In their second friendly game of this international break, Venezuelans on the pitch and in the stands came together to generate a moving, memorable evening for the country. Here, @DarrenSpherical provides an account of the game as well as some thoughts…
Tuesday 11 September 2018 – Estadio Rommel Fernández, Panama City, Panama.
Panama 0-2 Venezuela
Video Highlights of Panama 0-2 Venezuela, International Friendly, 11 September 2018 (YouTube)
Salomón Spearheads Supersubs’ Show
Salomón Rondón came off the bench to combine twice with his fellow substitutes to give La Vinotinto a heartening, well-fought win in front of a sizeable number of their compatriots.
This victory was the first against Panama since 2000 and also the very first against any opposition in a senior friendly encounter for Rafael Dudamel in his 29 months in the job – and just his fifth overall.
Beforehand, the coach stated that he would like his side to be “not so vertical” and instead have “more time with the ball” than they had against Colombia. Although there were considerable spells where neither side could gain much command over the play, Venezuela did at least manage to assert themselves to a greater degree in what was a more inviting contest.
For the second consecutive game, Darwin Machís started with intent, driving into space and even troubling the goalkeeper with a deflected shot in the second minute. However, with six changes made to the line-up, it was to be two of his fellow attackers who garnered themselves more attention in the first half. Indeed, firstly Luis “Cariaco” González built on Friday’s promising sub appearance, outpacing opponents numerous times on the right, managing to knock in several crosses and even squeezing in an attempt or two at goal.
However, prominence-wise at least, both men were eclipsed by Rómulo Otero. Nominally fielded in the centre behind Christian Santos, he often seemed to be on a one-man mission to gain himself a regular starting place, frequently drifting into other areas, particularly the left side. His contributions were hit-and-miss, with plenty of long-range shots, crosses and set-pieces either ballooning over or cannoning off the first man, but his thrusting, do-or-die mobility did genuinely unsettle opponents and create spaces for team-mates. Two of his opening-half free-kick attempts did also hit the target: a 13th-minute right-footed curler from an impossible angle on the left caused an instinctive parry for goalkeeper Luis Mejía who was anticipating a cross and, more notably, a 43rd-minute strike from some 40 yards that bounced just before Mejía, causing him to awkwardly deflect it out with his lower ribcage.
Although there was more action around the hosts’ goal, the Central Americans led by English-Panamanian interim coach Gary Stempel were always very much in the game. Often thwarted at the moment of a key pass, they did nevertheless provide a few scares. In the 28th minute, Cristian Martínez whipped in a devilish cross which the diving goalkeeper Rafael Romo – playing his first international in seven years – got fingertips to, before Yordan Osorio’s shin awkwardly cleared for a corner. In the 36th minute, following one of many clever flicks by José Rodríguez, a shot from Martínez in a good position in the area was well-blocked by Osorio’s centre-back partner Wilker Ángel. From the subsequent Gabriel Torres corner, Venezuela perhaps received a huge let-off, as a Fidel Escobar header hit the arm of left-back Luis Mago; contrary to how it initially appeared to almost everyone, this was adjudged by the referee to be marginally outside, not inside the penalty area. A mere matter of yards from the incident, the man in black could not have had a better view. Regardless, from the resulting free-kick, Escobar gave Dudamel’s men a second fright, as his right-footed bullet arrowed barely a yard over the bar.
Thus, at half-time, both sides had good cause to feel that this open game was there for the taking and immediately after the restart, it was the 2018 World Cup qualifiers who were first out of the traps. With barely 40 seconds played, Martínez shaped up from some 30 yards, striking a fine right-footed effort which Romo’s outstretched palm had to deal with. Some seven minutes later, Venezuela trumped the home side in the long-range stakes as another Otero free-kick from 40 yards – for which a 15-yard run-up was required – dipped menacingly before Mejía, causing him to parry out wide.
Subsequently, scares were averted at both ends but when the next real attempt on goal arrived, it was made to count. This came in the 67th minute with two substitutes as the lead protagonists. First, following some neat Venezuelan play, fresh-and-fleet-footed Jefferson Savarino of Real Salt Lake played a one-two on the right with Otero, receiving back the ball inside the area to slide across the goalmouth past Román Torres where none other than Salomón Rondón knocked it into the back of the net. Celebrated by thousands of Venezuelans in attendance, it sounded as if the Premier League striker’s first international goal since March 2017 had been scored at home.
Additional changes were later made to both sides, which perhaps further diluted the attacking fluidity. Yet, despite the dearth of shots on target, the pulsing atmosphere and highly competitive pinball-esque action lended itself to an engrossing spectacle. Towards the end, however, another one of the reinforcements from the bench ensured that his spell on the pitch would be remembered.
Eduard Bello, an attacker enjoying an impressive first season with Chilean side Deportes Antofagasta, came on for his international debut in the 78th minute. Ten minutes later he earned a corner which he himself then took; Rondón connected but his header on the stretch at an angle to the goal went slightly wide of the post. Then, in the final minute of stoppage-time after a Panamanian cross and headed knock-back had been hastily cleared, a ball was hoisted upfield by captain Tomás Rincón. The defence were largely committed further upfield and so, following a fortuitous ricochet off the defender, Bello was able to swivel and slide the ball towards Rondón in space who pounced like a predator to seal the win.
The elation in the stands was palpable and afterwards at the press conference, Dudamel dedicated the win to these joy-deprived believers, many of whom would have moved to the Panamanian capital in recent years due to the well-documented domestic difficulties:
“For multiple reasons our compatriots have emigrated from our country. There is something that in life can not be lost, which is dignity. Today we wanted to give a boost to the dignity of the Venezuelan who has accompanied us and who makes life in this beautiful country. May La Vinotinto become an example for all our people – that is the invitation.”
Many observers of Russia 2018 may blithely dismiss the weight of this Venezuelan victory but nobody who experienced it can deny the importance of such a welcome morale-boost. Friday against Colombia now feels like quite some time ago. Regarding the performances, although the action was again largely disjointed and fragmented, Rondón, Otero, González, Machís, Savarino and Bello have all provided Dudamel with positive moments on which to build more sustained attacking play. As for the rearguard, while the coach may wish to try out other players for next month’s double-header in Spain, the prized clean sheet that they kept and their general solidity should give the likes of Osorio and Mago hope that a consecutive call-up will be forthcoming.
Lastly, post-match Dudamel also said that, after nearly ten months without senior matches, he hopes that his side will go on to have “no less than 15-18 games” (including however many they play at the 2019 Copa América) under their belts before the Qatar 2022 World Cup qualifiers commence. Such a number seems optimistic but if an array of seemingly insurmountable obstacles can be overcome to pull this off, it would go a considerable way towards narrowing the preparatory chasm with their major CONMEBOL rivals.
Precarious though the future most certainly is, in this international break some positive steps were undeniably taken.
Panama (4-3-3): L. Mejía; M. Murillo, R. Torres, F. Escobar, F. Palacios (K. Galván, 71′); C. Martínez, A. Godoy, M. Camargo (A. Carrasquilla, 65′); J. Rodríguez (J. González, 77′), R. Blackburn, G. Torres (Á. Orelien, 65′).
Venezuela (4-2-3-1): R. Romo; A. González, Y. Osorio, W. Ángel, L. Mago; T. Rincón, J. Moreno (A. Flores, 86′); L. González (J. Savarino, 56′), R. Otero (S. Córdova, 75′), D. Machís (E. Bello, 78′); C. Santos (S. Rondón, 56′).