible aims.

Team Selections

Argentina (4-3-3): S. Romero; G. Mercado, N. Otamendi, R. Funes Mori, M. Rojo; A. Fernández, J. Mascherano, É. Banega (L. Biglia, ’80); L. Messi, G. Higuaín (S. Agüero , ’74), N. Gaitán (E. Lamela, ’67).

Venezuela (4-4-2): D. Hernández; A. González, W. Ángel, O. Vizcarrondo, R. Feltscher; A. Guerra, T. Rincón (S. Velázquez, ’85), A. Figuera, L. Seijas  (Juanpi, ’55); S. Rondón, J. Martínez (Y. Del Valle, ’80).

Darren Spherical

@DarrenSpherical