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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

Racing de Avellaneda 3-2 Deportivo Táchira – 2015 Copa Libertadores Group 8 (14 April 2015)

Tuesday 14 April 2015

2015 Copa Libertadores Group 8

Racing de Avellaneda 3-2 Deportivo Táchira

 Estadio Presidente Juan Domingo Perón, Avellaneda, Buenos Aires

Goal Highlights of Racing de Avellaneda 3-2 Deportivo Táchira, 2015 Copa Libertadores, 14 April 2015 (courtesy of YouTube user xpertowinner)

Rare Venezuelan Optimism Cruelly Dashed Following Late Blunder

Despite already being out of this year’s Copa Libertadores, Venezuela’s Deportivo Táchira nearly pulled off a shock victory against the Argentine champions but were to ultimately be denied by a comeback painfully completed at the death.

Given the significance of seeding in the draw for the knock-out phase and the fact that the hosts had yet to confirm their position at the top of group, they certainly had good reason to go for victory here in their final group game. However, perhaps their 5-0 demolition of their opponents in San Cristóbal back in February was a little too fresh in their memories as while they enjoyed much of the ball in the first half, clear chances were in short supply. Indeed, although Iván Pillud on the right and, more centrally, the likes of Washington Camacho, Óscar Romero, Diego Milito and Gustavo Bou, played the ball around a lot in the final third, they tended to either lack the killer pass or were blocked off by a wall-cum-gauntlet of Táchira players. The closest they came in the first half-hour was when the competition’s top-scorer Bou was played through on 18 minutes but goalkeeper José Contreras raced out to block him off. He was, in any event, offside.

Despite the general flow favouring the group leaders, the humble visitors still managed to make their presence known in the early stages, gaining free-kicks in promising positions and enjoying attacks down the flanks led by Yohandry Orozco and José Alí Meza. It was to be the latter, who has started less than half of his side’s league games and is more often used as an impact substitute, who opened the scoring after 30 minutes. To everyone’s surprise, not least that of the player who had hitherto only managed to find the net in the Copa Venezuela, he profited from some slack marking around the halfway line. He gained some space, dribbled down the inside-right channel while holding off two defenders, before completing what amounted to a 360-degree turn and striking home from the edge of the area.

This most certainly was not in the script. Though it should have served as a wake-up call for the hosts, little changed in the immediate aftermath. Their first real chance to get back in the game occurred in the 37th minute when a cross from Romero on the right reached Milito on the stretch at the back post but he was in such an acute position that he could only head into the side-netting. Their next effort of note was their best of the half and occurred just before the break. Bou received a pass on the right within the area and slapped a fine shot low across goal that Contreras did well to tip onto the far post. The ball rebounded out, narrowly avoiding an attacker, with the Venezuelans just about escaping and heading into the break with their unanticipated lead in tact.

While half-time for both sides must have involved drastically contrasting team-talks, these no doubt required rapid re-thinks less than five minutes after the restart. Incredibly, following on from a pass by César González, Meza managed to find the net again, nimbly evading a challenge before striking home a low effort at Saja’s near post to make it 2-0. Even though Táchira were effectively playing for nothing and Racing’s position in the group made their attitude towards the game questionable, the Venezuelans were nevertheless in dreamland. Leading the full-strength Argentine champions by two goals on their own turf is certainly not to be sniffed at and even taking into account the caveats, this was shaping up to be one of the finest Venezuelan moments in the Copa Libertadores.

Alas, it was not to be. The fightback began in the 58th minute when the widely admired strike-force of Gustavo Bou and Diego Milito combined, with the former receiving a diagonal ball then hitting a cross into the goalmouth for the ex-Inter Milan marksman to tap in.

With their lead halved, manager Daniel Farías soon made changes, the first of which was the surprising replacement of Meza with the less mobile Uruguayan forward Pablo Olivera. Not only had Meza scored twice in what was arguably the game of his life, but by chasing long-range balls and dribbling at the opposition’s back line, he was often playing a leading role in relieving the strain on the defence. With his withdrawal went such moments.

Instead, Racing ramped up the pressure, pitching their tents in the Venezuelan half. In the 67th minute substitute Brian Fernández must have rattled some nerves as much as he shattered the crossbar with a ferocious strike from 25 yards that was hit with such velocity that it rebounded well over 30 yards away from the goal. Denied, but not for long as three minutes later Bou drew his team level. A combination of opposing players headed on a corner to the competition’s top scorer and following a low strike at the near post, he increased his tally to seven goals in six matches.

With twenty minutes still left on the clock and the momentum with the hosts, Táchira were to offer very little going forward, content instead to aim for the reduced glory of a draw. As time wore on, Farías enhanced his reputation for unadventurous and unpopular substitutions, firstly taking off César González, who played the crucial passes that led to both goals and replaced him with 37-year-old Jorge Rojas. Then, with a couple of minutes left, top scorer Gelmin Rivas came on for pacey Yohandry Orozco, who had been playing a role not entirely dissimilar to that of Meza and who was also taken off in an earlier Libertadores game with Club Guaraní to widespread dismay.

Nevertheless, when the 90-minute mark was reached, the game was still 2-2 and owing to a combination of the resilience of the visitors and the lack of urgency of the hosts, Racing had not done much to further threaten the opposition goal. However, just seconds later, disaster struck. On the edge of the area, Fernández dipped a shoulder and quickly got a shot away that should have been comfortable for Contreras. However, to what will be the goalkeeper’s eternal horror, he did not get enough of his body behind the ball and it went under him, trickling agonisingly over the line. Racing, in little over half an hour, had completed the turnaround whereas Táchira, having done so well to confound expectations, ultimately were to go away empty handed and, particularly in the case of Contreras, permanently scarred.

Thus ended the 2015 Copa Libertadores campaign of Deportivo Táchira. Despite impressively qualifying for the competition following an aggregate win over solid Paraguayan outfit Cerro Porteño, they were to underwhelm in the group stage, gaining just three draws and no victories from their six games. Quite where this leaves Daniel Farías remains to be seen as, despite being under pressure after a dreadful 11th-placed finish in the Torneo Apertura, they are currently second in the Torneo Clausura and, with a handful of games left, could well emerge victorious.

A more thorough look at Táchira’s shortcomings should appear on this website soon after all three Venezuelan sides have completed their group matches so be sure to either check back here and/or follow @DarrenSpherical on Twitter to find out about that and much more.

Darren Spherical

@DarrenSpherical

Club Guaraní 5-2 Deportivo Táchira – 2015 Copa Libertadores Group 8 (10 March 2015)

Tuesday 10 March 2015

2015 Copa Libertadores Group 8

Club Guaraní 5-2 Deportivo Táchira

Estadio Defensores del Chaco, Asunción

Highlights of Club Guaraní 5-2 Deportivo Táchira, 2015 Copa Libertadores, 10 March 2015 (Video courtesy of YouTube user xpertowinner)

Tepid Táchira Sunk in Asunción

For the second time in three Libertadores group matches, Deportivo Táchira conceded five goals, leaving their already low chances of qualifying for the knock-out stage very much contingent upon next week’s return fixture in San Cristóbal. 

It did not take long for the Paraguayan Apertura leaders to announce their superiority as their early dominance led to a 10th-minute opener from Argentine Darío Ocampo. He finished off a move that started from a long ball down the right-flank that Julián Benítez easily beat left-back Yuber Mosquera to, before turning another defender and playing a low cross from the byline for Ocampo to lash home.

However, seven minutes later and against the run of play, Táchira were to surprise their hosts by getting back on level terms. Captain César González picked up the ball on the inside-left, before inching away from a player to strike a fine right-footed shot low into the bottom corner from 25 yards.

Though this goal marked an immediate improvement in the visitors’ morale and play, it was not to last as the hosts were to gradually return to dominate play, albeit without creating too many clear-cut chances. That is, until the last ten minutes of the half when they were to blitz their opponents with three goals in rapid succession. First, in a goal not entirely dissimilar from their opener, Jorge Mendoza blasted home in the centre a pass that was skilfully directed to him by Eduardo Filippini, following more good work from Benítez on the right. Then, after a cross came in again from the right, defender Carlos Rivero was adjudged to have hauled down striker Federico Santander and he himself stepped up to give his side a two-goal advantage. Barely 60 seconds then elapsed before another goal was added as the Táchira defence, no doubt reeling from the past few minutes, played a few hesistant passes between themselves 35 yards out, upon which the Paraguayans pounced. Indeed, some high pressing led to the ball being won and quickly released to Benítez in the area, who capped off a fine first-half performance by gaining space from defender Javier López to poke home a cultured shot. 4-1 the scoreboard read at half-time.

In such a perilous position, Táchira had a daunting task ahead of them in the second period but within five minutes of the restart were to go some way to getting back into the match from that most reliable source of hope for teams under the cosh: a set-piece. Captain César González lofted in a fine free-kick from the right that the Argentine centre-back López rose onto to head home.

However, though the play was more even for the subsequent ten minutes, the visitors were to needlessly and senselessly write themselves out of contention on the hour mark. Indeed, seemingly apropos of nothing, Agnel Flores, who had only been on the pitch for 15 minutes, appeared to elbow Santander in the middle of the field and was immediately given his marching orders.

The remaining half-hour was anything but a contest with the hosts dominating possession and largely conducting a long-range target practice session. For the eternal optimists, things briefly got interesting with eight minutes left when the hosts’ Tomás Bartomeus was sent off, thus evening up the playing field. Yet the Venezuelans were unable to take any initiative that may have been offered by this change in circumstances as it was the Paraguayans who were to get the next goal, thus confirming a victory that had rarely been in much doubt. This involved two late substitutes as a pass from Luis de la Cruz from the right towards the edge of the area was skipped over by a team-mate before Fernando Fernández managed to gain space from a defender before firing home a low strike.

Thus, for the second time in three games, the Venezuelans from the border state of Táchira were on the receiving end of a heavy defeat. With only one point, winning their next game – a home tie against the Paraguayans – is imperative and has been made all the more so following the surprise win of Peruvians Sporting Cristal away to Argentine champions Racing. The Venezuelans now find themselves rooted to the bottom of their group, with the Paraguayans on 4 points, the Peruvians on 5 and the Argentines on 6. Consequently, a win next week for Táchira, however unlikely it may currently seem, would certainly blast further wide this already rather open group.

Whether or not the Venezuelans are up to such a task remains to be seen, but irrespective of what happens, feel free to check back here and/or at @DarrenSpherical for further updates on the Copa Libertadores campaign of not only Deportivo Táchira but also those of Mineros de Guayana and Zamora FC.

Darren Spherical

@DarrenSpherical

Sporting Cristal 1-1 Deportivo Táchira – 2015 Copa Libertadores Group 8 (24 February 2015)

Tuesday 24 February 2015

2015 Copa Libertadores Group 8

Sporting Cristal 1-1 Deportivo Táchira

Estadio Alberto Gallardo, Lima

Highlights of Sporting Cristal 1-1 Deportivo Táchira, 2015 Copa Libertadores, 24 February 2015 (Video courtesy of YouTube user xpertowinner)

Liebeskind to the Rescue as Táchira Gain Morale-Boosting Point

In stoppage-time, Alan Liebeskind’s penalty-saving heroics came to the fore once again as the Venezuelans salvaged a late draw to gain their first point in this year’s Libertadores.

For the majority of this game, things were looking rather pessimistic for Táchira as they struggled to get a decent shot on target until around the hour-mark. Instead, in the opening exchanges, aside from a good long-range effort from Jorge Rojas that went a yard or two over, it was their Peruvian hosts who dominated possession, looking more assured on the ball and creating clearer chances. The first of these fell to Irven Ávila – a Peruvian international who has been very prolific at club level – though he was unable to guide his header either side of Liebeskind. Their next moment of note in the penalty area was the opening goal, which came on 27 minutes as Ávila slid a pass to 35-year-old Carlos Lobatón in acres of room on the edge of the area. Here, far too much time and space was afforded to him as his low right-footed strike was blocked by Liebeskind but rebounded straight back for the midfielder to put it away with his opposite foot.

For the remainder of the half, the hosts were to continue to exert their superiority, with two more notable efforts attempted, the first a low shot from Horacio Calcaterra that Liebeskind parried uncomfortably and the second from Ávila that went no more than a yard or two wide.

While still second-best, Táchira were to enjoy more forward forays after the interval. Within the first ten minutes of the restart, top-scorer Gelmin Rivas was played through by Rojas but was unable to get a shot away, then soon after narrowly missed a low ball put in by Yohandry Orozco, before the roles were reversed and Rivas knocked in a similar pass that his team-mate could not quite make contact with. Not long following this, the Venezuelans first attempt on goal came on 57 minutes when defender Javier López connected with a corner though his header was too close to Diego Penny. Regarding the Cristal goalkeeper, those with exceptionally good memories may or may not remember Penny making a solitary appearance just over five years ago in the English Premier League as well as in the Championship for Burnley.

Nevertheless, despite this bright start from the visitors, Cristal largely remained on top and came very close to extending their lead on 76 minutes when Uruguayan hotshot Sergio Blanco lashed a strike from an acute angle that Liebeskind did well to save with his trailing leg. Blanco was to have another opportunity a minute later as he headed a cross that the goalkeeper tipped over.

However, though the hosts had the better of the chances, Táchira were to level up the score with just a few minutes left on the clock when César González curled one of his patented 25-yard free-kicks over the wall, leaving Penny rooted to his spot.

Yet, in what was not entirely a surprise to observers of Venezuelan sides of all levels playing outside of their borders, their opponents were to receive some assistance in their hunt to regain the lead late on. Indeed, in stoppage-time the experienced Jorge Rojas was adjudged to have committed a foul in his own area. It seemed a little harsh as, to clear the ball, the highly capped international stretched out a raised leg which unfortunately caught substitute Diego Manicero who had dashed in from behind in a bid to win the ball. Nevertheless, the referee pointed to the spot, from which another substitute, Renzo Sheput – a 34-year-old with a couple of Peruvian caps to his name – fired a textbook left-footed strike towards the right-sided bottom corner that was spectacularly denied by Liebeskind. The goalkeeper, a mid-season signing from struggling Portuguesa in early January, parried it wide to make what was an astonishing third save from the five penalties he has faced since his move.

Thus, after last week’s 5-0 home humiliation by Argentine champions Racing, Táchira picked up a point that their performance perhaps did not quite merit but which, after Liebeskind’s late heroics, will have felt hard-fought. Their opponents will be disappointed but will have to quickly pick themselves up as they next travel to Buenos Aires to face Racing, whose attacking prowess showed no signs of abating as they despatched Paraguayans Guaraní 4-1 on the same night. In this game, Gustavo Bou achieved the extremely impressive feat of a second consecutive hat-trick, thus giving him six goals in two group games – already one more than the joint top-scorers of last season’s competition.

For their next game, Táchira will be away to Guaraní and as always, for more updates on their Libertadores campaign, as well as those of their fellow Venezuelan sides – Zamora FC and Mineros de Guayana – please check back here and/or visit @DarrenSpherical.

Darren Spherical

@DarrenSpherical

Deportivo Táchira 0-5 Racing Club de Avellaneda – 2015 Copa Libertadores Group 8 (17 February 2015)

Tuesday 17 February 2015

2015 Copa Libertadores Group 8

Deportivo Táchira 0-5 Racing Club de Avellaneda 

Polideportivo de Pueblo Nuevo, San Cristóbal

Highlights of Deportivo Táchira 0-5 Racing Club de Avellaneda, 2015 Copa Libertadores, 17 February 2015 (Video courtesy of YouTube user: xpertowinner)

Toothless Táchira Routed by Rampant Racing

After being lauded last week for making Venezuelan history by knocking out Cerro Porteño to qualify for the LibertadoresTáchira were handed a crushing reality check in their first group game as Racing’s dynamic partnership of Gustavo Bou and Diego Milito ran riot.

While Táchira always knew it was going to be a taxing encounter against the Argentine champions, at least keeping the scoreline respectable seemed an achievable aim – a task which they were to fail miserably at in front of a full-capacity Pueblo Nuevo.

As has been a recurring theme for Venezuelan sides at club and national level, while Los Aurinegros were not entirely overawed in the opening exchanges and enjoyed some attacks of their own, when their opponents made their first breakthrough, it did not take long for any game-plan to disintegrate. Indeed, before the opener, Táchira had managed to get forward, with Yohandry Orozco and Pablo Olivera in particular working the flanks, putting in some testing balls and causing some minor melees within the Racing area.

However, their forward forays were little to shout about in comparison to those of the Argentines who had nearly scored after three minutes when Orozco poked a clearance inches wide of his own goal and then on 14 minutes when Bou was granted space to drive a shot against the post. Bou perhaps should have finished off this opportunity, but he was to more than make up for this over the course of the game, starting with his involvement in the first goal. Indeed, in the 21st minute, from the left edge of the area he drove a grass-grazingly low free-kick into the crowd of players where it trickled through for Luciano Lollo to get the faintest of touches to direct it in between goalkeeper Alan Liebeskind’s legs. Although some Racing fans were on hand to greet the goal, an abrupt silence suddenly descended upon Pueblo Nuevo’s sea of yellow-and-black hordes, who were represented by twice the number that witnessed the home leg of the Cerro Porteño tie.

Subsequently, while the hosts did attempt to mount some of their own attacks, their more decorated opponents always looked the likelier to extend their lead, with midfielder Marcos Acuña forcing a decent Liebeskind parry from a 35-yard strike not long after the goal.

If there were any lingering doubts over this outcome, they were all but put to bed in the 40th minute when the second of Racing’s rout arrived, sensationally demonstrating the gulf between the two sides. In a fantastically worked move that started on the right, Acuña’s pass was dummied by Milito, who then ran into the area to receive Bou’s pass, only to return it back to his younger accomplice who controlled then fired home spectacularly from just inside the box.

Bou, who turned 25 less than a few hours after the game had ended, is something of a late developer, having been reared at River Plate where he failed to make his mark with the seniors or, to any noteworthy degree, on any of his three loan spells. When his River contract was not renewed and he was subsequently picked up by Racing last August, few were envisaging him becoming the club’s top scorer with 10 goals in 15 games, striking up a fine partnership with Milito that fired the side to their first title win since 2001.

The understanding between the pair was there for all to admire with this goal, but when the third went in after the break in the 53rd minute, it was entirely Bou’s to savour – much as goalkeeper Sebastián Saja and data analysts may wish to claim otherwise. Indeed, erstwhile Argentine international Saja – who was embarrassingly at fault at the weekend for the winning goal in Racing’s opening day loss to Rosario – officially received an assist after hoisting a clearance forward that reached Bou on the right edge of the area. However, standing back-to-goal with a defender hot on his tails, the ingenuity involved here was certainly all Bou’s, as he took one touch then rapidly turned to fire an unstoppable shot into the top right-hand corner. To ask observers to pick the best goal from this and the one that preceded it is perhaps to open up a rift between differing sensibilities, but what is not in doubt is that they were both converted by the man of the match who is enjoying the most successful spell of his career.

Bou was on hand just a few minutes later to turn provider for Milito as, from a central position, he slid a through ball between Táchira’s static defence to the former Inter Milan striker. Though fatigue may have been a factor, nobody tracked the man whose two goals won the 2010 Champions League final and he had all the time in the world to first feint, then dink, the ball past Liebeskind.

Just over ten minutes later with increasing amounts of space being offered to the visitors, Uruguayan Washington Camacho, a recent recruit from Defensa y Justicia, roamed forward to play a through ball to the right side within the area. Here, Milito again had the freedom of San Cristóbal with no defenders within ten yards of him as he passed first-time across the goalmouth where Bou hooked the ball home to complete his hat-trick and his side’s triumph.

Racing’s supremacy was plain to see and, a fine parried Francisco Flores effort aside, Táchira barely had any clear chances in the second half until five minutes from time when substitute José Alí Meza was brought down for a penalty. Up stepped 37-year-old veteran Jorge Rojas, Venezuela’s third most-capped player of all time and who, more to the point, had converted a penalty in each of his last three consecutive league matches. Yet no consolation could be offered to the ever-dwindling number of home fans as the supposed Mr. Reliable could do no better than blast the ball well over the bar with a shot that was hit with such venom it comfortably cleared the athletics track surrounding the pitch.

Although there may have been significantly less people left at the final whistle, around 38,000 people paid to see this 5-0 whitewash, a figure that is approximately four times greater than their average league attendance. Given not only this result but their next Libertadores home opposition in early March, Paraguay’s Guaraní, if Pueblo Nuevo is even half full for this game, then Táchira ought to be pleased. Before that, however, they travel to Peru next week to face champions Sporting Cristal – who let a two-goal lead slip to draw 2-2 away to Guaraní – a game in which at least drawing will seem necessary in order to retain any realistic hopes of reaching the next stage.

In the meantime, after this humiliation they will have to reconsider how to negotiate their path through this group with the dubious consolation that, having now faced a strike-partnership that could well fire their side all the way to the final, the only way is surely up.

Darren Spherical

@DarrenSpherical

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

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

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

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

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

Deportivo Táchira’s Asunción Ascension

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

deportivotachira

Deportivo Táchira

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

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

zamorafc

Zamora FC

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

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

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

Minerosdeguayana

Mineros de Guayana

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

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

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

Venezuelans Flying the Flag: More Bonuses

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

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

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

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

Darren Spherical

@DarrenSpherical