Tag Archives: Noel Sanvicente

Venezuela 1-1 Panama – International Friendly (8 September 2015)

International Friendly

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

Venezuela 1-1 Panama

(To read a preview of both of Venezuela’s September 2015 friendlies, click here)

Goal Highlights of Venezuela 1-1 Panama, International Friendly, 8 September 2015 (YouTube)

Team Selections

Venezuela (4-4-2): Baroja; Rosales, Vizcarrondo (Carabalí, 80′), Túñez, Cichero; A. González (J. Suárez, 59′), Rincón, Seijas (C. González, 74′), Guerra (Arango, 74′); Santos (Falcón, 31′), S. Rondón.

Panama (4-4-2): Mejía; Henríquez, Torres, Parris, Machado; Gómez, Cooper, Quintero, Godoy (Macea, 24′) (Escobar, 80′); Pérez (Buitrago, 77′), Blackburn (Addles, 26′) (Calderón, 90+6′).

Match Report

Little Learned as Venezuela Sneak a Draw in Bog-Standard Conditions

On a rain-soaked pitch that would have been classified as waterlogged in other parts of the world, Salomón Rondón’s stoppage-time tap-in enabled La Vinotinto to narrowly avoid two consecutive defeats at the hands of Central American opposition.

Pre-kick-off torrential downpourings delayed the start of game by over 20 minutes and were to mire proceedings. The Panamanians, stung from a narrow 1-0 defeat against Uruguay at the weekend, initially seemed unfazed, taking the lead with barely two minutes on the clock. A central free-kick from distance was hoisted into the area where, after a knock-on, defender Gabriel Cichero uncomfortably nudged it into the path of Rolando Blackburn. Escaping from Oswaldo Vizcarrondo, the Comunicaciones forward squeezed in a fairly tame, bobbling effort from the right byline. However, goalkeeper Alain Baroja misjudged the shot’s trajectory and was caught off-balance, with the ball instead ghosting through his attempted grasp to trickle a mere inch or two over the goal line.

Certainly not the start desired in the stands by the hearty souls who shunned any sheltering from the elements. However, in terms of actual footballing action, it proved to be a false dawn. The subsequent half-hour was bereft of goal-mouth opportunities, with the teams instead seemingly trying to outdo each other in providing the referee with justifications for abandoning the match. With the soggy turf regularly halting the ball’s unpredictable movement, challenges that only the most nihilistic would not wince at frequently came flying in. Club managers watching on were doubtlessly horrified and there were to be two early victims as goalscorer Blackburn and team-mate Aníbal Godoy had to be taken off in quick succession around the 25th-minute mark.

Five minutes later, a third substitution was made, though this time it was by the hosts and not due to injury. Much online dismay greeted the removal of Christian Santos, who was making his second appearance – and home debut – for his country, having only received the green light to represent the country of his birth within the past year. Last season, the Germany-reared attacker had a spellbinding year with promotion-winning Dutch side NEC Nijmegen, yet this rare opportunity to show manager Noel Sanvicente if he could transfer his goalscoring club form to the international arena was abruptly truncated. In post-match comments, Chita claimed that this was because the conditions were not conducive to Santos’ typical style; whether true or not, few can argue that his replacement Juan Manuel Falcón thrived in the circumstances, troubling defenders with his pacy runs and dribbles, getting away several attempts at goal.

The forward, now languishing in France’s Ligue 2 with Metz but who has much experience of Venezuela’s largely substandard playing surfaces, even thought he had scored a mere four minutes after his arrival. Indeed, shortly after the hosts’ first attempt on target – an Andrés Túñez header from an Alejandro Guerra corner that was comfortably saved – Falcón anticipated a hoisted ball into the area and beat the onrushing goalkeeper Luis Mejía to nod home. Alas, within a second or two, the Venezuelan was confronted with the raised offside flag.

Aside from captain Tomás Rincón using the farcical conditions as perhaps the only time in his professional career when it will be excusable to channel his inner Lionel Messi and embark on some uncharacteristic dribbles infield, there was just one more moment of note in this half. This came in the 40th minute when left-back Cichero nearly latched on to a free-kick curled in from the left but could not quite direct a low volley on target.

Nine minutes into the second half, it was again Cichero, currently back in Switzerland with Sion, who had his side’s next chance of note.  Luis Manuel Seijas’ left-sided free-kick was met on the edge of the area by the defender, whose header was tipped just over the bar. Subsequently, the resulting corner was flicked on towards the back post where Falcón was readying himself for a tap-in; fortunately for the visitors, defender Leonel Parris just about cleared the ball away for another corner.

Offering the promise of some much-needed urgency, on the hour mark came the long-anticipated international debut of former Barcelona starlet Jeffrén Suárez. Drawing to a close a saga that lasted the best part of nine years, he has seemingly given up on his ambitions of representing the country in which he was reared – Spain, for whom he won two major trophies at youth level – and has instead accepted the long-standing offer to play for the nation of his birth. Now at Belgian second-tier side KAS Eupen, a few years ago when he was still considered an emerging name worth remembering, he may have received his Vinotinto bow on a grander stage. However, little did the sparse Cachamay crowd know at the time that while they had just seen the beginning of one international career, they were also to witness the end of another.

Indeed, at the post-match press conference attended by the entire squad, a teary-eyed Juan Arango, undoubtedly Venezuela’s greatest and most important player of all time, announced his retirement from the national team. No word yet as to whether this was to definitely be the very last of his 129 official appearances, though many fans are already clamouring for a farewell match more befitting of his achievements than a friendly cameo in a stadium only fractionally full.

He arrived onto the pitch in the 74th minute, at which point the match was beginning to look like another toothless, morale-sapping Vinotinto defeat. However, though perhaps not entirely related, his introduction was to coincide with a slight increase in tempo and urgency, as the number of chances and incidents began to rise. The first of these was arguably the most gilt-edged. On the right, Jeffrén cut inside to slide the ball to Rincón, whose finely weighted pass towards the right side of the area found Falcón. However, one-on-one with the goalkeeper, to the dismay of every home fan in the ground, he skied his shot a few yards over. Nevertheless, Jeffrén here provided a brief glimpse of his capabilities and was to be a confident and positive presence on the ball, often looking to get forward and link up from the right.

Venezuela’s forward forays continued into the last ten minutes of regulation play, serving up a host of noteworthy moments: Firstly, Rondón beat the opposition goalkeeper to one of Arango’s pinpoint long balls but was unable to get a shot away in time; Cichero went up for a corner but could not quite make effective contact from a cross; soon after, Falcón outpaced his marker on the left before passing to Jeffrén who nudged it on for fellow substitute Francisco Carabalí, before the move broke down; finally, in the 87th minute, Arango’s ball into the area was well-chested and then struck low by Falcón, whose shot was parried out to Carabalí, who could only blaze over.

Soon afterwards, the hosts’ chances of an equaliser appeared to have been ended as Carabalí received a red card, a mere ten minutes after entering the fray. The reason for his dismissal remains somewhat unclear but it is likely that he raised a hand (or two) amidst some heated altercations involving several players.

However, Venezuela were not to be deterred, continuing their attacks and, three minutes into stoppage-time, they were to get their deserved reward. From the right, César González’s corner was uncomfortable for goalkeeper Mejía, with the ball falling downwards before being nudged over towards Rondón, who instinctively struck home a fairly straightforward finish.

Immediately afterwards, Panama goalkeeper Luis Mejía evened things up, receiving a second needless yellow card in a matter of five minutes, having previously been awarded one for timewasting. Despite a total of eight stoppage-time minutes being played, this brief return to parity in the playing personnels did not lead to any further goals and thus the game ended in a draw.

Given the conditions, it is unlikely that Sanvicente will feel much was gained from this encounter or, for that matter, the preceding 3-0 loss against Honduras. Nevertheless, Venezuela went into this international week needing to improve their attacking play and goalscoring rate, but it can hardly be said that much has changed in these departments. A few players showed glimpses of what they can do, most notably Falcón and Jeffrén, as well as Josef Martínez (in combination with Rondón) in the Honduras game. Ahead of next month’s World Cup qualifiers against Paraguay and Brazil, Juan Arango’s retirement opens up an attacking berth either behind or in tandem with Rondón. However, not only is it unclear who will replace him – or if any other attackers have contrived to play their way out of the line-up during these games – but it feels as if little progress in the teamwork of the attackers has been made. Thus, while the defence – who, admittedly, hardly covered themselves in glory either – proved in Copa América that they are more than capable of doing a respectable job in big games, Venezuela’s attacking problems are set to be an ongoing issue well along the road to reach Russia 2018.

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

Peru 1-0 Venezuela – 2015 Copa América Group C (18 June 2015)

2015 Copa América Group C

Thursday 18 June 2015 – Estadio Elías Figueroa, Valparaíso, Chile

Peru 1-0 Venezuela 

Highlights of Peru 1-0 Venezuela, 2015 Copa América Group C, 18 June 2015 (Video courtesy of Copa America 2015)

Team Selections

Venezuela (4-2-3-1): Baroja; Rosales, Vizcarrondo, Túñez, Amorebieta (sent off, 29′); Rincón, Seijas (Miku, 82′); R. Vargas (Cichero, 38′), Arango (Martínez, 73′), Guerra; S. Rondón.

Peru (4-2-2-2): Gallese; Advincula, Zambrano, Ascues, Vargas; Ballón, Lobatón (Reyna, 46′); Cueva (Hurtado, 83′), Sánchez; Pizarro (Yotún, 90′), Guerrero.

Amorebieta’s Red Card Leaves Venezuela in a Precarious Final-Day Position 

Match Report

Starting off the day in the dizzying position of being able to secure a place in the knock-out stage with a win, Venezuelan hopes now very much hang in the balance as Fernando Amorebieta’s red card put them on the back foot for over an hour, during which they were ultimately undone by Claudio Pizarro’s strike. 

Given the memorable upset against Colombia followed by, in turn, Los Cafeteros‘ frenetic win against Brazil, things were going almost disconcertingly well for La Vinotinto, as ultimately winning the group also seemed an eminent possibility. While even now that still can not be ruled out, many fans will be cursing the moment the Championship defender received his marching orders, as up until that point, Noel Sanvicente’s men were very much in with a chance of winning.

Indeed, in the well-contested early exchanges played at the home of Santiago Wanderers, the boys in burgundy were certainly less reserved than they were against Colombia, playing instead with more attacking freedom. Málaga’s roaming right-back Roberto Rosales looked particularly eager, combining well with captain Juan Arango from the flank, playing the occasional give-and-go. Midfielder Alejandro Guerra had the first effort on goal after a mere three minutes, striking somewhat optimistically from a central position 25 yards out and four minutes later, he was to be the provider for what was to be Venezuela’s best chance of the game.

As in the Colombia match, Guerra exhibited some encouraging understanding with Salomón Rondón, once again crossing from the left with his right towards the Zenit St. Petersburg striker. However, though the opening-day headline-grabber had a yard on his marker, he was unable to guide the ball either side of Pedro Gallese, with it instead meekly going into the Juan Aurich goalkeeper’s grateful hands. Subsequently, Guerra, at least, was to continue to have a decent half, whipping in a testing ball from time to time and nearly having a half-chance on 15 minutes, though he could not quite control Ronald Vargas’ return pass on the edge of the area, with the ball instead trickling through to Gallese.

Throughout this period as well as, indeed, the rest of the match, Peru regularly made forward forays and put in many crosses, particularly from Paolo Guerrero on the left and Luis Advíncula on the right. In doing so, while these balls were never effectively connected with, they did highlight the slightly larger gap in this game between Venezuela’s defence and midfield than existed against Colombia, which led to some jitters and nervy clearances.

However, this modest level of apprehension could only increase on the 29th minute when Sanvicente’s men lost one of their number. Indeed, the beginning of the end occurred for Amorebieta, who had hitherto largely been noticeable for hoisting long balls upfield for Rondón to knock down, when a tussle with Guerrero near the halfway line occurred. As the Flamengo new-boy gained some space, the ex-Athletic Bilbao man pulled his shirt back, sending him to the ground, where upon he ostensibly attempted to skip past him, only to land with the studs of his right boot nastily clipping the Peruvian’s left knee. Upon the resulting dismissal, perhaps partly due to the incident occurring on the far side to the cameras, shock was initally expressed by the commentators, fans on social media and many in the stadium.

However, the referee had a good view and did not hesitate in brandishing the red card, no doubt instinctively viewing Amorebieta’s actions as that of a wily professional who knew what he was doing. Indeed, the casual, faux-disinterested shirt-pulling was similar to the manner in which he landed down on Guerrero’s already vulnerable leg and attempted to continue as if nothing of note had occurred. While, predictably, many Venezuelans feel it was accidental and point to his startled response upon seeing red as further proof, though one can never be entirely sure, one could just as easily state that his expression was that of a man who could not believe he did not get away with actions that have worked for him in the past. As Opta Jose pointed out, he is not a man renowned for clean play with only Sergio Ramos (12) receiving more red cards than he did while in Spain (11). Following on from another underwhelming club season when, particularly at Fulham before he made a brief loan switch to Middlesbrough, he was regularly exposed and off-the-pace, it seems that, to some at least, in Valparaíso he confirmed pre-tournament concerns that he was a potential liability.

Several minutes afterwards, Ronald Vargas, who had drawn praise for his performance against Colombia, was taken off to be replaced by Gabriel Cichero, a natural left-back who has played seven of the eight friendly games of the Sanvicente era. He was also a regular in the 2011 competition and throughout the remainder of this game appeared to take it in turns with midfielder Luis Manuel Seijas to cover the left flank.

With cries of ‘VEN-E-ZUEL-A’ distantly heard from the stands, La Vinotinto‘s relatively humble following rallied behind their representatives as the half was to end with several more Peruvian crosses being swung in without any meaningful attacking contact being made. Nevertheless, given the man-disadvantage, each attempt to breach the Venezuelan area was to cause some visibly hesitant defending, though well into the second half, Los Incas were to continue to struggle to create genuine chances.

Indeed, after the interval, much of the first 25 minutes or so consisted of often good initial balls by the likes of Advíncula, Guerrero and Juan Manuel Vargas. One of the latter’s early crosses from the left was met by Guerrero towards the near post but due to the lack of space, the striker could only head it comfortably wide. Soon afterwards, Guerrero was to also manage a header that looped a few yards over but it was Advíncula, in particular, who was responsible for some of the best crosses and wingplay, particularly just after the hour-mark when he dashed past his man into the area, pulling back a low ball that none of his team-mates could meet. Owing in part to their inability to create decent chances from the flanks against a solid Venezuela who were always growing in confidence, a few speculative efforts came in from outside the area. However, the most notable of these – both of which fell to Fiorentina’s Vargas, consisting of a volley from a short headed clearance and and shot screwed a few yards wide from near the dee – were of little actual threat.

Despite seeing more of the ball, Peru were occasionally vulnerable to counter-attacks and other Venezuelan forays, the fear of which was always rising so long as the teams remained level. Rondón was to have two similar occasions to scare the opposition back-line, first in the 50th minute when Guerra slid the ball forward but though he looked like he may power away from two of the defenders, Advíncula ultimately blocked him off. Just over ten minutes later, it was Arango who passed it up to Salo, but again, his opponents caught up and stopped him from getting a shot away. Just before this, Venezuela’s leading man was involved in another move where he played a pass to the edge of the area to Arango, whose somewhat disguised pass went to Guerra but, though the latter was in a good position inside the area, he struggled to direct his attempt goalwards.

Having perservered for over 25 minutes of the second half and with the distant cheers for the side still audible, Venezuelan hopes that they may grab a valiant point grew. Alas, it was not to be. For a team that had defended rather well under the circumstances, the manner of the goal was somewhat difficult to take. Indeed, occurring in the 73rd minute, winger Christian Cueva was quick to a clearance, taking the ball forward and attempting a pass into the area that Rincón stretched for. However, unfortunately for the Genoa midfielder, his slide merely guided the ball to veteran Claudio Pizarro who, in space around eight yards out, blasted the ball past Alain Baroja, who could only get a hand to it. The 36-year-old Bayern Munich striker was only playing because of an injury to his Bundesliga colleague, the pacy Jefferson Farfán of Schalke 04, yet he certainly took this rare Peruvian chance when it came to him, in doing so scoring his first international goal since October 2013.

In immediate response, Sanvicente stepped up his side’s efforts to get a goal, removing the aging Arango to bring on the more mobile Torino youngster Josef Martínez. Another attack-minded change was made nearly ten minutes later when midfielder Seijas was replaced by Rayo Vallecano striker Miku. However, aside from the latter playing a ball up the left side into the area for Rondón that ultimately could not be properly controlled, these moves had little impact as Peru were able to hold on to their lead without any grave difficulty until the final whistle.

Group C: How it Stands

Thus, while this group may not have entirely proceeded as anticipated, the game which pre-tournament many felt would play the largest role in determining the qualification chances of Peru and Venezuela may yet still do so. With all four teams on three points going into the final matches, both will be underdogs in their respective games. However, as of 21 June, the day of these encounters, the despair that greeted the Peru result has subsided somewhat for many Venezuelan fans. Indeed, not only has Brazilian golden boy Neymar been ruled out of the rest of the tournament but also the possibility of nabbing at least the second third-best-placed side berth still seems within the grasp of Sanvicente’s men.

While Group B’s third-placed side, Uruguay (four points), are assured of a knock-out spot, Group A’s Ecuador will be waiting anxiously on the outcome of the two final Group C fixtures, as they have finished third with just three points and a goal difference of -2. Venezuela currently have three points and a neutral goal difference and so, playing after Colombia take on Peru if, as the average fan will be anticipating, the former beats the latter, La Vinotinto‘s task for the 90 minutes could be to play to frustrate and counter against Brazil in a manner comparable to the Colombia game. Indeed, while if such a scenario were to occur both teams could play for a draw, as whoever finishes third will face Argentina in the knock-out stage, whereas the runner-up will be against Bolivia and the winner gets Paraguay, this may not seem quite so appealing. Ultimately, there are many different permutations and it may well come down to goals scored rather than simply goal difference but nevertheless, provided there is a winner in the Colombia-Peru game, Venezuela could well lose their match and, so long as it is only a marginal defeat, still yet progress.

However, with Neymar out and a lot of hostility towards Dunga returning after an otherwise respectable year in charge since returning for a second spell, while it may be a tad optimistic, a first ever competitive win against Brazil can not be ruled out for Venezuela. If such an event were to transpire, one can only apologise for the inevitable tardiness in updating this site in the subsequent days.

Darren Spherical

@DarrenSpherical

Colombia 0-1 Venezuela – 2015 Copa América Group C (14 June 2015)

2015 Copa América Group C

Sunday 14 June 2015 – Estadio El Teniente, Rancagua, Chile

Colombia 0-1 Venezuela 

Highlights of Colombia 0-1 Venezuela, 2015 Copa América Group C, 14 June 2015, (Video courtesy of YouTube user Lukas Buretzek).

Team Selections

Colombia (4-2-2-2): Ospina; Zúñiga, Zapata, Murillo, Armero (Martínez, 82′); Sánchez (Cardona, 63′), Valencia; Cuadrado, Rodríguez; Falcao, Bacca (Gutiérrez, 72′).

Venezuela (4-2-3-1): Baroja; Rosales, Vizcarrondo, Túñez, Amorebieta; Rincón, Seijas (Lucena, 74′); R. Vargas (C. González, 78′), Arango (Cichero, 85′), Guerra; S. Rondón.

Rondón Rocks Colombia to Give Resilient Venezuela Remarkable Opening Day Win 

Match Report

With his first goal for his country since September 2013, Salomón Rondón headed La Vinotinto to a euphoric opening day victory, immediately allowing Venezuelan hopes escalate from the modest to the stratospheric in the space of ninety minutes. 

Click Here to Listen to Venezuelan Commentary of Salomón Rondón’s Match-winning Goal

Given the noted difficulties manager Noel Sanvicente has had to contend with since taking over in July 2014 as well as Los Cafeteros’ recent form and much-acclaimed history-making performances at the last World Cup, Venezuela were justifiably made rank 7/1 outsiders for this game by most bookmakers. Indeed, irrespective of Venezuela’s remarkable run four years ago, as they have conceded 18 goals (19 officially) in Sanvicente’s eight preceding games in charge while only netting 12 (10 officially) – with none of the scorers starting this game – make no mistake, this was a turn-up.

Before their representatives kicked off Group C, both sets of fans overran the city of Rancagua, some 54 miles south of Santiago, adorning the streets outside Estadio El Teniente with the yellow, blue and red common to both nations’ flags. However, once the anthems had been proudly belted out, it was apparent that the majority of the 14,000-capacity ground were backing the favourites of this pair of northerly neighbours. Played amidst a picturesque backdrop of snow-capped peaks at the home of Chilean top-flight side O’Higgins – named after the independence leader of Irish-Spanish heritage – there was to be little let-up in the frenetic atmosphere, with the sunny clear blue sky somewhat belying the fact that it was reportedly 12-13 degrees celsius on this winter day.

colombiafansxx venezuelafansflags

 elcoleinstadium_luismi1090 venezuelanfanslatercera

Colombian and Venezuelan fans in and outside Rancagua’s Estadio El Teniente (Three images courtesy of @munirancagua; the third one – of famous Colombian supporter El Cole – comes via  @)

Indeed, despite the actual temperature, within this first ten minutes of this encounter, sweat was seen dripping off the foreheads of many of the players, particularly those in the burgundy shirts. Venezuela, very much applying one of Sanvicente’s favourite words, ‘trabajo‘ (work), were labouring away, sitting deep while regularly doubling up on attackers, allowing them little space in the final third. The only moment of minor concern in the early stages came when James Rodríguez received a short pass centrally but he had little time or space to squeeze a shot through and his effort deflected harmlessly wide.

Instead, the first real opening was to fall to La Vinotinto as Cristián Zapata’s lazy pass was cut out, allowing Rondón to suddenly stride forward. He laid it to his left to the overlapping Alejandro Guerra who, inside the area, could not quite guide his dinked ball, but at least won a corner. Six minutes later, AEK’s new signing Ronald Vargas beat his man on the right, sliding in a low ball that Guerra lunged for but could not quite reach, with instead goalkeeper David Ospina collecting. Such moments offered optimism that Sanvicente was not looking solely to contain, with instead his side gradually asserting themselves, both on and off the ball. Indeed, interspersed with some rather robust challenges, two Venezuelans were to go in the book, firstly Luis Manuel Seijas on 18 minutes and then left-back Fernando Amorebieta seven minutes later. With the former playing a key role next to Tomás Rincón providing additional cover to the back four and the latter – who had been regularly exposed in this role at club level all season – having to contend with the fleet-footed Juan Cuadrado, there were genuine fears that Venezuela would not finish with as many that they started with.

It was soon after Amorebieta’s booking that ex-Mexican President Felipe Calderón (2006-12) piped up on Twitter to condemn Venezuela’s alleged rough play, attempting to score some political points by suggesting they must have been trained by the nation’s polarising President, Nicolás Maduro. His comments were widely shared on social media, as were those in response.

Back to the pitch, though politics are never far away when Venezuela play, just two minutes later they were to continue their occasional forward forays, generating what turned out to be the clearest chance of the half. Rincón, momentarily on the left, nudged the ball to Guerra on the flank who came inside to pass to Juan Arango on the edge of the area. With instinctive awareness, the iconic veteran held up the ball before releasing Vargas to the left of the goal with an exquisite reverse pass that the winger, under a bit of pressure, poked with his outside-right to draw a decent one-handed save from the Arsenal goalkeeper. To an extent, this move typified the attacking midfield three throughout the game, combining the industrious Guerra, with the casual elegance of Arango and the energy of Vargas, who often drifted infield from his right-sided starting spot.

For the rest of the half, while the Colombians saw more of the ball, they struggled to find a way through the opposition’s well-organised and close-knitted defensive lines. When, for example, Guerra carelessly got dispossessed in the middle third, while Sevilla hotshot Carlos Bacca temporarily had some space in which to charge, he was quick to get closed down by several players, thus deflating the majority of the crowd. Furthermore, the many free-kicks and corners that José Pékerman’s men won were routinely headed away by the likes of centre-backs Oswaldo Vizcarrondo and Andrés Túñez, as well as even Rondón on occasion. Conversely, Venezuela, though often on the back foot, comfortably had the best chances before the interval, adding another on 42 minutes. This time, from the right, Rincón passed a short diagonal ball that Vargas dummied just inside the area, leading Guerra to tee himself up for an acrobatic vollley. While it may have been lurching slightly wide, Ospina nevertheless made the parry for a corner.

When the Uruguayan official whistled for the break, much Venezuelan apprehension regarding their nation’s chances in this tournament had already dissipated. The team was displaying admirable commitment, defensive solidity and, dare one utter it, a slightly greater probability of opening the scoring. Given the fitness levels required to track their opponents so assiduously the main question on the mind of many was, could they keep it up?

The opening exchanges of the second half were not entirely encouraging in this regard. Indeed, while to call it dominance would be a stretch, the Colombians nevertheless largely had the ball in the opposition territory for the first ten minutes. However, again, confronted with a largely packed final third, the best they could muster from their crosses and corners was, from a loose ball, an instinctive shot from Aston Villa’s Carlos Sánchez on the edge of the area that pinged a few yards over.

After this pressure subsided, the tide gradually turned. Capitalising again on some hesitant Colombian defensive play, Rondón nabbed the ball and played it out on the left to Guerra. These two were to combine well several times in the game and here, the Zenit St. Petersburg striker ran into the area and met his colleague’s cross, looping a header onto the crossbar. However, before it made contact with the woodwork, the referee blew to penalise the striker for a foul of dubious justification. Nevertheless, not long after Vizcarrondo’s penalty area stretch denied Valencia (who was, in any case, offside) a chance from a dangerous Falcao knock-down following a Rodríguez cross, Rondón would not be denied a second time.

Just before the hour-mark on the right, the tenacious Málaga right-back Roberto Rosales quickly took a throw that Arango, with majestic nonchalance, hooked into the area where it bounced before the left-sided Guerra who, sensing an opportunity, sprung a diving header towards Rondón. Demonstrating admirable neck muscles, he instinctively contorted back to power the ball towards the far corner, where it bounced in what felt like slow motion, before crossing the line. Puncturing the atmosphere in the majority of the ground, some fans at home must have had a delayed response to this, with the distant Venezuelan cheers granting the green light for euphoria. Soon after reeling away, the achievement and the occasion suddenly overwhelmed the man they call Salo, as he stopped in his tracks and fell to the ground. Having netted his first international goal for 21 months and put himself back on course to one day be his country’s all-time top goalscorer, elated team-mates were quick to bundle him.

In the aftermath, while Colombia certainly already knew that they had a task on their hands, as with the preceding sixty minutes, they were to struggle to find any way to surmount it, continuing to put in crosses and attempt direct attacks that were blocked. The arrival of River Plate’s pacy livewire, Teófilo Gutiérrez, in place of the ineffectual Bacca on 72 minutes, appeared to be an acknowledgement by Pékerman that his side could do with some speed and it almost had an immediate impact. Indeed, Rodríguez picked up a loose ball in a central area and played a smart pass to Gutiérrez, yet while he appeared to have a sight on goal, by the time that he adjusted himself for the shot, centre-back Túñez came over to act as an effective shield.

A minute afterwards, the first of three defence-minded Venezuelan changes occurred, all of which involved experienced players who had been regulars at the history-making 2011 tournament. 34-year-old Franklin Lucena replaced Seijas to renew his erstwhile first-choice partnership with Rincón, though before he could do so he contrived to get himself booked before even crossing the touchline, having knocked the ball away from an opponent looking to take a throw. Four minutes later, Vargas was taken off for the more reserved, yet nevertheless creative, right-sided midfielder César González, 32. Lastly, with five minutes remaining, left-back Gabriel Cichero, 31, who had played in all but one of Sanvicente’s warm-up games, came on for Arango, with the back four becoming what appeared to be a back five.

Despite these moves, Venezuela were still managing to get forward during and after this period, with Arango gracefully turning and spraying balls out wide and Rondón chasing and hustling defenders, often giving his own rearguard some respite with his hold-up play.

Nevertheless, Colombia still needed a goal and their collective frustration appeared evident in an effort from Rodríguez with little more than ten minutes remaining. With his side having barely had a chance inside the area, the Real Madrid man opted to lash a left-footed strike from around 20 yards that goalkeeper Alain Baroja did well to parry out strongly before also quickly getting up to put a hand to substitute Edwin Cardona’s rebound. Following this, much praise was lavished upon the Caracas FC goalkeeper which, given he would have likely been criticised had he conceded, perhaps is testimony to both how little trouble he had hitherto faced as well as the significance of the occasion for him and his country. Indeed, playing in his first ever competitive international since making his debut against Honduras in February, he has had a remarkable domestic season and his prominence in this tournament is likely to facilitate a move abroad in the near future.

Subsequently, from a corner that came after the previous one was knocked back out, Colombia arguably had a better chance to score. This time, Rodríguez headed on the cross towards Zapata who was in space at the back post, but the AC Milan defender could not quite wrap his leg around it and the ball instead bobbled out.

From a Colombian perspective, the remainder of the game proceeded with no discernible difference. They continued to be thwarted by the little room they were afforded, winning the occasional, ultimately unsuccessful set-piece and having a half-chance, this time when Cardona’s nice work on the right led to a cross for fellow substitute Jackson Martínez to head down, albeit slightly behind Cuadrado, who directed his close-range effort well wide.

Such meagre sightings of Baroja’s goal were to subsequently decrease in number and, upon the goalkeeper’s clearance upfield after five-and-a-half minutes of stoppage-time, the final whistle blew. It was all over. Despite all the pre-tournament doubts about the team’s seeming lack of preparation and the international form of its leading players, Venezuela had accomplished something truly historic that will have sent confidence levels skyrocketing. Remarkably, this was the first ever win for the nation in their opening Copa América game and now they can genuinely dream of reaching the knock-out stages to once again defy some more expectations. It was to prove all too much for goal-hero Rondón to take in, with his response to the final whistle no doubt summing up most of his compatriots’ feelings.

Despite the well-documented problems that exist in the country – some of which were visibly displayed by fans in Rancagua – jubilation was allowed to temporarily reign in the homes, bars and public spaces across Venezuela. Although the country may be renowned for traditionally being more partial to baseball, huge numbers will tune in to watch La Vinotinto. So many in fact that President Maduro and some of his inner circle have utilised the team as a symbol of national unity by often being seen in public wearing the same striking yellow, blue and red tracksuit that is more commonly sighted on Sanvicente and his staff. This follows on from the late Hugo Chávez’s enthusiastic social media support of the team in 2011 which, endearingly or otherwise depending on your political persuasion, fans on Twitter mined during the Colombia game. Indeed, many of his four-year-old tweets were retweeted at choice moments on sunday, including this one that originally appeared towards the end of the epic 3-3 group stage draw with Paraguay:

Looking ahead, if the nation and the team manage to come back down to earth, they will need to be prepared for what could well be an altogether different challenge and set of tactics on Thursday in the form of Peru. In the meantime, keep an eye out on this site for an article that looks back at this game, expanding on some points raised above, as well as taking into consideration the different task that is anticipated to be posed by Los Incas.

caracasvenezuelafans venezuelafanspostmatch

Left: Fans watching the game in a public area in Caracas (Source: @UNoticias).              Right: Jubilant Venezuelan fans outside the ground in Rancagua, celebrating inside a goal-cum-bus-stop (Source: @munirancagua). 

Darren Spherical

@DarrenSpherical

Venezuela – Copa América 2015 Team Preview

As Venezuela get set to kick-off their 2015 Copa América campaign, Hispanospherical.com takes a look at how they may fare in Chile. Following on from a general overview, there is a more detailed summary of how the past 11 months have gone under new manager Noel Sanvicente as well as profiles on several players who could be crucial to the team’s chances. For more information on the representatives of La Vinotinto, click here for profiles on every single player in the 23-man squad as well as the coach and how he intends to set up his team. 

Venezuela

Copa América 2015 Team Preview

venezuelasquadcopanumbers

The official 23-man Venezuela squad for the 2015 Copa América

(Image courtesy of Copa América. See bottom of page for details on the clubs of the players)

venezuelagroupfixtures

Overview of Venezuela’s Chances:

Under-prepared Team in Transition Facing a Daunting Challenge

With Brazil, Colombia and Peru accompanying La Vinotinto in Group C, it is tempting to think that their chances of qualifying for the knock-out stages are largely contingent on getting a win against Los Incas and then praying for that to be enough to claim one of the two best third-placed-side spots. Indeed, while they may have finished fourth last time around and then challenged until the death for a World Cup berth, the team has struggled to gel under new manager Noel Sanvicente and appear to be under-prepared for the tournament. With the exception of Jamaica, who seem to be treating their Chilean experience as their warm-up for July’s CONCACAF Gold Cup, Venezuela are the only team not to play at least one official match in the weeks leading up to the competition.

Their planned late-May friendly against Bolivia was the fifth in the past year to be cancelled and, considered in light of the recent FIFA shenanigans that implicated Venezuela FA (FVF) President Rafael Esquivel, organisational and administrative issues both on and off the field have certainly impacted upon Sanvicente’s plans. Chita (yes, cheetah), to give him his popular moniker, has overseen eight games in his 11 months in charge, yet despite also holding several training modules with home-based players, he has struggled to successfully instil his approach into his players. Indeed, the attempt to transition the side from one that soaked up pressure and then struck on counters, to a more confident, controlling team who press their opponents from the off has yet to reap dividends. Not only has the attack shown little cohesion with the team instead dependent on set-pieces, long range efforts and defensive errors for the goals they have scored (12, though 10 officially), but they have looked porous in the middle of the park as well as at the back, conceding 18 (19 officially). Furthermore, the three wins they have achieved – and in which they got 6 of their 10 official goals – have been of dubious merit, with two coming against Honduras in games contested solely by domestic players (only one or two of whom are likely to feature in a starting line-up this month) and the other occurring in a 1-0 win over an understrength Peru in the debut match of their new boss Ricardo Gareca.

Watching so many players who ply their trade at relatively high club levels – including La Liga, Serie A and Ligue 1 – struggle to replicate their weekly form within Sanvicente’s system has been disheartening for the nation’s ever-growing number of football fans. The obstacles that have thwarted Chita in regularly calling up every player he would have liked for friendlies as well as the sheer diversity of leagues in which the members of the 23-man squad played last season (12, in 10 different countries and four distinct continents) may well be partly to blame for the lack of fluidity and disjointed forward forays. Nevertheless, many fans instinctively retain hope; understandable given the memories of 2011’s semi-final run as well as some of the players Sanvicente has at his disposal.

Indeed, though the defence is arguably the area where the disparity between performances at club and international level has been most evident, it will nevertheless feature two of the most high-profile players in the squad. Firstly, towering centre-back Oswaldo Vizcarrondo, who played the most minutes of anyone at Nantes last year as well as regularly captaining the side and secondly, right-back Roberto Rosales, Málaga’s most used outfield player who kept group stage-rival Neymar quiet in both league encounters. Ahead of them will be arguably the team’s key man, defensive midfielder Tomás Rincón who, in his debut season since moving from Hamburg, helped play a central role in Genoa’s impressive sixth-placed finish. If Sanvicente errs on the side of caution against the likes of Brazil and Colombia, it is likely that Deportivo La Guaira’s experienced Franklin Lucena will renew the partnership with El General that was so effective in 2011. If however, he instead deploys a deep-lying playmaker – as he did for varying periods of time in both of March’s friendlies – Juan Arango, arguably the greatest Venezuelan player of all time, could well occupy this spot. Indeed, now 35 and winding down his career in Mexico with Xolos de Tijuana, it is not entirely clear if he will start but, having been moved back from a more advanced area into this position at club level, Sanvicente has also experimented recently with him here in training, so the possibility is very much there. Whoever ultimately plays alongside Rincón, likely to be in front of them in some capacity are the mobile legs of 22-year-old Josef Martínez, who showed glimpses of his clinical finishing and rapid movement in his first season for Torino. While he can play up front, he is likely to be used either slightly behind or on one of the flanks as the sole striker up top will undoubtedly be the team’s most valuable player (monetary-wise, at least). Salomón Rondón, who has recently won the Russian Premier League with Zenit St. Petersburg, may be yet to find the net in the Sanvicente era, but his height, physical power and finishing always provide fans and team-mates alike with ample reasons to feel confident when in the final third.

Ultimately, Rondón and co. will all need to regain some form and hastily generate some on-field chemistry and solidity if they are to achieve anything other than squabbling with Peru like two bald men fighting over a comb.

There are other players of note in the squad who could prove to be more influential than these established cracks – not least Alejandro Guerra, the returning Ronald Vargas, Luis Manuel Seijas and, possibly if he gets a chance or two, 20-year-old winger Jhon Murillo, who has recently been snapped up by Benfica. Along with every other player in the squad, they are all featured in this extensive reference guide of player profiles, some of which are relayed in the Key Players section below. However, should you choose to read on, before these, there is a more thorough overview of how The Sanvicente Era has so far panned out, starting with a reminder of the situation that the coach inherited.

The Sanvicente Era:

How to Follow Farías?

Four years ago in the unpredictable, online gambler-infuriating Argentina-hosted edition of this tournament, La Vinotinto were one of the leading sides to defy expectations as, enthusiastically cheered on by then-President Hugo Chávez, they embarked on a rollercoaster ride to the Semi-Finals. Although their performances had markedly improved in the preceding decade, with the Quarter-Final finish in 2007 at the time their best showing, their traditional reputation was nevertheless such that, for example, a Brazilian advertisment could still blithely mock their supposed lack of footballing prowess.

However, such flippant scorn was to rebound on these particular devotees of the Seleção, as Venezuela claimed a creditable opening-day draw off them, before beating Ecuador and then, following two dramatic goals at the death against Paraguay in a 3-3 draw, securing their place in the knock-out stage. In the Quarter-Finals, Chile, who finished ahead of eventual winners Uruguay in their group, came undone against César Farías’ men, whose swashbuckling run, in turn, ended in the most heartbreaking circumstances on penalties against Paraguay. A history-making fourth placed finish was thus confirmed following a play-off loss against Peru.

The boys in burgundy had done wonders to further increase the profile and popularity of football in their baseball-reared culture and were to continue to achieve some impressive results in qualifying for World Cup 2014, being in with a chance of claiming the fifth-place play-off-spot until their final matchday.

sanvicentearticlepic

Venezuela manager Noel Sanvicente (Image courtesy of Foto Prensa FVF)

However, this sixth-placed finish in late 2013 marked the end of the Farías era and it was not until July 2014 – and just one game later – that a permanent replacement was appointed, in the form of seven-time domestic champion, Noel Sanvicente. The five-time Caracas and two-time Zamora title-winner, who also has international caps from his playing days to his name, had been interviewed for the role back in 2007 and was a popular choice this time around, in spite of Diego Maradona tenuously linking himself to the job. However, as noted, Chita has struggled to implement some attack-minded tactical changes and has had his attempts to do so regularly undermined by games being cancelled as well as rarely having all the players he would have liked at his disposal. Nevertheless, what follows is a succinct overview of the matches he has overseen:

He had a decent selection of players for his first two games, which occurred on September’s Asian tour and consisted of a 3-1 defeat against South Korea and a 2-2 draw with Japan (later officially overruled as a 3-0 loss; see here for more details). However, due to wanting time to bed in with his new club in Mexico, veteran icon Juan Arango omitted himself, a few other hitherto first-teamers were missing and several who have ultimately received the Copa call were quite far off a squad place back then. Following on from this, the two scheduled matches that were originally planned for October were cancelled, then rashly replaced by two more fixtures which, in turn, were then also called off. In lieu of any competitive action, some hastily arranged training sessions took place in Madrid that were almost exclusively attended by overseas-based players (goalkeeper Alain Baroja being the exception). Any tactical plans for the subsequent set of matches in November were undermined by the absences of 8-10 key players (including Venezuela’s very own three R’s: Rincón, Rondón and Rosales), which led to predictably disastrous results: a 5-0 thumping from Chile, in which Venezuela were easily overran and outflanked, then a 3-2 defeat against Bolivia, providing El Verde their first win in 21 months.

Early February brought some qualified joy, as a squad consisting entirely of domestic league players chalked up two victories in a double-header against Honduras, though in light of the fact that only one or two of the starters are likely to maintain this status in Chile, these have to be considered B-level encounters. Nevertheless, with the first wins of the new era under their belt, considerable enthusiasm greeted the two late March friendlies as Sanvicente was able to call upon arguably his strongest pool of players to date. Yet, morale was to fall to a new nadir as La Vinotinto were overpowered and outpaced in a 2-1 loss away to Jamaica who, at the time of the Copa América draw in late 2014, were the lowest seeded team. The subsequent 1-0 victory against group rivals Peru went some way to restoring hope that the team would not be entirely humiliated in Chile. However, it has to be acknowledged that it was manager Ricardo Gareca’s first game at the helm and, unlike then, for the tournament he will have Claudio Pizarro (Bayern Munich) Jefferson Farfán (Schalke 04), Paolo Guerrero (Flamengo, recently signed from Corinthians) and Juan Manuel Vargas (Fiorentina) at his disposal.

All the same, it was the side’s first win under Sanvicente in a game featuring the overseas contingent, as well as the first clean sheet and, particularly in the latter stages, saw them create far more chances than they had previously. Yet, the boss was to be largely denied the possibility of building upon this as firstly, for reasons known only to the FVF, a May home game was unable to be arranged. Then, amidst, and allegedly affected by, the FBI raid on FIFA that implicated FVF President Rafael Esquivel, a friendly against Bolivia in Mendoza, Argentina, was cancelled. Thus, since the Peru win, the closest thing Venezuela have had to a competitive test was a practice match against the youth team of Argentine side Godoy Cruz, which at least ended in a reassuring 5-0 bogwashing.

Collectively then, the representatives of La Vinotinto go into this competition relatively under-prepared and still struggling to be accommodated effectively in Sanvicente’s bold new system. Additional training modules have been held at various points throughout the past year largely in order to indoctrinate home-based players – many of whom never had a prayer of making the final squad – into the coach’s way of thinking, but as yet, the jury is still out. Thus, with results underwhelming, the defence porous and shaky, the midfield timid and the attack playing like strangers incapable of more than a few consecutive passes, if Venezuela manage to get out of the group, it has to be considered a success. Although Sanvicente may have received much goodwill upon taking the job, if his side crashes out at the first stage and his methods still yield little discernible results several games into the upcoming World Cup Qualifying campaign, he may find himself warily looking over his shoulder. However, such dystopian scenarios are doubtless far from the players’ minds as, with at least half of the 2011 regulars likely to also start here, they will retain the conviction that being the underdog and proving people wrong are part-and-parcel of being a Venezuelan footballer in the 21st century.

Key Players 

Below are several profiles on some of the leading names in Venezuela’s 23-man squad, as well as a couple of youngsters who could well make their mark. These profiles come from this extensive article which provides similar information on every single player in the squad as well as manager Noel Sanvicente and how he intends to set up his side.

The Spine of the Squad

tomasrincon

Hispanospherical.com Key Man

Playing in a role few schoolboys tend to daydream about emulating, defensive midfielder Tomás Rincón (27 years old) is nevertheless the most important player in this squad. Although some other previews on Venezuela have picked out striker Salomón Rondón or ageing icon Juan Arango as their key man, El General will surely be playing the lead role in determining La Vinotinto‘s fortunes. Indeed, as if to confirm this status, in the run-up to the tournament, he was officially allocated the captain’s armband, taking over from the long-serving Arango.

Update (14 June 2015): Despite it being widely reported in late May that Rincón would be the new permanent captain, there are lots of claims that Arango will instead retain the armband for this tournament. Nevertheless, as Rincón has been the vice-captain for some time and Arango tends not to last the distance often, even if the latter ultimately officially keeps the armband, expect to see the former wear it during the tournament and eventually take over full-time in the future. 

To ensure the side is not overran in the central area and to also provide additional cover for the vulnerable back four, the Genoa midfielder’s leadership and organisational qualities will be integral. While renowned more for assiduous tracking and tough tackling than searching forward passes – or, for that matter, getting anywhere near the opposition goal – he will also need to release the ball quickly for the attack to prosper.

Following over five years with Hamburg, he has recently enjoyed a largely successful debut season in Serie A, finishing sixth with unfashionable Genoa and has been linked with a big move to La Liga or a return to the Bundesliga. Valencia is the strongest rumour of the several currently doing the rounds and though a repeat of 2011, when he was named the Adidas Player of the Tournament, seems a big ask, an impressive showing will certainly do him no harm.

oswaldovizcarrondo

Though Nantes stalwart Oswaldo Vizcarrondo (31) can be assured of a starting place, having played in all six Sanvicente-era games he was eligible for as well as performing regularly and consistently at the highest club level of anyone at centre-back, his partner is less clear. There are four other options in this department and, given the noted issues at the back, it could very well transpire that Vizca ends the tournament having played alongside more than one of them. Thus, the leadership, organisational and renowned communication skills of this imposing, committed individual will be vital to the entire team’s chances.

A towering presence in the air at both ends of the pitch, though he is far from alone amongst the back line in lacking in speed, he can nevertheless be a beacon of solidity and persistent marking – just some of the traits which saw him placed in many Best XI features after the 2011 Copa América. That he is performing so well in Europe and even regularly captaining his Ligue 1 side is all the more impressive when it is noted that it was not until 2013 at the age of 29 that he made the leap over to the Old Continent. Indeed, previously he had racked up a colourfully respectable list of Latin American clubs: Caracas (Venezuela, two spells), Rosario Central (Argentina), Olimpia (Paraguay), Once Caldas (Colombia), Deportivo Anzoátegui (Venezuela), Olimpo (Argentina), América (Mexico) and Lanús (Argentina).

robertorosales

Following Alexander González’s omission from the final squad due to injury, not only have commentators been deprived of regaling viewers with the story of him proposing to his girlfriend on the pitch, but Sanvicente now only has one natural right-back to choose from. However, as this is first-choice Roberto Rosales (26) – who has just completed a fine debut season in La Liga with Málaga – so long as he does not get sidelined, there should not be too much to concern in this patch of the field.

Since making the step up last year from FC Twente, he has proved to be more than capable of maintaining his close-tracking and tenacious tackling approach in his top-half Spanish side. Though the nature of his club’s style and the forwards at their disposal may be why his regular, pacy forays up the flank have only yielded three assists (which, nevertheless, put him third overall for the season just gone), in open play at least, he certainly adds more than his international defensive colleagues do in this department.

More pertinently to the group stage, in both league games against Barcelona, he was able to keep Brazil’s golden boy Neymar quiet, firstly in a 0-0 home draw and, most impressively, a 1-0 away win at Camp Nou. Largely influenced by this second performance, he was subsequently named in La Liga’s February Team of the Month. Quite how he will fare in a markedly different back line is less certain, particularly as none of the likely starters who have impressed at club level have been able to replicate their form internationally under Sanvicente.

juanarango

A role which may or may not be utilised, a deep-lying playmaker was nevertheless experimented with in March’s two friendlies as well as, more pertinently, in training sessions leading up to the tournament. Juan Arango, now 35 and understandably slowing down, is the most likely candidate if this position is ultimately given the green light. Indeed, though the free-kick maestro and scorer of almost exclusively sensational goals made his name in Spain and Germany with more of an attacking licence – centrally as well as on the left – he became accustomed to this role at club level in the season that has just passed.

Having returned last year to Mexico where he played before he made the transition to Europe back in 2004, while his current club Xolos de Tijuana had an underwhelming campaign, he gradually came to flourish in this less energy-sapping placement, particularly in the league’s second half (the Torneo Clausura). Overall in Liga MX, he scored nine goals and officially received credit for six assists, though his inviting crosses, corners and free-kicks certainly played a prominent role in at least a few more. Playing in his sixth Copa América, though he may not be the same player who spearheaded the history-making 2007 Quarter-Final finish and who was later named in most observers’ 2011 Best XI of the Tournament pieces, his pin-point long-range passes could still be vital this time around. Although a place in the line-up can not be entirely guaranteed, he has played in all four games that he has been available for under Sanvicente (starting three and making a strong impression when he came on against Peru). If he starts but in another position, reprising a more forward role behind the striker or on the left are certainly possibilities.

Update (13 June 2015): On the eve of the opening game, it has been reported that in a slightly altered team that has been practising in training which has two personnel changes to the one previously observed, Arango has been playing as the left-sided attacker, with Luis Manuel Seijas instead as the deep-lying playmaker. If Arango does start off the tournament on the left, there is nevertheless a strong chance that he may drift back to beside Rincón at some point. It will be of possibly painful intrigue to see if his legs are still up to a more forward position.

Lastly, while it may not have made as many headlines as a certain incident involving Luis Suárez, Arango was guilty of biting an opponent at the end of a Mexican league match in early April, for which he was merely banned for two domestic encounters. Should Venezuela meet Uruguay in the latter stages – a possible, if not the likeliest, scenario – expect to hear more about this.

salomonrondon23232

Salomón Rondón (25), the most expensive Venezuelan of all time, is considered by many as the team’s main man up top. Understandable, given that in the season just gone he played in both major European club competitions and ended it as champion and joint-second top-scorer of the Russian Premier League.

However, internationally, his success is largely dependent on the service provided by those behind him – something that has been frustratingly lacking in the past year, as he has not managed to score in any of his four outings, often appearing anonymous. When he has received chances, he has at times lacked composure and direction. Furthermore, though he may have only been 21 four years ago at Copa América 2011, he did come into the tournament with a domestic scoring rate of one in two in his debut season at Málaga and so subsequently featured in all six of his country’s games (three starts), but scored just the once. While he does have an important role to play and will be looking to use his height to spring onto the end of balls coming into the area as well as be on his toes finish off chances, it can be easy to overstate his significance to this team.

Indeed, as he is more of a penalty-box predator who usually plays little role in the build-up, it is the players behind him who will be particularly crucial if he is to prosper. If he receives the requisite supply – and it is a big if, given the noted issues the attacking midfield players have had linking up effectively – then it should be a morale booster for the team. All the same, expect any goals that may or may not be scored to be spread around the side, rather than gobbled up by one individual.

The tournament could potentially be a great opportunity for Rondón to put himself in the shop window, as the talk emanating out of Zenit St Petersburg for the past several months has been that manager André Villas-Boas is seeking to offload him. Further fuelling the rumours, the player has commented more than once that he fancies trying his luck in England or Germany, though would not be averse to a return to Spain either. Media reports have dutifully obliged, with stories published linking him to, among others, Tottenham, Liverpool, Wolfsburg and Sevilla. While he may struggle to shine in such a tough group when Venezuela may often be on the back foot, the presence of such a relatively high calibre striker up top ensures that those behind know, that if they can just play the right ball forward, the team will always have a chance.

Rising Stars

josefmartinezca

If, as is being suggested by reports, neither Luis Manuel Seijas nor Juan Arango is fielded on the left of midfield in the opening game, there are several other contenders in the frame. According to how the side has been training, Torino’s Josef Martínez (22) appears to be the likeliest candidate to start, despite being more regularly deployed at club level just behind the striker. Indeed, he can also play as the front man and if there are any problems with Salomón Rondón up top, he could well be pushed forward to step in.

Update (13 June 2015): As noted in the Arango profile, according to a new, slightly altered line-up tried in training, Arango may instead start on the left against Colombia. Whatever transpires, expect to see Martínez at some point in the tournament.

Although, following a two-and-a-half year spell in Switzerland and a debut year in Turin, he now has a full Serie A season as well as Europa League experience with two different clubs under his belt, he still just about qualifies as being off the radar of most fans of top-level European football. With this being his first Copa América, he has the opportunity to showcase his abilities to new and larger audiences. Wherever he ends up playing on the pitch, in contrast to Jhon Murillo – who has been designated in several preview articles as Venezuela’s top young prospect despite only ever making one substitute appearance for his country – he has significantly more chance of starting at least one game. For this reason more than any other, he must be considered as his nation’s leading young player to look out for.

However, if he does shine, rather than gaining a bigger move, it is more likely to be beneficial for his chances at club level as while in 2014-15 he featured in 26 league, one cup and 13 European clashes – scoring seven goals along the way – he did not last the course in over half of these. Internationally, he is far from alone under Sanvicente in not having the most glorious of times in the past year but he did look particularly sharp when coming on as a substitute against Jamaica and, subsequently, scoring the winner against Peru. As a very mobile player, capable of rapid movements and turns, as well as clinical and long-range strikes, who can also provide support to other attackers, he has much to offer the team.

jhonmurillo

Though he is not likely to start in the opening game, Jhon Murillo, who must be on cloud nine having recently turned 20 and signed for Benfica from Zamora, stands a fair chance of entering the fray at some point – if only as an impact substitute. Presumably due to this potentially life-changing move as well as there being no other young attacking player in the squad who has not already played for a European club, he has been singled out in many preview features as Venezuela’s hot prospect to watch. Maybe. He has, after all, reportedly impressed Arango in training, knows Sanvicente well from when the coach was at Zamora (2012-14) and, given the chance, will delight in aggressively running at defenders and pouncing on any hesitancy. However, with so much competition in the attacking midfield positions and the fact that he has only previously been called up for one game – the second against Honduras in February in which, due to a defensive mix-up, he capitalised to score 37 seconds into his debut – one wonders if it is all a bit too much, too soon. Indeed, he has done remarkably well in his early club career, making his Zamora debut under Chita at the end of the 2012-13 campaign, before scoring an impressive 19 goals in 54 league games (all starts) in the subsequent two seasons while playing on the right wing as well as, at times, more centrally. He was also his now ex-club’s leading threat this year in their otherwise dismal Libertadores campaign, scoring twice in four games.

However, he was also red-carded in the opening game, seemingly for comments made towards – or at least in front of – the referee and it is this worrisome temperament of his that could well hold him back in the long run. Indeed, while he was also the Venezuela U20 side’s best attacking player in January’s Sudamericano Sub-20 tournament, his antics at the very end of the final group game are further testimony to his volatile nature. Against hosts Uruguay, following a relentless verbal and even physical reprimanding of the referee, he played a leading role in getting the official – who, it must be noted, had riot police at his disposal – to reverse his decision on a legitimate opposition goal, securing for Venezuela the 1-0 win. Not entirely for his appearance and haircut then has he been nicknamed ‘Balotelli’ (though, in fairness, the Venezuelan is at least significantly more consistent on the pitch). Furthermore, while he will not be regretting it now, it is believed that his attitude during a trial at Basel in 2014 cost him a move to the Swiss giants. Ultimately, whether or not he gets many opportunities in the next month, one can only hope that the experience of being around long-standing high calibre professionals will inject a little more humility and maturity into this otherwise exciting prospect.

As noted above, to read similar profiles about the entire squad, click here.

Venezuela’s 23-man squad for Copa América 2015

Goalkeepers

Alain Baroja (Caracas FC), Wuilker Fariñez (Caracas FC) & Dani Hernández (Tenerife).

Defenders

Fernando Amorebieta (Fulham, ended season on loan to Middlesbrough), Wilker Ángel (Deportivo Táchira), Gabriel Cichero (FC Sion, ended season on loan to Mineros de Guayana), Grenddy Perozo (Ajaccio), Roberto Rosales (Málaga), Andrés Túñez (Buriram United) & Oswaldo Vizcarrondo (Nantes).

Midfielders

Rafael Acosta (Mineros de Guayana), Juan Arango (Xolos de Tijuana), César González (Deportivo Táchira), Alejandro Guerra (Mineros de Guayana, ended season on loan to Atlético Nacional), Franklin Lucena (Deportivo La Guaira), Jhon Murillo (Benfica, signed recently from Zamora FC), Tomás Rincón (Genoa), Luis Manuel Seijas (Independiente Santa Fe) & Ronald Vargas (AEK Athens, signed recently from Balıkesirspor).

Forwards

Nicolás ‘Miku’ Fedor (Rayo Vallecano), Josef Martínez (Torino), Gelmin Rivas (Deportivo Táchira) & Salomón Rondón (Zenit St. Petersburg).

One last time, to find out more about these players and to get a more precise idea of where and how they play, please take a look at this detailed set of profiles of all 23 members of the squad. Otherwise, thank you for reading and stay tuned for more Copa América coverage in the upcoming weeks on Hispanospherical.com.

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.

zamoraflores

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

Copa Libertadores 2015: Review of the Venezuelan Participants

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

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

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

zamoralibertadoregraphic2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

tachiralibertadoresgraphic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  minerospage2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Down But Not Entirely Out: Venezuelans Abroad Flying the Flag 

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

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

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

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

Darren Spherical

@DarrenSpherical

Reflections on Venezuela’s March 2015 Internationals

Summary of Venezuela’s March 2015 Internationals Against Jamaica and Peru

With an eye towards the 2015 Copa América, Venezuela recently played two fellow entrants in the form of invitees Jamaica and long-term South American rivals Peru (who have been drawn in the same group as La Vinotinto, along with Brazil and Colombia). Against the Reggae Boyz, Noel Sanvicente’s charges put in a limp performance largely devoid of chances, cohesion and often basic organisation, losing 2-1 in the Caribbean. Given Jamaica were ranked the lowest amongst all the teams at the time of the draw for the Chile-hosted tournament, this was a particularly rude awakening. Some pride and morale was salvaged in Fort Lauderdale against Los Incas, however, as promising Torino forward Josef Martínez netted the only goal in a game that saw a significantly higher number of goalscoring opportunities and mercifully fewer defensive errors.

To get a better impression of the Jamaica and Peru games as well as the state of play before the two matches, please take some time to read a preview and a detailed analysis of the squad selection as well as the two match reports. If, however, you saw both matches then feel free to read on here as what follows are some brief reflections:

Key Points

Alain Baroja put in an assured performance in his opportunity between the sticks against Peru and, vitally for a goalkeeper, pulled off a memorable save. This will hopefully ensure that Tenerife’s Dani Hernández does not get too complacent as the current number one. The clean sheet that was kept – the first in all eight of Sanvicente’s games – will not have done Baroja’s case any harm either.

Andrés Túñez put in a superior shift at centre-back against Peru than Fernando Amorebieta did against Jamaica. Whether this was more due to the opposition than their respective abilities is difficult to say but Amorebieta, now on loan at Middlesbrough, must be hoping to be able to put in a few performances at club level that show that he is not only a solid unit but also in possession of basic match fitness as otherwise he could very well lose out to his Thai-based rival. Amorebieta was switched over to left-back for the Peru game, with the injured Gabriel Cichero missing his first game in all of Sanvicente’s reign, but one would have thought the Mineros de Guayana man is a safer bet for a starting berth here. The defence as a whole looked woeful against Jamaica, yet while far from flawless against Peru, not conceding a goal for the first time in two years should aid the collective confidence.

Alejandro Guerra and Josef Martínez were, over the course of the two games, the leading attacking threats for La Vinotinto. They were involved in the two main goalscoring chances in the second half against Jamaica and subsequently tested the Peruvian back-line from the very first minute, with Martínez scoring the winning goal. In the hotly contested attacking area behind Salomón Rondón, the Torino forward seems a near cert to start at the Copa América, whereas the Atlético Nacional man may have more of a battle on his hands. Whether or not he makes the line-up for the opening game against Colombia, he will still remain a key squad player and should appear more than once in the tournament.

Furthermore, continuing with this line of three behind the Zenit forward, Mario Rondón must be unsure where these games leave him. Indeed, having been arguably the brightest attacking player in the early phase of Sanvicente’s reign, this time around he only played an unremarkable, if volatile, half against Jamaica followed by a very brief cameo as a timewasting substitute in the dying stages of the Peru match. Similarly, Christian Santos, who made his much-anticipated debut against Jamaica before being withdrawn after an hour, did not even feature against Peru and must be wondering if he will receive another call-up in the next few months.

With more certainty it can be stated assertively that it would take a severe and sustained loss of form at club level for the likes of Roberto Rosales (right-back), Oswaldo Vizcarrondo (centre-back), Tomás Rincón (defensive-midfielder) and Salomón Rondón (striker) to lose their first-choice statuses. One can not be so sure about the legendary Juan Arango but, despite his misses against Peru, so long as he keeps up his fine club form and maintains his ability to perform well in various midfield positions, he should be okay.

Finally, with a squad of 23 players – 20 of whom got onto the pitch – and at least a handful who missed out but will be hopeful of being on the flight to Chile, there are understandably many more issues that could be explored. Rather than dissecting them now, it may be better to wait until the next – and final – game(s) before Copa América are due to be played in May (at the moment, only an encounter late in the month with Bolivia appears to be on the cards). However, if any readers seek any more information on how things currently stand regarding the likely squad, perusing the two latest match reports in conjunction with this lengthy analysis of the March selection, may well help to inform.

Darren Spherical

@DarrenSpherical