Tag Archives: Palestino

Venezuela’s Participation in the 2015 Copa Libertadores – Review

With the three Venezuelan teams, Zamora, Deportivo Táchira and Mineros de Guayana, having recently completed their Copa Libertadores campaigns, Hispanospherical.com inhales deeply and looks in detail at what was a largely dispiriting experience for all concerned.

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

Copa Libertadores 2015: Review of the Venezuelan Participants

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Down But Not Entirely Out: Venezuelans Abroad Flying the Flag 

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

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

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

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

Darren Spherical

@DarrenSpherical

C.D. Palestino 4-0 Zamora – 2015 Copa Libertadores Group 5 (7 April 2015)

Tuesday 7 April 2015

2015 Copa Libertadores Group 5

C.D. Palestino 4-0 Zamora FC

Estadio Santa Laura-Universidad SEK, Santiago

Goal Highlights of C.D. Palestino 4-0 Zamora FC, 2015 Copa Libertadores, 7 April 2015 (YouTube user xpertowinner).

More Misery for Zamora as Palestino Retain Qualification Hopes

In a very one-sided affair, Palestino got the win they needed to keep alive their hopes of reaching the knock-out stage, as their Venezuelan opposition put in a depressingly familiar performance.

Although in the early stages Zamora were to get a shot away within the first minute and enjoy some space on the counter against the high-pressing Chileans, they were, for the most part, of little concern to their hosts. Pre-kick-off, while they were not expected to win, putting up a respectable display did not seem out of the question, though perhaps having already been knocked out of the competition partially contributed to their limpness in this game. One plus that appeared to be in their favour was Jhon Murillo, the promising winger who had been suspended for the first game – a narrow 1-0 defeat. However, he was to suffer an injury after 39 minutes and had to be substituted, although even his biggest admirers would have to concede that he had, in any event, been largely anonymous.

Thus, instead it was the side who were actually playing for something that dominated, taking the game to the boys from Barinas and having countless opportunities to score – though they were made to wait before making the breakthrough. Indeed,  Zamora goalkeeper Eduard Ibarbo – who was receiving a rare start ahead of Álvaro Forero – was key in thwarting them in the first half, making a string of fine saves.

The first of these came in the 12th minute, when Mathías Vidangossy – who was to put in a memorable performance tormenting from the inside-left – played a one-two from the edge of the area and struck well only to be denied by Ibarbo’s outstretched arm. Eight minutes later and this time on the right, Vidangossy swung in a left-footed cross that the Uruguayan forward Diego Cháves headed low, but which Ibarbo managed to stop, committing his best save. Also, on the half-hour mark Ibarbo had a somewhat easier time diving to catch Jason Silva’s right-footed effort from just outside the area, which perhaps needed a little more pace on it.

However, despite this, the Zamora goalkeeper was not always to be such a reassuring presence, as he had already demonstrated with a few lapses in his handling and judgements which, unfortunately for his side, were only to increase in frequency as the game wore on. Indeed, at the end of the half, Ibarbo was to mis-time a free-kick lofted into the area, which resulted in a scramble that was prodded goalwards and, fortunately for the man in gloves, cleared off the line by a defender. Barely a minute afterwards, a cross came in that the Argentine defender Andrés Escudero headed no more than an inch of two wide from a promising position.

Through no fault of his own, Ibarbo was helpless when faced with this effort but he certainly did not cover himself in glory with the chance beforehand. Nevertheless, the score was still level at the break and, with the home crowd having grown increasingly agitated, there was certainly some hope amongst the Zamora faithful that their side could continue to frustrate in the second half. Yet for this to occur, they would need the more heroic side of their goalkeeper to come to the fore – an idle daydream that the man himself ensured they woke up from within a minute of the restart.

Indeed, Ibarbo’s early hapless attempt to collect Diego Torres’ cross from the left allowed Cháves to beat him to the ball and head home for the sudden opener. Immediately, home nerves were calmed and the sense of urgency cooled somewhat. Yet despite this, the Venezuelans never looked at any point like getting a goal throughout the second half, with instead Palestino looking as if they knew that they could increase their lead and were just choosing their time when to do so.

Before they did, they were to have a couple more notable chances, with the first of which on 57 minutes merely further diminishing Ibarbo’s chances of playing ahead of Forero on a regular basis. Again, he failed to collect a free-kick, which fell to an attacker but, being back-to-goal and acting on impulse, they could only hook the ball back into the flailing goalkeeper’s arms. Ibarbo did better with the next opportunity seven minutes later, as a low ball came in from the left that was met by Cháves yet, being no more than a few yards away from the goalkeeper, his sidefoot lacked the necessary direction and was blocked.

Four minutes later, when the second goal arrived, rather than the shortcomings of the goalkeeper, it was more those of the defence that it highlighted. Indeed, from the left, half-time substitute Leonardo Valencia hit a right-footed ball at pace into the area that was half-dealt with by a defender. It headed back from when it came, yet rather than being cleared by Luis Melo, it was instead stolen by the incoming Valencia, who strode in front of the Zamora player and struck a fine shot into the top corner.

If, in the unlikely event, there were any doubts regarding the outcome of this affair, this is where they were put to the bed and/or sectioned. Palestino’s supremacy was clear and the two goals they got late on were no more than a fair reflection of the overall play. The first came when an exquisite ball that glided from the outside of Vidangossy’s boot played through Valencia, who simply squared it to Cháves in the middle for a tap-in. A couple of minutes later, it was to be Vidangossy who sensationally completed the rout when a corner was cleared and then diverted into his path on the edge of the area. Here, without requiring a first touch, he unleashed a rather cultured golazo to cap off what was a man of the match performance.

Thus, 4-0 it ended and for now, at least, Palestino find themselves level on points with Montevideo Wanderers, who they no doubt hope will be on the receiving end of a sizeable reversal in their upcoming game with Boca Juniors. Next week, it will be the Chileans’ turn to face the Argentine giants in the final decisive round of fixtures, which will also see their rivals from Uruguay travelling to Venezuela to play Zamora who are, of course, already out with a dismal record of five consecutive defeats. While no doubt there will be some pressure to at least give their fans something to smile about, even a victory will not be able to mask the significant failings of Venezuelan domestic football.

Nevertheless, though not one win has yet to be achieved this year in 12 Copa Libertadores group games, for those who still possess the necessary stomachs, be sure to continue to follow the campaigns of the three participating Venezuelan sides – Zamora, Deportivo Táchira and Mineros de Guayana – on this website as well as on @DarrenSpherical.

Darren Spherical

@DarrenSpherical

Zamora FC 1-5 Boca Juniors – 2015 Copa Libertadores Group 5 (17 March 2015)

Tuesday 17 March 2015

2015 Copa Libertadores Group 5

Zamora FC 1-5 Boca Juniors

Estadio Agustín Tovar, Barinas

Video Highlights of Zamora 1-5 Boca Juniors, 2015 Copa Libertadores, 17 March 2015 (courtesy of YouTube user Boca Juniors +HD – TV)

Zamora’s Early Optimism Dashed by Second-Half Turnaround

Despite having left some big names in Buenos Aires, for the second time in six days Boca Juniors put five goals past the Venezuelan champions and thus maintained their 100 per cent record at the top of Group 5. 

Internationally capped players Dani Osvaldo (Italy), Nicolás Lodeiro (Uruguay), Fernando Gago and Agustín Orión (both Argentina) were the most notable absentees, though there was plenty of quality on hand to administer another hiding.

However, despite what the scoreline may suggest, it was not to be all one-way for the visitors as, following a lacklustre opening period, they were to go into the half-time interval a goal down. Indeed, Zamora came out of the blocks displaying far more attacking intent in the opening quarter of an hour than they showed in the entirety of the encounter at La Bombonera.

In the 18th minute, a shot from outside the area by Yordan Osorio was poorly spilled by deputy goalkeeper Guillermo Sara to Jhon Murillo, who instinctively nudged it past him and then ensured it crossed the line. Replays showed that the high-rated 19-year-old – who was returning, having missed the last two Libertadores games due to suspension – aided the ball’s trajectory with the use of his lower arm, something that he seemingly referenced when pointing to it while celebrating in front of the cameras. Afterwards, some Boca players did mount some protests but like those that followed a rather handy goal by their most famous son in the Estadio Azteca in 1986, they were to no avail.

In terms of entertainment, the rest of the half offered very little with Boca struggling to get back into the game and it was actually their hosts who looked marginally the more likelier to score the next goal. Indeed, with just under five minutes remaining until the break, defender Edwin Peraza rose high to head a corner against the crossbar, with the ball then falling kindly for Sara to catch.

For the Argentines, this state of affairs was unacceptable and so changes were swiftly made in anticipation for the second half. Manager Rodolfo Arruabarrena took off both Franco Cristaldo and Fabián Monzon, replacing them with Gonzalo Castellani and Nicolás Colazo – the latter of whom was to be arguably the stand-out player in the subsequent proceedings.

Arruabarrena did not have to wait long to see his charges heed his no doubt stern half-time words as seven minutes after the restart they were level. Chilean international José Fuenzalida – who has been called up for the upcoming friendlies with Iran and Brazil – slid through Juan Manuel Martínez, whose run was not tracked, allowing ‘El Burrito’ to sneak in and niftily dink it over Álvaro Forero. Some Zamora defenders immediately appealed for an offside decision that rightfully was never going to come and this was to be the last time their side displayed any real fight as things were to rapidly descend downhill.

Just a few minutes later, captain Luis Vargas crudely brought to a halt a counter-attack spearheaded by Federico Carrizo and was to receive his second yellow card in quick succession (his second red card in less than 40 days). Capitalising with brutal efficiency on the man advantage, the two Boca substitutes combined from the subsequent free-kick on the edge of the area as Castellani laid the ball to Colazo who struck a low shot through the wall to put his side ahead.

In the 71st minute, Colazo’s left foot was to again make its mark, this time with the goal of the game as from just outside the the area on the left, he struck a fine shot that glided in the air, ultimately soaring into the far corner. 3-1 and no doubt a game to remember for the 24-year-old who, barring a brief loan spell, has spent his entire career on the books at La Bombonera.

A few minutes later, Andrés Chávez came off the bench and within no time extended the visitors’ lead. Jonathan Calleri nudged him through and, as was becoming frequently the case for many on his side, found himself free with no one near him. He thus strode towards the area where Forero came far off his line only to see the ball duly slid around him into the goal. Chávez, a promising player who was embroiled in a salacious scandal last year involving him allegedly sharing a night with a transvestite, has yet to feature so far in the 30-team domestic league. However, this was the second time that he has found the net in this year’s Libertadores – a respectable example of a player taking the chances that are afforded to him, something that unfortunately could not be said about his strike-partner Calleri.

Indeed, though not on the same scale as Dani Osvaldo in last week’s meeting between the two sides, Calleri was to miss at least three presentable chances in this game, two of which followed hot on the heels of Chávez’s goal. Nevertheless, at just 21 years of age and having already scored a remarkable chip in the league this season, Boca fans will surely maintain faith that he will be able to improve his composure when in scoring positions in the future.

The fifth and final goal of this rout came with virtually the final kick of the match as Marcelo Meli drove forward inside the area before chipping a short ball into the centre where Martínez was afforded the space to hit an acrobatic bicycle kick into the back of the net.

By the time the final whistle had blown, some Zamora fans had already left, with others, irrespective of the calibre of the opposition, staying to voice their anger at their team. The first-half performance seemed to offer them the very viable possibility of a famous victory being secured here, but that optimism was to be rapidly crushed as it became evident that their illustrious visitors had simply not been utilising all their available gears.

Four defeats out of four then for Zamora and now six points away from second spot with a dismal goal difference of -11, the Venezuelan league leaders can consider themselves out of the competition. They will be playing for pride in their two remaining games against Chile’s Palestino and Uruguay’s Montevideo Wanderers. Boca, by contrast, are looking unstoppable – even if the draw has been generous to them – with this game demonstrating that they have a big enough squad to continue to rest players in their last two group matches and still gain positive results.

Nevertheless, while this year’s Copa Libertadores has certainly highlighted the shortcomings of the Venezuelan domestic game, for further updates on their representatives – Zamora FC, Deportivo Táchira and Mineros de Guayana – please check back here.

Darren Spherical

@DarrenSpherical

Zamora FC 0-1 C.D. Palestino – 2015 Copa Libertadores Group 5 (26 February 2015)

Thursday 26 February 2015

2015 Copa Libertadores Group 5

Zamora FC 0-1 C.D. Palestino

Estadio Agustín Tovar, Barinas

Match Highlights of Zamora FC 0-1 C.D. Palestino, 2015 Copa Libertadores, 26 February 2015 (YouTube user MXFS Venezuela).

Suspension-Hit Venezuelans Test the Woodwork but Remain Pointless

Despite being without three players who received suspensions in their entertaining opening-day game, Venezuelan champions Zamora put in a spirited display but were nevertheless sunk by Alejandro Márquez’s first-half strike.

Missing following red cards in the 3-2 loss to Montevideo Wanderers were defenders Ángel Faría, Luis Ovalle and, perhaps most significantly, attacking winger Jhon Murillo (who has recently been linked to Torino). It was the Colombian Johan Arenas who took his spot on the right-hand side of the attack and he was to prove an adequate replacement on the night, having occasional success running at defenders and being the catalyst behind several chances. The first of these came after nine minutes when, after running into the area on the right, he cut onto his left to curl a shot that was parried out to Yeferson Soteldo who missed a gilt-edged opportunity, heading onto the crossbar when the goal beckoned. Unfortunately for the promising 17-year-old, this was not to be his only memorable miss of the game.

On balance, the play was rather even in the first half with the Chileans at times edging affairs. One moment that caused the home crowd to inhale their breath came just before the half-hour mark as Diego Rosende’s cross from the right was met at the near post by 36-year-old Renato Ramos (formerly of the fabulously named Lota Schwager), who headed little more than a yard wide.

Soon after, the host’s Pierre Pluchino had a fine effort from outside the area skilfully tipped over by Chilean Under-20 2013 World Cup goalkeeper Dario Melo, but just before the stroke of half-time the side founded by Palestinian immigrants took the lead. Indeed, breaking the deadlock was another former Under-20 international, Alejandro Márquez, who, upon receiving a lay-off from Ramos, struck home low from the edge of the area.

In the second-half, Zamora turned things up a notch or two and were to have the better of the chances, with the very first coming a mere three minutes after the restart. From a central position, Venezuela international Luis Vargas chipped the ball into the area where defender Dustin Valdez climbed high to head into the middle where, initially in space, Edson Mendoza struggled to get the ball out of his feet and was soon crowded out. Had this been a deadly centre-forward rather than a defender receiving this knock-down, it is likely that the game would have been level at this point.

The Chileans always looked to have the potential to break and add to their lead, but the two best remaining opportunities fell to the hosts and, more specifically, young Soteldo. Firstly, with little over 15 minutes left he played a one-two and then toe-poked a shot from just inside the area against the outside of the post. Then, with seven minutes left, half-time substitute Ricardo Clarke beat the Melo to a long ball played up the left channel and then, with the goalkeeper out of position, quickly managed to pass to Soteldo in the centre. However, despite the goal largely being unguarded aside from Paulo Díaz – a man with a solitary Chile cap earned in a recent friendly with USA – the young Venezuelan was unable to compose himself and instead hit it straight at the defender.

While to some he may have squandered a hat-trick – and, indeed, he probably should have scored at least one, if not two – Yeferson Soteldo was nevertheless a lively presence and, given his age, hopefully will have plenty of future opportunities to gain confidence and demonstrate his true potential.

Despite continued pressure, Zamora were unable to find an equaliser and will feel that an opportunity was missed here. They may have four games left to play and qualification is certainly not out of the question at this stage, but winning this home tie would have been high up their list of priorities, if not at the very top.

Palestino, to their credit, will be pleased to have got off the mark with this win and will travel next to the Uruguayan capital to face Montevideo Wanderers, a game which looks rather tough to call with both sides on three points having attained narrow victories over Zamora. The next task of the the Venezuelans, on the hand, is altogether more difficult as they will find themselves at La Bombonera facing Boca Juniors. The Argentine giants are the only side in the group who have the maximum 6 points following a 2-1 victory over Wanderers, in which Southampton-loanee Dani Osvaldo – less than 24 hours after allegations about his private life emerged – rose to head in the winner and his first goal for the club.

This game will be reported on here and so as always, for more updates on the Libertadores campaign of Zamora as well as those of their fellow Venezuelan sides – Deportivo Táchira and Mineros de Guayana – please check back and/or visit @DarrenSpherical.

Darren Spherical

@DarrenSpherical 

Montevideo Wanderers 3-2 Zamora FC – 2015 Copa Libertadores Group 5 (17 February 2015)

Tuesday 17 February 2015

2015 Copa Libertadores Group 5

Montevideo Wanderers 3-2 Zamora FC

Estadio Gran Parque Central, Montevideo

Highlights of Montevideo Wanderers 3-2 Zamora FC, 2015 Copa Libertadores, 17 February 2015 (Video courtesy of YouTube user: xpertowinner)

Eight-Man Zamora Implode Against Nine-Man Wanderers

Five red cards, five goals that included a glorious 30-yard strike, a bowling-themed celebration Fred Flintstone would have been proud of, a lollipop-sucking manager, frequent petulant fouls, violent conduct – this game certainly catered to popular stereotypes of South American football. 

In a match that could be praised as entertaining as much as it could be dismissed as farcical, Zamora contrived to snatch defeat from the jaws of what was threatening to look like an impressive victory – an all-too-common occurrence at all levels of Venezuelan football.

Hosted at the home of Wanderers’ more illustrious cross-city rivals Nacional, the reigning Venezuelan champions made the more positive start, with a shot going close from 19-year-old winger Jhon Murillo, a definite talent who may find himself abroad by the end of the year.

Zamora edged the opening exchanges but, in the first of many setbacks, experienced defender Ángel Faría was given his marching orders after 21 minutes while receiving treatment for injuring himself after his dangerously high challenge on an opponent.

However, though Wanderers were initially buoyed by this turn of events, any hopes that Zamora would cautiously revert to defensive measures were soon quashed just five minutes later. A poor clearance was blocked by Murillo in midfield, which then fell kindly for the pacy attacker allowing him to break as he raced all the way into the area to slot home the opener. This goal occurred in a memorable week for the youngster, coming as it did six days after he scored after 37 seconds on his international debut.

Zamora were further emboldened soon after on the half-hour mark as opponent Adrián Colombino levelled up the numbers by receiving his second yellow for a mis-timed challenge. With Wanderers now having to re-organise, the Venezuelans continued to embark on attacks but as the half was drawing to its close, their hosts began to claw their way back into the game, eventually striking just before the intermission. Maximiliano Olivera, a left-back who featured at 2011’s U20 World Cup, crossed first-time from his desginated side of the pitch into the area where forward Gastón Rodriguez sidefooted a shot past Álvaro Forero, who will be disappointed not to have blocked it.

Soon after the second period commenced, Zamora narrowly survived a scare in the goalmouth as a header was cleared off the line. Then, in the 54th minute, defensive-midfielder Arles Flores roamed forward and, from around 30 yards out on the inside-right, restored the visitors’ lead by unleashing an unstoppable strike that darted into the top corner.

A moment to savour no doubt, but not one Flores was going to let drift away routinely without first commemorating accordingly. Indeed, immediately after scoring he ran to pick up the ball from the net and implored his team-mates to all stand in a line, six of whom duly obliged including a substitute. Defender Luis Ovalle also made a hasty jog to stand on the end of this ensemble but was deemed by Flores to be too late, causing him to hide his disappointment in a manner no more convincing than that of a man who has just ran to catch a bus only to watch on as it departs despite him being in full view of the driver’s rear-view mirror. Having not made the final cut, he missed out on twinkletoes Flores bowling the ball at his team-mates, who all duly fell to the floor in near-precise unison to complete a wonderfully choreographed celebration that has since received attention far outside of the South American continent.

Arles Flores’ stunning goal and team celebration for Zamora FC away to Montevideo Wanderers, Copa Libertadores, 17 February 2015 (Courtesy of YouTube user: FootballManiaChannel).

Manager Julio Quintero watched on admiringly throughout all of this, emitting something approaching a smile with his lollipop-congested chops. Almost immediately afterwards, his charges nearly extended their lead as Murillo hit a stunning shot from 25 yards that left goalkeeper Leonardo Burián rooted to his spot, sailing over his head only to rebound off the crossbar. Subsequently, for the next 20 minutes both sides duked it out in what became a rather open, end-to-end encounter, in which Zamora looked as likely to go 3-1 up as they were to be pegged back.

However, with an impressive win in sight, things began to unravel in a wearily familiar fashion for the Venezuelans. Attempting to deal with a long ball, Panama international Ovalle badly misjudged the whereabouts of the predatory substitute Leandro Reymundez and when the Uruguayan suddenly emerged in front of him in the area, the Zamora defender rashly opted to haul him down. Straight away Ovalle knew he was going to pick up his second yellow card and revert his side back to a man-disadvantage. Nicolás Albarracín, a forward who missed the decisive penalty in the shootout for the title against Danubio back in June, stepped up and this time held his nerve to put the side from the Uruguayan capital back on level terms.

The hosts suddenly scented victory and it did not take them long to go ahead for the first time in the game, as with eight minutes remaining Albarracín turned provider with a fine left-footed cross from the right that Reymundez deftly glanced home. As the clock ticked away, Zamora looked more likely to concede than score – no more so than when, with a minute of regulation time left, substitute Yuri Galli blasted a fine effort against the post for Wanderers.

Deep into stoppage-time, both sides saw their respective on-field personnels diminished further as the hosts’ Juan Mascia and the visitors’ star man Murillo received their marching orders, seemingly for an altercation as well as some choice words. Many Uruguayans may feel this was belated justice for Murillo as just under a month prior in their homeland he was undeservedly kept on the pitch in a South American Youth Championship match. Indeed, in farcical circumstances, Venezuela’s Under-20s managed to hold onto a 1-0 victory over Uruguay’s youngsters after Murillo played a leading role in getting an opposition equaliser ruled out after he subjected the timid referee to sustained intimidation.

When the whistle went in Parque Central, Venezuelan promise had once again been converted into a sour aftertaste as the Wanderers of Montevideo recorded a 3-2 victory to end what had been a 13-game undefeated streak for Zamora. The Uruguayans will now surely have a spring in their step ahead of next week’s daunting encounter away to Boca Juniors.

Chile’s Palestino – who Boca defeated 2-0 the following day – will be Zamora’s next opponents in what is already looking like a must-win game if either side is to have much confidence of reaching the knock-out stage. The Venezuelans will now have to contest this game at their Agustín Tovar stadium with three players out suspended. Given the quality of Murillo’s performance, one would presume his absence will be a debilitating blow, though hope may not be entirely lost as it is a curious fact that the majority of his side’s impressive domestic run occurred while he was away on Under-20 duty.

Irrespective of what happens, be sure to check back onto this site or follow @DarrenSpherical for more updates on the Copa Libertadores campaigns of Zamora and their fellow Venezuelan sides, Deportivo Táchira and Mineros de Guayana.

Darren Spherical

@DarrenSpherical

Copa Libertadores Preview: Deportivo Táchira Join Zamora and Mineros de Guayana on the Grandest Stage

Tonight (17 February) may see Europe’s Champions League return for its knock-out phase, but in South America (and Mexico), attention will be very much on the inauguration of the Group Stage of the 2015 Copa Libertadores, the premier club competition.

Interest will be particularly high in Venezuela, the nation whose clubs have historically made the least impact in this tournament. For the first ever time since the round of play-off qualifiers was introduced in 2005, the continent’s traditional underdogs will be represented by their full quota of three teams, as Zamora (2013-14 champions) and Mineros de Guayana (2013-14 runners-up & Apertura winners) will be joined by Deportivo Táchira (3rd in 2013-14 aggregate table, behind the other two qualifiers).

Highlights of Cerro Porteño 2-2 Deportivo Táchira (3-4 aggregate), 11 February 2015, Copa Libertadores First Round.

(Video courtesy of YouTube user: Enfermos X el fútbol)

Deportivo Táchira’s Asunción Ascension

Táchira, who as well as making four appearances at this stage in the past ten years have also been unsuccessful in each of the three previous times that they have contested the play-off round, finally overcame this hurdle last week when they defeated Cerro Porteño. Perhaps being rivalled only by Palestino of Chile knocking out Uruguay’s three-time winners Nacional as the biggest surprise of the preliminaries, the side from the eponymous state on the Colombian border drew 2-2 in Asunción, thus claiming a memorable 4-3 aggregate victory

Before the first leg was contested on 4 February, the six-time semi-finalists from Paraguay were considered comfortable favourites to progress. Táchira, however, gave short shrift to the supposed script as it took no more than 12 minutes for 34-year-old Argentine Javier López – a recent recruit from Zamora FC – to head in the fine set-piece delivery of 32-year-old erstwhile Venezuela international César ‘Maestrico’ González. Rather than sitting back, San Cristóbal’s finest absorbed and were further invigorated by the raucous atmosphere of a well-populated Pueblo Nuevo and seven minutes later, the fans were to witness a goal that undoubtedly lived up to the significance of the occasion. Maintaining the theme of experience, this came from the much-travelled 37-year-old Jorge Rojas, a recent acquisition from one of the capital’s smaller sides, Metropolitanos, as well as being La Vinotinto‘s third highest-capped player of all-time. Upon receiving a throw-in, Rojas demonstrated why he is known as ‘El Zurdo’, as he let the ball roll into his stride and unleashed an unstoppable left-footed strike from over 30 yards that fizzed in the air before going in off the underside of the crossbar.

A goal surely fit to grace any stadium in the world and a fine example of the strength in depth that exists in this competition. Not to be outdone, five minutes after the restart Cerro were to get what proved to be their consolation and seemingly vital away goal, with a strike that left many impartial observers unsure as to which was the finest of the game. This was a swerving 30-yard free-kick from Jonathan Fabbro, an Argentina-born Paraguay international who has represented clubs in six countries within Latin America and who, at 33 years of age, was well on-message with this game’s theme.

Thus, with an away goal to their name and home advantage for the decisive tie on 11 February to look forward to, Cerro returned to the Paraguayan capital confident that a group berth awaited. When, with 40 minutes on the clock, Fabbro again got on the scoresheet – this time via a dubiously awarded penalty – many home nerves dissipated as now Táchira were compelled to attack in order to avoid elimination, thus leaving them vulnerable on the counter. Yet, while at times the Venezuelans rode their luck, from the very first minute they always looked like they were capable of posing a threat, not to mention a surprise or two, the first of which they delivered on 55 minutes. Gelmin Rivas, the club’s leading goalscorer with 11 goals in 17 league games, followed up the good work of Pablo Olivera – recently acquired from Uruguay’s second tier – to hold off defenders and adeptly side-foot home.

The onus was thus back on the hosts and to their credit, they required little more than five minutes to regain the lead with that man Fabbro again involved in the goal, albeit this time as supplier. He did well on the right of the area to shrug off some challenges before chipping a fine cross into the area that local youngster Cecilio Domínguez chested and dispatched with a consummate ease that belied his 20 years.

However, as the Asunción crowd began pondering whether or not extra-time would be necessary, Rivas abruptly rendered any such musings academic, stunning the home faithful within a minute of the restart. The striker, who was linked with a possible move to Standard Liège or Club Brugge in January, picked up the ball 30 yards out and evaded a challenge to hit a low bouncing shot from the right edge of the area into the bottom far corner. 2-2, the local scoreboard now alarmingly read. Although the goalkeeper Rodolfo Rodríguez probably should have parried this shot away, any anger felt by the home fans had to be suppressed as this sensationally swift turn of events meant that their side now had to frantically get their act together and score twice in just under half an hour.

As it panned out, while Cerro did have the bulk of the remaining chances, Táchira were to resist and hold on, thus not only qualifying for the group stage but also managing to avoid defeat against a side that had reached this very phase in four of the past five years.

Although it is unlikely that fans of Táchira’s El Clásico foes Caracas FC share the following sentiments, it must be said that as this second leg victory was immediately followed by the national team’s second successive win over Honduras in a week, for many Venezuelan football fans this was certainly a day to be savoured.

Previews of Venezuela’s 3 Teams in the 2015 Copa Libertadores

deportivotachira

Deportivo Táchira

With the confidence gained from their impressive win against Cerro Porteño coupled with their return to form in the early stages of Venezuela’s Torneo Clausura, Los Aurinegros should feel that advancing from Group 8 (of 8) is not beyond their capabilities. Indeed, while the encounter with Argentine champions Racing and their strike-force of Diego Milito and Gustavo Bou may cause the most butterflies, their games against Peruvian champions Sporting Cristal and another Paraguayan side, Guaraní, now seem, by comparison, manageable.

Coach Daniel Farías will certainly be hoping his side does not experience a similarly disastrous decline in form that befell them in the 18-team Torneo Apertura when they contrived to fall from 1st at the midway point to a final position of 11th.  To avert this, the form of various key players will be crucial: goalkeeper Alan Liebeskind, who has made a strong impression since joining at the beginning of the Clausura; young centre-back Wilker Ángel, who can chip in with more than his fair share of goals from set-pieces and who may well be heading abroad later in the year; playmaker César González, whose set-pieces and link-up play will be vital, as will be those of Jorge Rojas, though how much of the campaign the latter will feature in at his age remains to be seen; another dead-ball specialist, albeit one surely not concerned with stamina issues is young, creative livewire Yohandry Orozco, a man who will want to use this opportunity to display to a wide audience some of the talent that gained him recognition four years ago; the service of the likes of Orozco, Rojas, González and, to an extent, Pablo Olivera, will need to be spot-on in order for striker Gelmin Rivas to have a prosperous tournament, being as he is in the main a penalty-area predator.

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Zamora FC

Before Táchira get their campaign underway with a home game against Racing, the 2013-14 champions of Venezuela will be ushering in their nation’s participation in the tournament with an away game against Montevideo Wanderers. Their Uruguayan opponents will be hosting this encounter at Parque Central, the home of their more illustrious cross-city neighbours, Nacional, whose qualifying-round conquerors Palestino – a Chilean side originally set up by Palestinian immigrants – are the third side in Group 5. The final team is Argentine giants Boca Juniors who, having raised eyes and expectations with the recruitment of Uruguayan international Nicolás Lodeiro, Málaga midfielder Pablo Pérez and striker Dani Osvaldo, promise to be the dominant threat.

Zamora may have won last season’s championship but, as is often the case in South America, they were victims of their own success. Consequently, key individuals were swiftly snapped up by all and sundry, such as midfielder Pedro Ramírez (FC Sion), leading goalscorer Juan Falcón (FC Metz) and, most significantly, manager Noel Sanvicente (Venezuela national team). They thus began the Torneo Apertura campaign in August disastrously, not picking up a win in their first 11 games and finding themselves rooted to the bottom. However, their form was to undergo a remarkable U-turn as their final six games ended with five wins and a draw, salvaging some pride with a final position of 12th. This reversal in fortunes has impressively and, with the reputation of Venezuelan football on the continental stage in mind, thankfully, continued into the second half of the domestic season, as they currently sit 1st in the Torneo Clausura, with four wins and two draws – unbeaten in a total of 13 games.

Key to continuining this impressive transformation under coach Julio Quintero will be the performance of the defence, which has four clean sheets in the past six games and now features some new faces as well as the likes of Panama international Luis Ovalle and the long-serving Moisés Galezo. Other players whose roles will be crucial include deep-lying playmaker, set-piece taker and occasional shield Luis Vargas, as well as fellow midfield stalwart Arles Flores; with his dribbles down the flanks as well as the inroads he makes infield, temperamental-yet-gifted 19-year-old Jhon Murillo – who had an unsuccessful trial with Basel last year – will certainly be hoping to make an impression, as well as chip in with some goals; the man who has been on target the most for the champions and who was the catalyst behind their return to form is attacking midfielder/support-striker Pierre Pluchino, whose elegant creativity and finishing will be crucial; lastly, Santiago Bello, a striker with an impressive record recently brought in from the Uruguayan second tier in advance of the Libertadores – so far yet to start a game, but from whom goals are anticipated.

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Mineros de Guayana

The 2013 Torneo Apertura winners and overall runners-up for 2013-14 have thus far had a rather mediocre season, sacking Richard  Páez (the well-respected former national team manager from 2001-07) and ending the most recent Apertura in 6th place. Their uninspiring form has continued into the Clausura as they sit in 11th place, having played six games – one, and in some cases, two, more than the vast of majority of the sides around them.

Thus, of Venezuela’s three representatives, Mineros are currently heading into this tournament with the worst form. However, they may be able to boost morale ahead of their official entrance into the competition as they will be involved in another league game before they play their opening Libertadores match next week on Tuesday 24 February away to Argentine side Huracán (Update 24/2/15: this game against Estudiantes de Mérida did not take place due to the tragic death of club captain Carlos de Castro. Mineros now find themselves 12th in the table). This newly promoted club – who qualified by virtue of winning the Copa Argentina – will certainly be no pushover, as evidenced by their comfortable 4-0 play-off round win over Peru’s Alianza Lima. The other two sides that will be contesting Group 3 are champions of their respective countries: Club Universitario of Bolivia and Cruzeiro of Brazil, the latter of whom, despite some post-season departures, will be firm favourites and who now count Leandro Damião and Uruguayan prospect Giorgian De Arrascaeta amongst their ranks.

The success or otherwise of Mineros will depend largely on players who have mostly performed at a standard markedly lower than they did last season suddenly raising their game, however unlikely that may seem. Their side consists of many individuals who regularly receive call-ups to the national squad, such as goalkeeper Rafael Romo who, judging by his inaction in the recent Venezuela friendlies, finds himself demoted from second to third choice; Gabriel Cichero who, though certainly not without his critics, is Venezuela’s first-choice left-back and who also possesses attacking qualities, particularly on set-pieces; the two defence-minded midfielders Rafael Acosta and Édgar Jiménez also have their attacking merits, but when playing for the national side have largely been panned, particularly when they were both regularly left for dead in November’s 5-0 thrashing handed out by Chile; striker Richard Blanco recently played and scored a tap-in against Honduras but, as this was a squad of home-based players, he is unlikely to get a regular call-up; depending on form, the Colombian duo of Zamir Valoyes and James Cabezas may well find themselves sidelining Blanco; Cabezas was brought in from recent Apertura winners Trujillanos (where he scored 10 goals in 16 games), along with defender Edixon Cuevas, yet rather than boost the squad, both have thus far struggled to replicate the form they displayed at their old club. As a final consideration, it will be interesting to see how former Venezuela international defender Luis Vallenilla copes against the pace of the likes of Cruzeiro, given that he turns 41 in March.

Venezuelans Flying the Flag: More Bonuses

If following the three clubs was not enough for Venezuelan football fans, there are also some other compatriots who will be competing in this year’s edition for Colombian sides. Luis Manuel Seijas, a left-sided attacking midfielder who features regularly for the national side will be playing for 2014 Torneo Finalización champions Independiente Santa Fe. They have been drawn in Group 1 and their very first match comes tonight away to Mexico’s Atlas after the second game of interest – Táchira’s – has finished – a long night is thus in store for all. The two other teams in their group are 2014 Copa do Brasil winners Atlético Mineiro and last year’s Chilean Clausura winners, Colo-Colo.

In Group 7, Colombia’s 2014 Apertura winners Atlético Nacional should field another Venezuelan international midfielder, Alejandro Guerra. Also in their ranks is Jonathan Copete, a Colombian in origin but who has been in talks for some time now with Venezuelan national boss Noel Sanvicente about naturalisation and who could well feature in future national team squads at some point this year. Irrespective of how his international aspirations pan out, both men come into this competition with strong continental experience, having been part of their side’s run to the final of December’s Copa Sudamericana, in which they were runners-up to River Plate. Their first Libertadores match will be on Thursday 19 February and will be possibly their sternest test, being as it is against Paraguay’s 2014 Apertura and Clausura winners, Libertad. Their other two opponents are Ecuador’s championship runners-up Barcelona and Argentina’s Estudiantes de la Plata, whose President regular Argentine football fans will know is club legend Juan Sebastián Verón. While this is a far from straightforward group to negotiate, Guerra and Copete will fancy their chances of qualifying for the knock-out stage.

Although the general consensus is that the two Colombian sides featuring Venezuelans have more chance of progressing than the three domestic teams, one can not help but feel that no matter what happens, many memorable moments will occur this year for Venezuelan football fans to recall fondly for some time afterwards. It is going to be an enthralling tournament which should be covered as much as possible from a Venezuelan perspective on this site.

Now, that is more than enough talking – let’s get the caffeine ready and prepare for some long nights of top-level action!

Darren Spherical

@DarrenSpherical