Tag Archives: Rafael Romo

Basque Country 4-2 Venezuela – International Friendly (12 October 2018)

In their first friendly game of the latest international break, Venezuela’s long-term ambitions were handed a rude awakening by a proud, well-honed team that has absolutely no chance of bumping into them at Qatar 2022. Here, @DarrenSpherical provides an account of the game as well as some thoughts…

Unofficial International Friendly

Friday 12 October 2018 – Estadio de Mendizorroza, Vitoria, Álava, Spain

Basque Country 4-2 Venezuela

Video Highlights of Basque Country 4-2 Venezuela, Unofficial International Friendly, 12 October 2018 (YouTube)

La Liga-Level Liquidation for La Vinotinto

The Spain-based top-flight representatives of the border-straddling region of the Basque Country served up a convincing victory over an experimental Venezuela line-up.

With Salomón Rondón already out injured, Rafael Dudamel also opted to place goalkeeper Wuilker Faríñez and lynchpin captain Tomás Rincón on the bench. Even taking into account the long called-for return of Roberto Rosales at right-back, this was a rather inexperienced side to be confronting a La Liga-laden outfit.

Conversely, their opponents boasted in their ranks the likes of Athletic Bilbao’s Iñaki Williams and Aritz Aduriz, Real Sociedad’s Asier Illarramendi and Aritz Elustondo and, particularly eye-catching in the first half, Alavés’ Ibai Gómez – playing here on his home turf of Mendizorroza.

With the aid of pyrotechnics, over 15,000 were on hand to generate a carnival-like atmosphere, which spurred on the hosts to dart out of the traps to dominate the opening 25 minutes or so. Their speed, sharpness and mutual understanding controlled the match-tempo, making it difficult for Venezuela’s makeshift defensive-midfield pairing of Arquímedes Figuera and Aristóteles Romero to track and the flanks were also occasionally exposed. It was Gómez who enjoyed virtually all the best chances in this period. In particular, in the 6th minute he gave centre-back Yordan Osorio the slip before his low drive forced a good stop from Rafael Romo and, then in the 20th minute, he received a pass centrally, made room for himself and fired marginally wide of the post.

The visitors could breathe – albeit, only for five more minutes. At this point, Gómez stepped up to take a free-kick somewhat left-of-centre on the edge of the area. Surprisingly – or, perhaps not, for anyone who has seen any of his recent golazos – he anticipated the jump of the wall to perfection, striking the ball underneath them and past the blindsided Romo for the opening goal.

It was the least that his side deserved. Yet, as so often is the case, it galvanised the opponents, who until this moment had only made one or two brief incursions into the final third. Despite this, within five minutes, they found themselves level; hearteningly for Dudamel, this came courtesy of the work of two men who, for differing reasons, have been denied any club action so far this season. Following some purposeful striding from Adalberto Peñaranda on the periphery of area, Romero’s optimistic strike took a fatal deflection off Yuri Berchiche, wrongfooted Asier Riesgo and ended up in the back of the net.

For the remaining 15 minutes of the first period, Venezuela earned themselves a greater share of the play, in the process winning set-pieces as well as greatly diminishing the threat to Romo’s goal.

However, following six home changes at the break, the temporary dam did not take long to burst wide open. Indeed, barely four minutes of round two had been played when a rather static Vinotinto defence was breached by Williams’ central poke forward; this fell to the fresh Jon Bautista who controlled and placed home in space to regain the lead. Fast-forward another four minutes and the gap was doubled. This time, Javier Eraso’s corner was knocked back within the area before Jhon Murillo’s poor clearance landed at the feet of another substitute, Arnaitz Arbilla, whose strike from the edge of the area bypassed Romo.

Subsequently, Dani García had a shot that only narrowly missed the target and it was evident that the South Americans had a mountain to climb. Although some more experienced heads came on to help avert an onslaught, there was never any serious doubt over the result. Later on Venezuela created some minor moments of threat: Rincón drove into the area and then had a penalty appeal waved away, Rosales put in some testing crosses and Eduard Bello warmed the goalkeeper’s gloves from an acute angle. Yet it was the Basques who were next on the scoresheet when an 87th-minute header by Elustondo – which may have been diverted in by defender Luis Mago – made it 4-1. For the third time on the night, Dudamel’s men were undone from a set-piece.

Nevertheless, Venezuela were at least able to respond to this additional setback with a goal of their own at the death. Substitute Jefferson Savarino arced a fine diagonal ball over to Rosales who, from the right byline, saw his cross into the centre nodded home by another erstwhile benchmate, Andrés Ponce.

Make no mistake, although results are not everything at this early stage of this new cycle, this match was anything but a success from a Venezuelan perspective. The makeshift XI lacked an effective game-plan, struggled to keep pace with their opponents and were often easily outplayed.

However, if there is one broad positive to take away it is that both goals involved players – Peñaranda, Romero, Rosales and Ponce – who had previously not even been considered anywhere near the squad, let alone in the starting eleven. Looking ahead, the former two desperately need to find some minutes at club level, however problematic that currently appears to be. Rosales needs to work with his defensive colleagues to bolster their collective organisation but he at least displayed his renowned threat going forward. Ponce, on the other hand, who has had a promising start to his new life in Russia, must be feeling good about his late goal and, with Josef Martínez returning home to Atlanta, he must fancy his chances of leading the line against the United Arab Emirates.

That game, on Tuesday in Barcelona behind closed doors against an official FIFA-recognised nation, is anticipated to be a more winnable encounter. Dudamel is not one to take things for granted but as much as he will want to try out new ideas and personnel, he knows how important positive results are for maintaining faith in the country’s long-term ambitions.

Team Selections

Basque Country (4-1-4-1): A. Riesgo (J. Serantes, 46′); M. Aguirregabiria, A. Elustondo, I. Martínez (A. Arbilla, 46′), Y. Berchiche; A. Illarramendi (D. García, 46′); I. Williams, D. Zurutuza (J. Bautista, 46′), M. García (M. Vesga, 59′), I. Gómez (L. Sangalli, 46′); A. Aduriz (J. Eraso, 46′).

Venezuela (4-2-3-1): R. Romo; R. Rosales, Y. Osorio, W. Ángel, L. Mago; A. Figuera (T. Rincón, 59′), A. Romero (J. Moreno, 72′); J. Murillo, R. Otero (J. Savarino, 58′), A. Peñaranda (E. Bello, 64′); J. Martínez (A. Ponce, 64′).

Darren Spherical

@DarrenSpherical

Venezuela’s Friendly Internationals – October 2018 Preview

It seems like only yesterday that Venezuela returned from international hibernation and now here they are once again all set for another double-header – this time on the Old Continent. Below, @DarrenSpherical runs the rule over the latest La Vinotinto squad.

Unofficial International Friendly

Friday 12 October 2018 – Estadio de Mendizorroza, Vitoria, Álava, Spain

Basque Country vs Venezuela

International Friendly

Tuesday 16 October 2018 – Estadio Olímpico Lluís Companys, Barcelona, Catalonia, Spain

United Arab Emirates vs Venezuela

rosalesdudamel

Roberto Rosales reunited with Rafael Dudamel (FVF Press)

Rafael Reinstates Rosales for Rumble in Mendizorroza

La Vinotinto are seeking to build on last month’s warm-ups against World Cup-level competition with two curious encounters in north Spain, the first with the non-FIFA affiliated Basque Country and the second behind-closed-doors against United Arab Emirates (ranked 77).

Undoubtedly the most eye-catching name on Rafael Dudamel’s 23-man list is that of Roberto Rosales, who receives his first call-up for two years. The 29-year-old right-back recently made his debut for Espanyol and had previously been one of the mainstays of the national side, acquiring a status virtually on a par with those of captain Tomás Rincón and high-profile striker Salomón Rondón. Then, in 2016 as Dudamel was finding his feet in his new role, the Third R surprisingly lost his place in the line-up and by the end of the year he was out the squad altogether. Since then, rumours have abounded of a rift with the coach as well as with the federation. However, in the lead-up the boss has been quick to dismiss such Twitter-tattle and the FVF also seem keen to re-integrate the player, making an interview with him their most extensive press release for this friendly double-header.

With Elche’s Alexander González – a man who plays in a lower division, yet has benefited to become the most frequent starter at right-back – out injured, Rosales has a real opportunity to re-assert himself. His competition for this position within the current crop is young Ronald Hernández (Stabaek, Norway), a talented prospect who only missed out last month due to a visa issue and who one suspects has spent a chunk of his formative years looking up to Rosales. He will now receive a rare opportunity to learn from him first-hand. Who knows, perhaps such a mentorship is but one part of a long-term masterplan…

Hernández is joined this time around by four fellow prospects who also starred in 2017’s history-making squad of Under-20 World Cup runners-up. The inclusion of undisputed first-choice goalkeeper Wuilker Faríñez (Millonarios FC, Colombia) is a given, but the other three have considerably more to prove.

Indeed, Nahuel Ferraresi (CF Peralada-Girona B, Spain, on loan from Club Atlético Torque, Uruguay) was part of last month’s squad but was one of only a few who did not make it onto the pitch. This, coupled with the fact that he was not originally called up – his late entry has only been made possible courtesy of an injury to Reus’ Mikel Villanueva – surely hints at some doubts Dudamel has about granting the centre-back his senior international debut. Considerably more faith is evidently reserved for Adalberto Peñaranda, an attacking-midfielder who, since overshadowing Yeferson Soteldo – again absent, this time due to the birth of his third child – at South Korea 2017, had a forgettable time on loan at Málaga last season. He is far from fresh, as he has been unable to gain a UK work permit to play with parent club Watford but, not for the first time, Dudamel has offered him a lifeline and has stated that the player will “see minutes“.

However, as always, competition in the positions behind the forward(s) will be stiff: Jhon Murillo (Tondela, Portugal), who missed out last month due to a visa problem will be seeking to regain his erstwhile starting position on, ideally, the right flank; Rómulo Otero (Al Wehda, Saudi Arabia, on loan from Atlético Mineiro, Brazil), who put in a prominent individual performance in the 2-0 away win against PanamaJefferson Savarino (Real Salt Lake, USA), who came off the bench to set up the opener in the same game; Eduard Bello (Deportes Antofagasta, Chile), whose substitute appearance in Central America also led to an assist and whose goal-laden club displays have instigated escalating outbreaks of “Bellomanía” in the country where he plies his trade. To the disappointment of many, the latter was initially left out, only to be called up at the eleventh hour owing to injuries to two players who made starts last month: Darwin Machís (twice) and Sergio Córdova (once, plus sub).

Chances are thus there to be grabbed and this is certainly true in the forward positions, where the final member of the silver generation can be located. With the absence of the injured Salomón Rondón and the agreement that Josef Martínez (Atlanta United, USA)  will, once again, only play the first of the two games, 21-year-old support-striker/hold-up man Ronaldo Peña (Houston Dynamo, USA) must be dreaming of a senior international debut. If so, he could find himself re-igniting his 2013 Under-17 Sudamericano partnership with the marginally older Andrés Ponce, a more direct marksman who has recently resuscitated his club career with a couple of important goals for his new club Anzhi Makhachkala in Russia. Otherwise, Dudamel has at his disposal Jhonder Cádiz (Vitória Setúbal), a 23-year-old currently with his fourth Portuguese club; with no previous international appearances, he rounds off this trio of inexperienced front-line pretenders.

Elsewhere in the squad, with Yangel Herrera still not quite back to match fitness, Arquímedes Figuera (Universitario, Peru) and the game-shy Aristóteles Romero (Crotone, Italy) have been recalled to provide competition for Júnior Moreno (DC United, USA) in the central midfield spot alongside Tomás Rincón (Torino, Italy). Also, left-back Rolf Feltscher (LA Galaxy, USA) is said to not be fully fit so Luis Mago (Carabobo FC) will be seeking to build on last month’s debut and, similarly, at centre-back Yordan Osorio (Vitória Guimarães, on loan from Porto, Portugal) surely has his sights on breaking up the partnership of Wilker Ángel (Akhmat Grozny, Russia) and Jhon Chancellor (Anzhi Makhachkala, Russia) – that is, if his performance against Panama has not done so already.

Thus, as ever in this embryonic stage of the new cycle, there is no shortage of positional and tactical considerations to be resolved. Regarding the opponents, while the level of the UAE is somewhat of a mystery for those outside of the Asian continent, the same can not be said of the Basque Country. Indeed, their 18-man squad is full of La Liga talents from five different clubs, including Athletic Bilbao’s Aritz Aduriz, Iñigo Martínez and Iñaki Williams, Alavés’ Ibai Gómez and Real Sociedad’s Asier Illarramendi, Aritz Elustondo and David Zurutuza. Although the organisation of these players may be another matter, with Basque pride on the line, this really should prove to be a considerable test for Venezuela in what will be the third-ever encounter between the two sides. The Rumble in Mendizorroza awaits.

Venezuela Squad

venezuelaoct2018squad

(Note: On 8 October 2018, it was announced that Darwin Machís and Sergio Córdova withdrew due to injury, with Eduard Bello being called up as a replacement.)

(@SeleVinotinto)

Goalkeepers

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

Defenders

Wilker Ángel (Akhmat Grozny, Russia), Jhon Chancellor (Anzhi Makhachkala, Russia), Rolf Feltscher (LA Galaxy, USA), Nahuel Ferraresi (CF Peralada-Girona B, Spain, on loan from Club Atlético Torque, Uruguay), Ronald Hernández (Stabaek, Norway), Luis Mago (Carabobo FC) & Yordan Osorio (Vitória Guimarães, on loan from Porto, Portugal), Roberto Rosales (Espanyol, on loan from Málaga, Spain).

Midfielders

Eduard Bello (Deportes Antofagasta, Chile), Arquímedes Figuera (Universitario, Peru), Júnior Moreno (DC United, USA), Jhon Murillo (Tondela, Portugal), Rómulo Otero (Al Wehda, Saudi Arabia, on loan from Atlético Mineiro, Brazil), Adalberto Peñaranda (Watford, England), Tomás Rincón (Torino, Italy), Aristóteles Romero (Crotone, Italy), & Jefferson Savarino (Real Salt Lake, USA).

Forwards

Jhonder Cádiz (Vitória Setúbal, Portugal), Josef Martínez (Atlanta United, USA), Ronaldo Peña (Houston Dynamo, USA) & Andrés Ponce (Anzhi Makhachkala, Russia).

Darren Spherical

@DarrenSpherical

Panama 0-2 Venezuela – International Friendly (11 September 2018)

In their second friendly game of this international break, Venezuelans on the pitch and in the stands came together to generate a moving, memorable evening for the country. Here, @DarrenSpherical provides an account of the game as well as some thoughts…

International Friendly

Tuesday 11 September 2018 – Estadio Rommel Fernández, Panama City, Panama.

Panama 0-2 Venezuela

Video Highlights of Panama 0-2 Venezuela, International Friendly, 11 September 2018 (YouTube)

Salomón Spearheads Supersubs’ Show

Salomón Rondón came off the bench to combine twice with his fellow substitutes to give La Vinotinto a heartening, well-fought win in front of a sizeable number of their compatriots.

This victory was the first against Panama since 2000 and also the very first against any opposition in a senior friendly encounter for Rafael Dudamel in his 29 months in the job – and just his fifth overall.

Beforehand, the coach stated that he would like his side to be “not so vertical” and instead have “more time with the ball” than they had against Colombia. Although there were considerable spells where neither side could gain much command over the play, Venezuela did at least manage to assert themselves to a greater degree in what was a more inviting contest.

For the second consecutive game, Darwin Machís started with intent, driving into space and even troubling the goalkeeper with a deflected shot in the second minute. However, with six changes made to the line-up, it was to be two of his fellow attackers who garnered themselves more attention in the first half. Indeed, firstly Luis “Cariaco” González built on Friday’s promising sub appearance, outpacing opponents numerous times on the right, managing to knock in several crosses and even squeezing in an attempt or two at goal.

However, prominence-wise at least, both men were eclipsed by Rómulo Otero. Nominally fielded in the centre behind Christian Santos, he often seemed to be on a one-man mission to gain himself a regular starting place, frequently drifting into other areas, particularly the left side. His contributions were hit-and-miss, with plenty of long-range shots, crosses and set-pieces either ballooning over or cannoning off the first man, but his thrusting, do-or-die mobility did genuinely unsettle opponents and create spaces for team-mates. Two of his opening-half free-kick attempts did also hit the target: a 13th-minute right-footed curler from an impossible angle on the left caused an instinctive parry for goalkeeper Luis Mejía who was anticipating a cross and, more notably, a 43rd-minute strike from some 40 yards that bounced just before Mejía, causing him to awkwardly deflect it out with his lower ribcage.

Although there was more action around the hosts’ goal, the Central Americans led by English-Panamanian interim coach Gary Stempel were always very much in the game. Often thwarted at the moment of a key pass, they did nevertheless provide a few scares. In the 28th minute, Cristian Martínez whipped in a devilish cross which the diving goalkeeper Rafael Romo – playing his first international in seven years – got fingertips to, before Yordan Osorio’s shin awkwardly cleared for a corner. In the 36th minute, following one of many clever flicks by José Rodríguez, a shot from Martínez in a good position in the area was well-blocked by Osorio’s centre-back partner Wilker Ángel. From the subsequent Gabriel Torres corner, Venezuela perhaps received a huge let-off, as a Fidel Escobar header hit the arm of left-back Luis Mago; contrary to how it initially appeared to almost everyone, this was adjudged by the referee to be marginally outside, not inside the penalty area. A mere matter of yards from the incident, the man in black could not have had a better view. Regardless, from the resulting free-kick, Escobar gave Dudamel’s men a second fright, as his right-footed bullet arrowed barely a yard over the bar.

Thus, at half-time, both sides had good cause to feel that this open game was there for the taking and immediately after the restart, it was the 2018 World Cup qualifiers who were first out of the traps. With barely 40 seconds played, Martínez shaped up from some 30 yards, striking a fine right-footed effort which Romo’s outstretched palm had to deal with. Some seven minutes later, Venezuela trumped the home side in the long-range stakes as another Otero free-kick from 40 yards – for which a 15-yard run-up was required – dipped menacingly before Mejía, causing him to parry out wide.

Subsequently, scares were averted at both ends but when the next real attempt on goal arrived, it was made to count. This came in the 67th minute with two substitutes as the lead protagonists. First, following some neat Venezuelan play, fresh-and-fleet-footed Jefferson Savarino of Real Salt Lake played a one-two on the right with Otero, receiving back the ball inside the area to slide across the goalmouth past Román Torres where none other than Salomón Rondón knocked it into the back of the net. Celebrated by thousands of Venezuelans in attendance, it sounded as if the Premier League striker’s first international goal since March 2017 had been scored at home.

Additional changes were later made to both sides, which perhaps further diluted the attacking fluidity. Yet, despite the dearth of shots on target, the pulsing atmosphere and highly competitive pinball-esque action lended itself to an engrossing spectacle. Towards the end, however, another one of the reinforcements from the bench ensured that his spell on the pitch would be remembered.

Eduard Bello, an attacker enjoying an impressive first season with Chilean side Deportes Antofagasta, came on for his international debut in the 78th minute. Ten minutes later he earned a corner which he himself then took; Rondón connected but his header on the stretch at an angle to the goal went slightly wide of the post. Then, in the final minute of stoppage-time after a Panamanian cross and headed knock-back had been hastily cleared, a ball was hoisted upfield by captain Tomás Rincón. The defence were largely committed further upfield and so, following a fortuitous ricochet off the defender, Bello was able to swivel and slide the ball towards Rondón in space who pounced like a predator to seal the win.

The elation in the stands was palpable and afterwards at the press conference, Dudamel dedicated the win to these joy-deprived believers, many of whom would have moved to the Panamanian capital in recent years due to the well-documented domestic difficulties:

“For multiple reasons our compatriots have emigrated from our country. There is something that in life can not be lost, which is dignity. Today we wanted to give a boost to the dignity of the Venezuelan who has accompanied us and who makes life in this beautiful country. May La Vinotinto become an example for all our people – that is the invitation.”

Many observers of Russia 2018 may blithely dismiss the weight of this Venezuelan victory but nobody who experienced it can deny the importance of such a welcome morale-boost. Friday against Colombia now feels like quite some time ago. Regarding the performances, although the action was again largely disjointed and fragmented, Rondón, Otero, González, Machís, Savarino and Bello have all provided Dudamel with positive moments on which to build more sustained attacking play. As for the rearguard, while the coach may wish to try out other players for next month’s double-header in Spain, the prized clean sheet that they kept and their general solidity should give the likes of Osorio and Mago hope that a consecutive call-up will be forthcoming.

Lastly, post-match Dudamel also said that, after nearly ten months without senior matches, he hopes that his side will go on to have “no less than 15-18 games” (including however many they play at the 2019 Copa América) under their belts before the Qatar 2022 World Cup qualifiers commence. Such a number seems optimistic but if an array of seemingly insurmountable obstacles can be overcome to pull this off, it would go a considerable way towards narrowing the preparatory chasm with their major CONMEBOL rivals.

Precarious though the future most certainly is, in this international break some positive steps were undeniably taken.

Team Selections

Panama (4-3-3): L. Mejía; M. Murillo, R. Torres, F. Escobar, F. Palacios (K. Galván, 71′); C. Martínez, A. Godoy, M. Camargo (A. Carrasquilla, 65′); J. Rodríguez (J. González, 77′), R. Blackburn, G. Torres (Á. Orelien, 65′).

Venezuela (4-2-3-1): R. Romo; A. González, Y. Osorio, W. Ángel, L. Mago; T. Rincón, J. Moreno (A. Flores, 86′); L. González (J. Savarino, 56′), R. Otero (S. Córdova, 75′), D. Machís (E. Bello, 78′); C. Santos (S. Rondón, 56′).

Darren Spherical

@DarrenSpherical

Venezuela’s Friendly Internationals – September 2018 Preview

After an international hiatus of nearly ten months, Venezuela’s senior team are finally returning to action with a friendly double-header. Still coming to terms with this impending reality, @DarrenSpherical fills in some gaps and takes a look at the state-of-play within La Vinotinto’s 24-man squad.

International Friendlies

Friday 7 September 2018 – Hard Rock Stadium, Miami Gardens, Florida, USA.

Colombia vs Venezuela

Tuesday 11 September 2018 – Estadio Rommel Fernández, Panama City, Panama.

Panama vs Venezuela

hardrockstadium

Hard Rock Stadium, Miami Gardens, Florida – the site of La Vinotinto‘s return

Time To Start Putting the Pieces Together

Last October, as the prematurely-doomed Russia 2018 qualifying campaign was ending with a post-Under 20 World Cup upswing of fortunes (three draws and a final-day victory), La Vinotinto coach Rafael Dudamel revealed that he had asked for “at least five friendlies for 2018“. With four now scheduled and possibly one or two more in the pipeline, it now looks as if his rather modest request may ultimately be granted.

Also this year – a World Cup year, no less – the match-shy Venezuela have defied all logic and managed to ascend from 52nd to 31st in the FIFA rankings. Thus, taking a very partial-sighted view of things, it could be said that Venezuela appear to be well-poised to crack on with unburdening themselves of being branded the “Cinderella” of CONMEBOL.

Perhaps, but throughout the near-300 days since last November that the senior national side has gone without playing – during which an astonishing 17 of the 24 players in the current squad have switched club sides – there has been no shortage of concern over the perceived lack of activity. In response, the FVF (Federación Venezolana de Fútbol) have repeatedly stated what should come as no surprise to anyone with a passing interest in the country’s economic situation: there is simply not enough money. Friendlies come at unfriendly prices and plenty of proposals have had to be declined. Thus, regardless of whether or not some pleading phonecalls were made, it makes considerable sense to see that the first two encounters that have been belatedly set in stone come against countries very close to home.

Nevertheless, for a football association who invited the nation’s media to a presentation in July titled “Qatar 2022. The Objective of Everyone” and whose social media channels regularly repeat the slogan that “We are World [Cup] Class“, tests against two recent World Cup-qualifiers are an apt reintroduction into the international fold.

Furthermore, despite all the frustrations from fans who fear that the country is losing ground, Rafael Dudamel has undoubtedly been a busy man in the intervening lull, pursuing the stated strategy of investing in the young. Indeed, he, along with his coaching staff have not only held a dozen or so training modules with primarily local talent, but they have also led into several tournaments the new generation of Under-20s as well as some prospects from the previous history-making cycle. Ironically, two clear beneficiaries of one of these campaigns have been two eligible overage players: left-back Luis Mago (Carabobo FC, 24 this month) and holding midfielder Agnel Flores (Monagas SC, 29). Barely a month ago, this pair helped a mostly Under-21 squad reach the final of the 2018 Central American & Caribbean Games, where they were runners-up to hosts Colombia.

Concerning youth though, another two members of that particular squad also called to the current Selección are centre-back Nahuel Ferraresi (CF Peralada-Girona B, Spain, on loan from Club Atlético Torque, Uruguay) and midfielder Ronaldo Lucena (Deportivo Táchira). These are two of the four players present – along with attacking midfielder Sergio Córdova (Augsburg, Germany) and goalkeeper Wuilker Faríñez (Millonarios FC, Colombia) – who were runners-up last year in South Korea and in whom considerable hope is indeed invested.

Initially, there were in fact six players from the silver crop in this squad, but within the past week right-back Ronald Hernández and jinking Yeferson Soteldo have had to be replaced, along with the marginally more experienced Jhon Murillo (22). Visa problems being the official reason disclosed by the FVF. Were it not for a long-term injury, midfielder and erstwhile Under-20 captain Yangel Herrera would have received a call and a stronger recent run of form as well as a UK work permit would have also surely helped the cause of fellow absentee Adalberto Peñaranda. More than a handful of others from their generation are also considered potential future call-ups, further reinforcing the sense that if the senior side is to seriously threaten their continental rivals in the next four years, the integration of youth with more established figures will be key.

This thus begs the question, who out of the current crop are considered likely first-teamers? Right now, all would agree that the fast-tracked Fariñez undoubtedly receives the No. 1 shirt and that the pivotal role in front of the back-four of captain Tomás Rincón (Torino, Italy) is not up for debate. Forwards Salomón Rondón (Newcastle United, on loan from West Bromwich Albion, England) and Josef Martínez (Atlanta United, USA) are also leading figures. However, questions have been asked as to whether or not the pair can combine effectively and, should Dudamel opt for a lone striker, if the latter’s phenomenal MLS goalscoring exploits could one day rather soon lead to him usurping the Magpie as the focal point of the attack. Either way, such is the gulf in stature that even if one has to make way for the other in the line-up, the two other forwards named in this squad will have a considerable battle on their hands just to receive further call-ups, let alone gain a starting berth off one of the aforementioned pair.

After these names, things start to become a little more precarious. Regarding the rearguard, one of Dudamel’s great achievements last year at both Under-20 level as well as in the final stretch of the qualifiers was the tightening up at the back, resulting in an admirably low number of goals conceded. However, there lurks the feeling that these were feats of a more collective, well-disciplined and systematic nature, rather than owing to a combination of individual brilliance. Thus, though the Russian-based pair of Wilker Ángel (Akhmat Grozny) and Jhon Chancellor (Anzhi Makhachkala) currently have the strongest claims to the centre-back positions, it will be well worth looking at the 19-year-old Ferraresi as well as Yordan Osorio, who currently finds himself on loan at Vitória Guimarães, after a January transfer to Portuguese giants Porto.

Regarding the defensive flanks, they were repeatedly exploited by opponents in the qualifiers and Dudamel himself has admitted that the left-back position is a problem. As Rolf Feltscher‘s form at LA Galaxy – where, owing to the competition of Ashley Cole, he is usually deployed on the right – does not inspire confidence, opportunity surely beckons for the uncapped Mago. On the right, Hernández’s late omission is definitely a setback for personal, as well as collective, development. His replacement Pablo Camacho (Deportivo Táchira), a 27-year-old with less than a handful of caps who spent some of the past year playing in Gibraltar, does not appear to be one for the long run. Thus, the door is still very much open to Alexander González (Elche, Spain), a healthily-capped individual whose optimum position seems to lay somewhere curiously between that of a right-back and a right-sided midfielder, joining in with attacks but occasionally leaving himself exposed.

Just in front, though Flores or Lucena may well receive a chance to partner Rincón, with the absence of Herrera, Júnior Moreno (DC United, USA) can really stake a claim to challenge his fellow MLS-dwelling compatriot for that coveted first-team spot. Aided by the arrival of Wayne Rooney, the 25-year-old is enjoying a good spell at club level, off the back of making his international debut last year, from which he went on to start in the heart of the Vinotinto midfield in the draws against Uruguay and Argentina.

Regarding the more attack-minded midfield positions, whether Dudamel opts for one on each flank or an attacking line of three, he still has the customary, welcome selection issue. Venezuela have had a relatively impressive amount of success with the development of players in this broad area and new candidates for the limited number of roles frequently emerge. Indeed, the right-sided Córdova rapidly transitioned from his country’s Under-20 World Cup topscorer to a regular in the Vinotinto line-up, starting all four of the remaining qualifying matches. However, with no starts yet this season in the Bundesliga, he will know more than anyone that nothing can be taken for granted. The visa-less Murillo was also making headway in the final qualifying stretch along with, to perhaps a lesser extent, Rómulo Otero, who has since raised eyebrows by swapping being a one-man highlight reel in Brazil for a loan spell in Saudi Arabia.

If there is to be a reordering in the pecking order, there are two men in particular who are primed to capitalise. Firstly, Darwin Machís, who can be deployed on either side of an attacking midfield and who also gained a start against Colombia last August. Since then, the tenacious late-bloomer of 25 years has enjoyed a sensational, golazo-laden season with Granada, justifying their faith in him and earning himself a move to Udinese, where he has already started the first three Serie A games of the season. Secondly, there is the right-sided Jefferson Savarino (Real Salt Lake, USA), whose inclusion only came at the eleventh hour following the omissions of Murillo and Soteldo. Perhaps this will prove to be a blessing in disguise as, after initially being overlooked, the ex-Zulia man – only a mere several months older than the much-hyped Soteldo – has gone on a spectacular run of form, to the point where he now seems like a permanent fixture of the MLS’s official Team of the Week.

Machís and Savarino undoubtedly have the higher-profiles, but many will also be hoping to see some contributions from two other players in fine form: the uncapped Eduard Bello, who has netted 8 times in 21 league games since his move to Chile with Deportes Antofagasta and  Luis “Cariaco” González, the other beneficiary of the Murillo/Soteldo withdrawals. The latter has recently turned up at Colombian title-winners Deportes Tolima, assisting an impressive number of times in the same side as compatriot Yohandry Orozco (who, in turn, despite being one of the three overage players at the Central American and Caribbean Games, where he contributed three goals in five games, has not been selected here).

So, overall then, aside from perhaps four starting positions, there is certainly all to play for, with no shortage of competition inside and outside of the current squad. Tactically, Dudamel has spoken of experiments with the youth sides – in particular, playing with three at the back – though there is no indication yet as to whether this will be carried over to the seniors. What does remain likely, however, is that the side will continue with a compact defensive rearguard and will seek to break with rapid transitions on the counter. If, in time, they can also add some consistency in the starting personnel – particularly amongst the attacking midfield positions – and generate some more positive, front-foot play, this will certainly feel like team progress.

Although they are merely friendlies and the Copa América is not for another nine months, all Vinotinto fans will be hoping, perhaps with hearts rather than heads, that their representatives have not lost too much momentum since last year’s promising end. Results may not be the priority, but there is reason for optimism, not least because the national side does possess a respectable recent record against Colombia and have drawn their last two games against Panama (with the rain-soaked September 2015 encounter actually proving to be Juan Arango’s final appearance for his country).

There are, of course, far more important things for Venezuelans to be preoccupied with.

In April of this year, the life of 30-year-old Jesús Guacarán – physiotherapist for La Vinotinto who was part of the Under-20 national team’s success – was taken, shot dead whilst out shopping in Barquisimeto, thus depriving his wife of not only her husband but of a father for their then-unborn child. This is but one of countless tragedies that have occurred in a nation contending with unimaginable economic and social turmoil, though it is one of the more acutely-felt incidents for the Selección. Plenty of high-profile individuals conveyed their sadness on social media and it can only be speculated how the everyday uncertainties and hardships of their family members, friends and other loved ones impact upon the mindsets of the players and coaches of the national side.

In a recent interview with The Guardian, Salomón Rondón offered this insight into the team’s perspective going into games: “My responsibility is to make Venezuelan people proud. When we play for the national team we try to make them forget the bad things, just for those 90 minutes.”

Though this may be impossible for some, here’s hoping that the long-awaited return of La Vinotinto can at least raise a few extra smiles, however fleeting, and inspire many in the face of adversity.

Venezuela Squad

vinotintosept2018

(@SeleVinotinto)

Goalkeepers

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

Defenders

Wilker Ángel (Akhmat Grozny, Russia), Jhon Chancellor (Anzhi Makhachkala, Russia), Pablo Camacho (Deportivo Táchira), Rolf Feltscher (LA Galaxy, USA), Nahuel Ferraresi (CF Peralada-Girona B, Spain, on loan from Club Atlético Torque, Uruguay), Alexander González (Elche, Spain), Luis Mago (Carabobo FC) & Yordan Osorio (Vitória Guimarães, on loan from Porto, Portugal),

Midfielders

Eduard Bello (Deportes Antofagasta, Chile), Sergio Córdova (Augsburg, Germany), Agnel Flores (Monagas SC), Luis González (Deportes Tolima, Colombia), Ronaldo Lucena (Deportivo Táchira, Venezuela, on loan from Atlético Nacional, Colombia), Darwin Machís (Udinese, Italy), Júnior Moreno (DC United, USA), Rómulo Otero (Al Wehda, Saudi Arabia, on loan from Atlético Mineiro, Brazil), Tomás Rincón (Torino, Italy) & Jefferson Savarino (Real Salt Lake, USA).

Forwards

Fernando Aristeguieta (América de Cali, Colombia), Josef Martínez (Atlanta United, USA), Salomón Rondón (Newcastle United, on loan from West Bromwich Albion, England) & Christian Santos (Deportivo La Coruña, Spain).

Darren Spherical

@DarrenSpherical

Venezuela’s Participation in the 2015 Copa Libertadores – Review

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

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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

Mineros de Guayana 3-0 Huracán – 2015 Copa Libertadores Group 3 (21 April 2015)

Tuesday 21 April 2015

2015 Copa Libertadores Group 3

Mineros de Guayana 3-0 Huracán

Estadio Cachamay, Puerto Ordaz

Highlights of Mineros de Guayana 3-0 Huracán, 2015 Copa Libertadores, 21 April 2015 (Video courtesy of YouTube user xpertowinner)

Victory, At Last: Huracán Dreams Shattered by Clinical Mineros

Mineros de Guayana may have already been eliminated from this year’s Copa Libertadores yet while few fans turned up to see them formally bow out, those that did were rewarded with the first (and only) victory by a Venezuelan team in this year’s competition.

This came at the 18th (6th, specifically for Mineros) and final attempt in a match that meant considerably more to their Argentine opponents who, had they won, would have joined Brazilian champions Cruzeiro in the next round. Alas, it was not to be, as they failed to take advantage of the hosts’ low morale and absence of several first-team regulars, all of whom are recent internationals: Gabriel Cichero, Edgar Jiménez, Richard Blanco and Rafael Romo (not to mention 41-year-old Luis Vallenilla, even if his last cap for La Vinotinto was over seven years ago). Instead, the Bolivian champions Club Universitario de Sucre progressed.

While Huracán initially took the game to the Venezuelans and were to perhaps edge possession in the first half, they went behind in the 10th minutes. The goal originated in a corner from Ángelo Peña, a talented individual with international experience and brief spells in Portugal and Brazil under his belt. He was to have a memorable game roaming all across the line behind the very tip of the Mineros attack, feeding in his team-mates on numerous occasions. His cross from the left was headed straight back to him but, undeterred, he swiftly left a defender for dead before inching into the area where he chipped a delightful ball over the goalkeeper to the back post where it was headed in by Colombian Zamir Valoyes.

For the visitors and many neutrals at least, this was not in the script. Six minutes later, the Argentines briefly thought they were level when Federico Vismara quickly took a free-kick that was knocked into the area for Ramón Ábila to tap in. However, the striker – nicknamed ‘Wanchope’ after the ex-Costa Rican international with what is apparently a disconcerting lack of irony – was offside and the goal was ruled out. Ábila was to frustrate fans, team-mates and coaching staff alike with his positioning throughout the game, repeatedly being ruled offside – a familiar story for those who have watched him regularly this season in the domestic Primera División.

For the following twenty minutes, the many Argentine forays into Venezuelan territory struggled to legally bypass the opposition’s back line or culminate with a testing shot on goal. Most crosses were blocked and/or headed out and while Ábila wormed a relatively harmless attempt wide, the majority of efforts stopped by goalkeeper Luis Romero were struck from a distance. By contrast, Mineros were to have clearer sights of goal, working two opportunities in quick succession from similar positions on the left inside the area. The first, after 34 minutes, fell to goalscorer Valoyes but, though he had a defender hot on his heels, he should have done better than blazing over the crossbar. Two minutes later, Edson Castillo was played through and did well to aim a left-footed shot across goal that provoked a rather theatrical parry from Marcos Díaz.

Throughout this half, though the Argentine domestic strugglers often attacked with intent, with the final key pass or cross eluding a forward, they were often conceding a great deal of space that was exploited by the likes of Peña and a few other team-mates who were to also put in good performances. Three of these were to combine impressively for the second goal on the 40th-minute mark. Indeed, Luis Guerra, an 18-year-old in his debut season, embarked on an eye-catching run that began in his own half and proceeded up the left-channel, evading three challenges along the way. Upon reaching the edge of the area, he played the ball towards the dee to Venezuela international Rafael Acosta, who swiftly arced it to Valoyes on the right, who in turn, confidently hit an exquisite shot with the outside of his foot to make it 2-0. The Colombian had scored his fourth goal in this year’s Copa Libertadores – all of which have come against the Argentines.

Two goals down and not even half-time, Huracán were heading out. The best they could muster in the five minutes before the interval was a header from Ábila that went marginally wide of the near post – albeit, once again from an offside position. Such transgressions by ‘El Wanchope’ and his team-mates as well as other decisions going against the visitors were to continue in the second half. Indeed, after another offside goal – this time netted in the 54th minute by Chilean  Edson Puch –  the coaching staff were visibly animated and, following each sounding of the whistle, continued to be as what was anticipated to be an historical day turned increasingly sour.

Their side persevered with their ever-fruitless attacks while affording the hosts more and more space to counter. Luis Guerra was always seeking ways to take advantage of this and he was to contribute further to his memorable performance in the 66th minute when he had a hand in the third and final goal. On the left, he cut into the area, turned back from the byline and, with his right foot, squeezed a ball through to Acosta whose first shot was blocked, only to come back to him to strike home into the net. 3-0, game over. The players on the away bench were utterly stunned and, in the aftermath, could do little but stare with their hands on their heads as the ramifications of this missed opportunity sunk in.

In the remainder of the game, each side had at least another notable long range effort but the one chance that perhaps summed up Huracán’s miserable day came with just over ten minutes left. Half-time substitute Cristian Espinoza – who impressed on the wing in Argentina’s victorious Sudamericano Sub-20 side earlier this year – chipped in a ball that Ábila, eight yards out and unmarked, contrived to head wide of the far post.

The final whistle marked a game to forget for the visitors. Many neutrals as well as Argentines were rather rash to proclaim this result to be a surprise, if not an embarrassment. Seemingly, they were forgetting the 2-2 draw in Buenos Aires back in February and somewhat overstating the reputation of Huracán, a newly promoted side who currently reside in 25th in a bloated 30-team division. This club was unable to stop Zamir Valoyes scoring twice in both Argentina and Venezuela which, along with Rafael Acosta’s strike, constituted the only times Mineros de Guayana managed to find the net in this year’s Copa Libertadores. As these five strikes also generated the only four points the Venezuelans gained in the tournament, the Argentines would do well to show a little more humility.

For Mineros, while the result can not be said to have been a complete surprise, given they were playing for nothing and 4-5 first-team regulars were missing, not many would have anticipated that they would have won by three goals. Given this game was the final one contested by Venezuelan teams and marked the solitary group stage win, following a winless run of 18, one must try not to read too much into it. Mineros are struggling domestically, they have sacked two managers this season and will not be competing in next year’s Libertadores; with only three league games left, it is unlikely this game will have much significance in the long run.

Nevertheless, they did well to salvage some pride and no doubt spoil the ’18 games, 0 wins’ narratives of planned obituaries for the three Venezuelan teams. One such review – albeit, marginally more level-headed – of the campaigns of Mineros de Guayana, Zamora and Deportivo Táchira will be appearing on this website in the upcoming days, so please keep returning to the site for that as well as much more.

Darren Spherical

@DarrenSpherical

Club Universitario 2-0 Mineros de Guayana – 2015 Copa Libertadores Group 3 (14 April 2015)

Tuesday 14 April 2015

2015 Copa Libertadores Group 3

Club Universitario 2-0 Mineros de Guayana

Estadio Olímpico Patria, Sucre

Goal Highlights of Club Universitario 2-0 Mineros de Guayana, 2015 Copa Libertadores, 14 April 2015 (Video courtesy of YouTube user xpertowinner)

Mineros Depart as Universitario Continue to Impress

Though they put in a spirited performance in the altitude of Sucre, Mineros’ Copa Libertadores exit was confirmed by two goals, both of which came towards the end of each half.

The first half was fairly even, with the Bolivians marginally edging it overall though it was the visitors from Venezuela that had the first chance of note. In the fifth minute, international striker Richard Blanco managed to get a shot away within the area from an acute angle that Chilean goalkeeper Raúl Olivares parried out. A couple of minutes later up the other end, Miguel Suárez curled a left-footed shot from the right edge of the area a yard or two wide of the far post.

A quarter of an hour in, Colombian striker Leonardo Castro had the hosts’ next opportunity but, though he received a dinked ball in a promising position, he leant back and blazed over. Five minutes later the Bolivians were to have their best moment thus far, with a header forcing Mineros goalkeeper Rafael Romo to pull off a fine save. However, following some pressure from the visitors, including a couple of corners, there was to be a temporary halt to proceedings in the 26th minute when some of the floodlights abruptly went out.

Three minutes later they were back on and soon afterwards, Mineros were to have their brightest chance of the half. This came when Blanco roamed forward on the inside-right and squared the ball to Ebby Pérez but instead of going for a shot or taking the ball confidently in his stride, he instead went a little wayward. Indeed, he struggled to take command of the situation and his lack of control led to him having to knock the ball back unconvincingly from the touchline towards a team-mate who was unable to get a shot on target.

However, though the Venezuelans were to continue to attack, the Bolivians were to make the breakthrough just before the interval. From a deep position on the inside-right, Rubén Cuesta chipped a free-kick into the area where Castro headed low and hard into the net to ensure his side left the pitch with a spring in their step.

Given their respectable showing, one doubts there were any verbal fireworks inside the Mineros dressing room, though there were some actual ones outside in the Universitario stands as the hosts appeared to be celebrating their final home group game (and a fine showing from their side). The pyrotechnics continued in a similarly well-contested half, with the first chance coming from the hosts five minutes in as Castro hit a shot with pace from 25 yards that was at a good height for Romo, who parried wide.

Ten minutes into the second period, Mineros had a couple of opportunites that both derived from the crosses of  Pérez. The first was headed comfortably over by centre-back Julio Machado whereas the second was somewhat closer to the mark, being nodded 2-3 yards wide of the far post by half-time substitute Zamir Valoyes.

However, far nearer the target was Ezequiel Filippetto’s gilt-edged chance that he was presented with in the 63rd minute. A corner was swung in, then headed on to the back post where the Argentine defender stretched for the ball but could only limply knock it wide of the goal. An opportunity to double the lead was certainly missed, though the hosts ploughed on and were to have the next significant chance six minutes later but Romo was equal to the powerful shot that was driven at him from just outside the area.

The Bolivians were nearly made to pay for Filippetto’s miss with just 15 minutes remaining on the clock when Blanco made space for himself on the edge of the area and hit a well-struck effort that was tipped over by Olivares.

However, ultimately they were to leave victorious and made sure of their win with five minutes remaining when a long ball was pumped forward up the left channel. This was flicked on just outside the area where Mineros substitute Edson Castillo erroneously ran onto it, unthinkingly nodding into the path of Suárez who rounded Romo to wrap up the game with a 2-0 win.

Thus, with one more date of fixtures to be played in this group, Universitario surprisingly top the group with 9 points, though their final opponents Cruzeiro (8 points) may well depose them. There also still remains the chance that the Bolivians may fail to reach the knock-out stage as third-placed side Huracán (7 points) will certainly retain firm hopes of qualifying. However, their final game, an away match against Mineros (1 point), may not be as plain sailing as some casual observers may presume, given the Venezuelans nearly beat them in Buenos Aires in February.

Whether Tpny Franco (who took over from Marcos Mathías in mid-March) feels potentially thwarting the Argentines is worth the bother remains to be seen though with a mere one point from five games, a morale-boosting performance may be deemed necessary. Indeed, domestically, they languish in ninth and are well on course to finish mid-table in the aggregate league – a far cry from the form under Richard Páez that gained them their place in this year’s competition: winning the 2013 Apertura, finishing 2013/14 runners-up and topping the aggregate table.

As always, irrespective of what happens, be sure to continue following what is left of the campaigns of the three Venezuelan sides – Deportivo Táchira, Zamora FC and Mineros de Guayana – on this website as well as on the affiliated Twitter account @DarrenSpherical.

Darren Spherical

@DarrenSpherical