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Venezuela 0-2 Brazil – CONMEBOL Qualification Stage for FIFA World Cup 2018 (11 October 2016)

Rather than historic headlines, the tenth matchday of La Vinotinto’s 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign yielded goalkeeping and power failures. Here, Hispanospherical.com provides a full match report…

CONMEBOL Qualifying Stage for FIFA World Cup 2018

Tuesday 11 October 2016 – El Estadio Metropolitano de Mérida, Mérida State

Venezuela 0-2 Brazil

Video Highlights of Venezuela 0-2 Brazil, 11 October 2016, CONMEBOL Qualifying Stage for FIFA World Cup 2018 (YouTube)

Oh Dani Boy, Gifting the Night Away

Match Report

Within eight minutes, Venezuela were knocked down and rarely looked like getting up again as Brazil went on to inflict upon them their eighth defeat in ten World Cup Qualifying games.

Making five changes from the Uruguay defeat (including three of the four defenders), Rafael Dudamel set up his men in a relatively bold 4-4-2 formation but no strategy or set of tactics could have accounted for the opening goal. This arrived when goalkeeper Dani Hernández, under no real pressure, suicidally passed the ball straight to Gabriel Jesus some 30 yards out. The Manchester-bound 19-year-old stopped the ball with his left boot and, as the Tenerife man scrambled in front of the penalty spot, with his right deftly scooped the Seleção into the lead with a masterful chip. Thus marked the latest instance of Venezuela’s tradition of providing significant aid to countries who don’t really need it.

Though it was his most glaring, this was hardly Hernández’s first error since regaining the gloves under Dudamel and pressure to make a change will surely intensify now. Yet with the two other goalkeepers in the squad relatively inexperienced at international level – and having not entirely convinced when called upon – there are no obvious alternatives. The previous number one Alain Baroja has been excluded from the selección throughout the new manager’s reign, seemingly due to having also committed some high-profile errors in earlier qualifying matches (the home games against Paraguay and Ecuador providing the most egregious examples). A recall can not now be entirely out of the question but, whatever happens, goalkeeping woes and back-line jitters look set to continue for the foreseeable future.

Conceding an early goal against one of the best teams in the continent would have deflated any nation but Venezuelans had additional reasons to fear the following 80+ minutes. Not only have they not won a single game in the current qualifying campaign, but – barring one friendly match in 2008 – they have never beaten Brazil and the last time that they gained a positive result from a competitive game after falling behind was exactly three years ago (their last match of the Brazil 2014 qualifying campaign, a 1-1 home draw with Paraguay on 11 October 2013).

In the remainder of the half, though Venezuela were not shrinking violets, it was certainly the visitors who came closest to getting the game’s second goal. In the 15th minute, Gabriel Jesus earned some space after he latched onto a long ball up the inside-left channel and slid it to Phillipe Coutinho, whose low strike from the edge of the dee was poked a bit too close to Hernández. Nine minutes later at the second attempt, roaming right-back Dani Alves volleyed in a goalmouth cross that was only narrowly diverted by Roberto Rosales from the path of Gabriel Jesus for a corner.

Just past the half-hour mark, Paulinho had a chance when he greatly unnerved the opposition back-line on the edge of the area, playing a few one-twos before eventually firing just wide. A few minutes later, it was Coutinho’s moment to strike a yard or two the wrong side of the post when an elevated ricochet in the area fell kindly for his right boot.

As with previous matches against the region’s heavyweights, the hosts’ best hope of an attempt on goal came from set-pieces (which here were flagged offside at the key moment) and breakaways, the impetus for which invariably derived from the feet of Adalberto Peñaranda. Indeed, the 19-year-old raised the volume in the stands in the 23rd minute when he left a player for dead in midfield before running into trouble. Later in the 41st minute, he impressively gained some space on the left before cutting inside and winning a corner from his own effort, though one or two of his colleagues seemed irritated that he did not pass for them to take aim.

Venezuela thus went into the break not completely out of the game, but having barely troubled opposition goalkeeper Alisson. Their struggle was compounded by the yellow cards earned by both centre-backs, Wilker Ángel and Sema Velázquez – not encouraging news for a team that has had three defenders (including Ángel) sent off in their last three games.

Nevertheless, as a spot of rain-lashing greeted the arrival of the second half, the hosts gained some heart from avoiding a repeat of the Uruguay game. No game-killing goals after 15 seconds here then. No, Tite’s men had to instead wait eight minutes for that. They doubled their lead thanks to Renato Agusto dragging the ball away from Rosales on the left and firing the ball across the goalmouth where Willian beat the other full-back Rolf Feltscher to clinically strike home at the back post.

Just five minutes later in the 58th minute, Brazil seemed well on their way to humiliating their hosts when an Augusto header from a corner ended up in the back of the net. However, Gabriel Jesus helped it across the line and his involvement caused the linesman to raise his flag.

Soon afterwards, partly inspired by the substitution of Alejandro Guerra on for Juanpi, Venezuela gradually overcame their dejection and started to threaten Alisson’s goal. Seconds after his arrival on the hour, it was the fresh Atlético Nacional midfielder who diverted a forward ball to Salomón Rondón. The West Bromwich forward’s first-time strike hit Marquinhos, seemingly on the upper arm, leaving Alisson stranded. Fortunately for the latter two, the ball went wide for a corner.

A couple of minutes later, Rondón had another chance. This time, from the right with his left boot, Rosales swung in a cross that the striker beat his marker to, with his header bouncing just a yard or so wide of the near post.

However, they were reminded of exactly what they were up against just a minute later when Brazil stretched their back-line and a pass from the left into the centre seemed to be heading for an inevitable third; yet the shot that followed was too close to Hernández, who parried.

The action continued and it was virtually end-to-end. Just two minutes later at the other end, Josef Martínez volleyed an arced free-kick that forced a save, though play was immediately halted for offside. Four minutes later, Alves skipped past the slide of Peñaranda on the right where he crossed towards the centre of the area to Paulinho but, despite the space the ex-Tottenham man had, he volleyed well over. Barely 30 seconds later at the other end, Rondón curled in a fine ball from the left with his right which destabilised and discombulated Filipe Luís. Prowling behind him at the back post was Guerra who did well to stretch to control the ball, but from his crab-like stance with Alisson narrowing the angles, he could only scuff a shot wide of the post.

However, pulses in the stands were not to be maintained at the same rate for much longer as in the 73rd minute, the floodlights suddenly went out. Darkness, punctuated by lights from phones and advertising boards, descended upon the Estadio Metropolitano de Mérida. There was initially much cheering and clapping from the home fans, perhaps proving Venezuelans like a good old ‘wheeeyyy’ when something goes wrong as much as anyone. Or maybe they just thought the game may get called off and they would receive a second chance. This was certainly debated by onlookers, with most agreeing a replay would have to be played the following night – sadly, such musings were not immediately relayed to a mid-kip Tony Pulis. Also during this interval, some fans began chanting for the removal of President Nicolás Maduro,  a fairly common occurrence when things are not going well at home (anti-government signs are also frequently seen at games on foreign soil). Last year towards the end of the 3-1 loss against Ecuador in Puerto Ordaz, similar chants were drowned out by music suddenly blasting out over the public announce system. This time in Mérida, however, no amount of pro-government officials would have been able to enforce similar action.

Fortunately for them though, there was little chance of a full-scale demonstration occurring as the electricity did gradually return and thus almost 25 minutes after the ball was last officially in play, the match resumed. Yet, in the remaining 17 minutes or so, little of note happened, with the interruption greatly diminishing the momentum of the players and the volume of the crowd. The one stand-out moment was Rondón’s 88th-minute header from a cross swung in from the right, which he powered towards Alisson, who was required to pull of a decent save to tip it over the bar.

Nevertheless, despite the hosts’ improvements after the second goal, when the Peruvian official blew for full-time, the Venezuelans were left to be confronted with their unenviable position at the bottom of the CONMEBOL Qualifying group. With Bolivia having picked up a point at home to Ecuador, Dudamel’s men now find themselves six points adrift at the bottom, with just two draws from ten games to their name.

After June’s promising Copa América campaign, the Vinotinto boss has now lost some of his initial goodwill, having presided over four qualifying games and earned just one point. Yet this worrying statistic is somewhat undermined by the fact that these matches were against four of the current top five teams in the region. However, with Venezuela’s next encounter being at home against those notoriously bad travellers Bolivia, nothing less than a victory will be enough to contain the critics for the time being. With changes to his already rather unsettled line-up inevitable, he may wish to spent the next month wisely while poring over his decisions.

To find out how Venezuela get on, remember to follow @DarrenSpherical on Twitter and/or check back here for match reports and news. 

Team Selections

Venezuela (4-4-2): D. Hernández; R. Rosales, S. Velázquez, W. Ángel, R. Feltscher; Juanpi (A. Guerra, 60′), T. Rincón,  A. Flores (Y. Herrera, 84′); A. Peñaranda (R. Otero, 73′); S. Rondón & J. Martínez.

Brazil (4-3-3): Alisson; D. Alves, Marquinhos, J. Miranda, F. Luís; Paulinho, Fernandinho, R. Augusto; Willian (Taison, 89′), G. Jesus, P. Coutinho (Giuliano, 83′).

Darren Spherical

@DarrenSpherical

Peru 2-2 Venezuela – CONMEBOL Qualification Stage for FIFA World Cup 2018 (24 March 2016)

The fifth matchday of La Vinotinto’s 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign yielded the first point for Noel Sanvicente’s men, yet this will be of little comfort to fans who were seconds away from celebrating a morale-boosting win. Here, Hispanospherical.com provides a match report and offers some thoughts on the game.

CONMEBOL Qualifying Stage for FIFA World Cup 2018

Thursday 24 March 2016 – Estadio Nacional de Lima, Lima

Peru 2-2 Venezuela

Video Highlights of Peru 2-2 Venezuela, CONMEBOL Qualifying Stage for FIFA World Cup 2018, 24 March 2016 (YouTube)

Ruidíaz Denies Venezuela at the Death 

Match Report

With the last touch of the game, Raúl Ruidíaz rescued a Peruvian point and ruined what was so close to being a history-making night for Venezuela. 

La Vinotinto had never won a World Cup qualifier away in Peru (previously managing a solitary draw) and thus, having led 2-0 on the hour, were just half an hour away from an unanticipated morale boost. Alas, ultimately they failed to survive the onslaught by mere seconds.

Viewed as a whole with a detachment rarely found in the South American stands, Noel Sanvicente’s underperforming men were perhaps fortunate to even get a point from this game. However, upon the full-time whistle in Lima, this is not an opinion that many away fans would want to hear, let alone be in accord with.

Indeed, not only were they on the back-foot for the majority of the final third of the match but also for the first quarter, when the hosts – backed up by the urges and instruments of an expectant home crowd –  repeatedly exploited an inexperienced Venezuelan back-line. In the opening exchanges, Peru found a lot of space both in the middle and and on the flanks of a Venezuelan defence which, Oswaldo Vizcarrondo aside, had less than a dozen caps between them pre-game.

The first genuine scare of note came in the eighth minute when a ball was dinked over from the left into the area that Jefferson Farfán only narrowly failed to make strong contact with, instead scuffing wide. Not long afterwards, a cross from roaming right-back Luis Advíncula found Claudio Pizarro in space, but the veteran striker’s header was comfortable for goalkeeper Alain Baroja. Holes continued to be found that necessitated last-ditch tackles and blocks but it was in the 24th minute that Peru really should have taken the lead. Here, an appalling clearance from Ángel Faría – playing instead of the suspended right-back Roberto Rosales – went straight to Farfán who immediately fed Paolo Guerrero in the area. However, despite the time and space he was afforded, he was unable to divert the ball either side of Baroja, who instead made an instinctive block.

Yet, though a Peruvian opener seemed on the cards, the Venezuelans surprisingly began to get a foothold into the game, creating a string of chances. In the 26th minute, a counter-attack was spearheaded by Josef Martinez, who fed strike-partner Salomón Rondón on the left who, in turn, returned a point-perfect cross that Martinez volleyed, causing a fine save from Pedro Gallese. Three minutes later, Rondón himself had an opportunity, seizing upon a forward ball on the inside-right and hitting a low strike across goal that Gallese padded away. Then, a minute later, a free-kick from the returning Rómulo Otero – who had struggled with a couple of previous attempts – dipped just before Gallese, causing the Juan Aurich goalkeeper to awkwardly parry the ball out.

Soon after, however, the breakthrough that less than ten minutes prior seemed improbable occurred. Málaga midfielder Juanpi, who was making a rare international start and is poised to be a fixture in the line-up for the foreseeable future, burst into the area and was rashly upended for a penalty. Otero thus stepped up and confidently dispatched the spot-kick.

The previously boisterous home fans fell silent and several minutes later their representatives nearly fell another goal behind. This time, Juanpi swung in a free-kick that the head of centre-back Wilker Ángel powerfully connected with, yet Gallese pulled off a sensational save, preventing what seemed like a certain goal.

Subsequently, the hosts struggled to regain their earlier dominance, a situation that continued into the first quarter of the second half. Barely a minute after the restart, the visitors could have had a second when another Juanpi free-kick curled towards Vizcarrondo and Mikel Villanueva in considerable space, yet a lack of communication and/or anticipation led to the ball missing the target. Ten minutes later, however, the latter did manage to double the lead. After Juanpi won a corner, he swung in another pin-point cross that his Málaga team-mate Villanueva, unmarked at the back post, thundered home on the volley.

Elation spread amongst the Venezuelan ranks on the pitch, in the stands and at home. Not just the first point of the campaign, but three of the blighters seemed very much on the table begging to be collected, requiring only some professional shepherding over the finish line. Easier said than done, of course, and it did not take long for Los Incas to ground their briefly stratospheric opponents back on planet earth. Indeed, having come close just a minute after Villanueva’s goal, they halved the deficit a minute after the hour-mark. A long ball was knocked into the air and then headed on by recent substitute Raúl Ruidíaz into the path of Guerrero who did well to take the ball into his stride and then strike home – though goalkeeper Baroja really should not have allowed the ball past him. Though the Flamengo forward rushed to pick the ball out of the net in order to force a quick restart this was in fact a landmark moment for him, as he became Peru’s undisputed all-time top goalscorer.

This goal really swung the momentum pendulum back into the hosts’ favour and for the remainder of the game they were to increase the pressure on the visitors to what ultimately proved to be unbearable levels. Vinotinto nerves were certainly rattled in the 68th minute, though not as much as their own crossbar, which Guerrero nearly pulverised with a bullet header from a corner. Manager Sanvicente could sense as much as anyone that the winds had decisively changed and so made a double substitution a couple of minutes later. Not only did he grant Adalberto Peñaranda his debut (replacing Martínez) but he also took off creative catalyst Juanpi in order for his replacement Alejandro Guerra to add some defensive grit and experience to the ranks. 12 minutes later, following ever more narrow squeaks and uncertainty, Venezuela’s other main attacking threat Otero was withdrawn to be replaced by holding midfielder – and debutant – Carlos Cermeño.

Sanvicente was evidently trying to preserve his side’s slim advantage and bring some much-neeed order and organisation to what was a rather open game – albeit one with the ball largely in the Venezuelan half. When, in the last minute of regulation time, Edison Flores was fed a return-ball inside the area yet from close range could only hoist the ball over both Baroja and the bar, many a Vinotinto fan must have felt an historic win was all-but-assured.

Alas, concentration levels failed at the very last hurdle. After some attacks were momentarily thwarted, mental lapses afforded space on the left for Flores who compensated for his miss by providing a pinpoint cross for Ruidíaz, who slipped away from Ángel, to nod home.

The goal was literally the last touch of the match. The dejection in the Venezuelan camp did well to mask the fact that this was the first – and somewhat unanticipated – point that they had picked up. If they can overcome the late psychological blow, then the home humiliation against Chile on Tuesday that some have feared may not come to fruition after all.

Match Thoughts

Future Optimism: Three Stand-Ins Amongst the Best Performers 

Venezuela came into the game without several individuals who have started recent qualifying games. Some of these players were either suspended (Roberto Rosales, Luis Manuel Seijas and Sema Velázquez), left out the squad (Ronald Vargas, Christian Santos and Gabriel Cichero) or, in the case of at least one, started on the bench (Alejandro Guerra).

Some players who stepped in for rare starts impressed and should expect many more caps in the foreseeable future. Of these, Juanpi, who has emerged to become a La Liga regular this season, perhaps put in the strongest performance. Not only did he win the penalty for the first goal and set up Villanueva for the second but, were it not for the heroics of Gallese and a slight-mix-up between his team-mates, he could well have had a hat-trick of assists to his name. This was the first time he has started a competitive international and it certainly will not be the last.

Rómulo Otero, another versatile attacking midfielder and impressive set-piece taker, also made his mark. The 23-year-old has gained more caps than Juanpi but has struggled for international appearances over the past two years due to injury. Against Peru, he made a welcome return to the line-up, coolly slotting home a penalty kick, driving at defenders and causing problems from set-pieces. With regard to free-kicks at least, many fans have hoped that he would be the long-term successor to Juan Arango though, as this match demonstrates, while future opportunities are certainly on the cards, he will have some stiff competition in this department from his Málaga-based team-mate.

Mikel Villanueva, who like Juanpi is registered with Málaga but instead plays for their reserve side Atletico Malagaugeno, also had a game to remember. This was his second appearance following last month’s friendly debut and he not only scored a memorable thumping goal but came away with more credit than most of his defensive colleagues. With Fernando Amorebieta having retired, Andrés Túñez falling out of favour and Gabriel Cichero all but a nowhere man at club level, an opportunity has surely opened up at left-back.

Problems at the Back

Unfortunately, not all players who stepped in can be assured of future appearances after this international break. Right-back Ángel Faría and centre-back Wilker Ángel both played their parts in the concession of goals and were often caught out of position, struggling to keep up with the pace of play. Against Chile, they will more than likely be dropped in favour of Roberto Rosales and Sema Velázquez, both of whom will be returning from suspensions.

Furthermore, though a first-team regular and one less likely to lose his place on Tuesday (UPDATE (29/3/16): If reports are to believed, it looks like he has in fact lost his place), goalkeeper Alain Baroja nevertheless really needs to raise his game. Once again, he showed moments of uncertainty and was at fault for a goal – this time when he awkwardly allowed a fairly straightforward shot from Guerrero to creep under his ineffectual dive. Add this to his amateurish mix-up with Vizcarrondo for Paraguay’s late winner in October and his dreadful clearance against Ecuador in November that led to their second goal and this gives the average Venezuela fan quite the unwanted memory bank to hold against him.

Martínez Enhanced a Team That Now Has More Reasons to Feel Cheerful 

More positively, Josef Martínez went some way to providing the answer for the striking dilemma of the decade: Who, If Anyone, Should Partner Salomón Rondón?  The West Brom striker has often looked more involved and participated in more direct moves when the younger, pacier, Torino forward has been playing a supplementary role. There were glimpses of this against Peru, particularly when the pair began Venezuela’s first-half re-emergence into proceedings as a fast-paced counter-attack led to the pair combining with Martínez ultimately only being denied by an impressive save. Unfortunately, as Rondón picked up his second booking of the campaign, they will not be reprising their partnership against Chile. Nevertheless, as things stand, if in future games Sanvicente opts to give Rondón some close on-field support, Martínez is surely currently ahead of the likes of Christian Santos, Richard Blanco and Adalberto Peñaranda in the pecking order.

Lastly, though in the immediate aftermath of this result nobody really wishes to hear this, the Venezuelan side, much of which was lacking in familiarity with one another, showed great character through most of the game. After 25 minutes, a defeat by at least two or three goals seemed likely and the thought that they could ever be two clear goals in front away to Peru could only have come from the mind of the most optimistic futurologist predicting a distant age at least a generation from now. To withstand the early tide and then play effectively within their limitations in order to gain their first point of the campaign represents progress. To follow this up with a strong showing against Chile at the ground of Sanvicente’s former club Zamora would do much for fan and team morale.

Team Selections

Peru (4-4-2): Gallese; Advíncula, Zambrano, Ascues, Vargas; Ballón, Tapia (Lobatón. 51′), Cuevas, Farfán (Flores, 60′); Pizarro (Ruidíaz, 60′), Guerrero.

Venezuela (4-4-2): Baroja; Faría, Ángel, Vizcarrondo, Villanueva; Juanpi (Guerra, 70′), Rincón, Figuera, Otero (Cermeño, 81′); S. Rondón, Martínez (Peñaranda, 70′).

Darren Spherical

@DarrenSpherical

Venezuela’s CONMEBOL Qualifying Campaign for FIFA World Cup 2018 – March 2016 Preview

With Venezuela having lost their opening four World Cup Qualifying fixtures, Hispanospherical.com looks at the state of a somewhat unfamiliar squad ahead of the latest round of qualifiers.

CONMEBOL Qualifiers for FIFA World Cup 2018

Thursday 24 March 2016 – Estadio Nacional de Lima, Lima

Peru vs Venezuela

Tuesday 29 March 2016 – Estadio Agustín Tovar, Barinas

Venezuela vs Chile

romulootero

Chile-based Rómulo Otero is one of several Venezuelans looking to make their mark.

Familiar Issues Surround a Squad with Some Unfamiliar Faces

Suprise Omissions Open Some Doors in Attack

While there does not appear to have been a mass culling of stars – or, conversely, a boycott – familiar issues nevertheless abound for Venezuela boss Noel Sanvicente, who is set to field some unfamiliar faces in his nation’s latest round of Russia 2018 qualifiers.

Indeed, although only seven of the 15 signatories of November’s bombshell letter criticising the country’s football association (FVF) (and, to a lesser extent, the national team set-up) have been called up, most of the omissions can be justified without recourse to conspiracy theorising.

Most, that is, but – in the minds of many Vinotinto fans – perhaps not all. While the exclusion of stalwarts such as Grenddy Perozo, Gabriel Cichero and César González can be explained away via a combination of their age, lack of recent success with the national team and/or little match-time at club level, there are two notable exceptions.

One, Christian Santos, has been amongst the most prominent Venezuelans abroad over the past eighteen months, first firing NEC Nijmegen to promotion to the Dutch Eredivisie where, more recently, he has continued his impressive goalscoring exploits (15 goals in 26 league games). During this period, he also made his long-awaited international debut – scoring against Brazil in October along the way – and many have envisaged him being a key player for the foreseeable future. Unsurprisingly then, his absence has not gone down well in several quarters; national sports daily Líder En Deportes reflected this sentiment, in one article emphasing his exclusion above all others. However, his relatively new status and presumed lack of authority within the squad surely precludes him from having been a ringleader in the uprising.

Another similarly fan-infuriating omission is that of Ronald Vargas. Since rejuvenating his injury-hit career last year in Turkey, the 29-year-old attacker has gone from strength to strength this season at current club AEK Athens. In Greece he has garnered many effusive headlines and back/front-page splashes, scoring nine league goals, including in each of his side’s 1-0 wins against close-rivals Olympiakos, Panathinaikos and PAOK. He too seems an unlikely rebel, having enjoyed his most consistent spell in the national side under Sanvicente since he first burst onto the scene just under a decade ago.

Instead, no matter how baffling it may appear to many, it seems that the two players have been left out for footballing reasons. Sanvicente has said as much, commenting that he wishes to experiment with other players further up the field. Given his side’s lack of success in this area despite a seemingly disproportionate amount of talent in these positions, he may well prove to be vindicated. However, as changes in the attacking personnel have already frequently been made and selection controversies seem to surround every convocatoria, many fans have long ago reached the conclusion that the problem lies more with the boss than the men at his disposal.

Nevertheless, where there is frustration there is perhaps also the future, as Sanvicente has instead called up some of the nation’s most promising prospects. 18-year-old Adalberto Peñaranda has forced himself into the international scene much earlier than anticipated, owing to some impressive performances and goals for Granada. In a breathtakingly short space of time, he has earned a first-team place, broken a goalscoring record once held by Lionel Messi and has become one of the most famous Venezuelan legionarios. Despite reported interest from many leading European sides, he has already been snapped up by Granada’s sister club Watford, though will remain in Andalusia for the time being. This will be his first ever international call-up.

He is joined in the squad by Juanpi, another impressive La Liga starlet who, particularly in the past few months, has shone and participated in many goals for a rejuvenated Málaga. This has been his ‘breakthrough season’ and his performances coupled with his regular first-team appearances have seemingly made it impossible for Sanvicente to continue to frustrate fans by overlooking him.

Incidentally, 2015/16 has been a memorable year for Venezuelans in La Liga; along with these two individuals, Roberto Rosales has been an ever-present for Málaga and Miku impressively broke a scoring record for Rayo Vallecano (5 goals in 5 consecutive top-flight games). The latter man is only absent from the current squad due to an injury occurring at the most inauspicious of times.

Another attacker seeking a starting place is perhaps the most likeliest of the three to do so. Rómulo Otero, who over the past year has struggled with injuries at inopportune moments, has many admirers who see him as the leading creative catalyst of a new era; a mean free-kick taker, he has recently spoken to the local press about the possibility of taking over set-piece duties from the retired maestro Juan Arango. Plying his trade at Huachipato, he will be a familiar face to many Chile fans when La Roja travel to Barinas for the 29 March clash.

A Far Less Experienced Rearguard

Overall, owing to the suspensions of Luis Manuel Seijas, ‘Sema’ Velázquez and Roberto Rosales for the first game against Peru, Sanvicente has called up a bumper 26-man squad for this double-header. The absences of these latter two defenders, plus the relatively recent international retirement of Fernando Amorebieta and the omissions of Andrés Túñez and Gabriel Cichero have opened many doors – and perhaps even more holes – in the Venezuelan rearguard. Indeed, the one remaining regular, Oswaldo Vizcarrondo, is likely to be in a defensive unit with three men who have barely a dozen caps between them.

Last month’s inclusion in the 1-0 win against Costa Rica (both fielded understrength sides) has no doubt bolstered the starting prospects of domestic league players such as centre-backs Wilker Ángel (Deportivo Tachira) and Daniel Benítez (Deportivo La Guaira), as well as right-back Ángel Faría (Zamora FC). Mikel Villanueva, who plays for Málaga’s reserve side Atlético Malagueño, also impressed last month and could well start at left-back. His main competition comes from Caracas FC’s Rubert Quijada, a man who has contributed to a miserly club defence but who has largely been overlooked at international level. Lastly, another defender receiving a rare call-up is Víctor García, a 21-year-old who primarily plays at right-back for Porto’s B team but who has also featured on the bench of the first team a couple of times this season. Though few Venezuelans have seen much of him in recent times, owing to his club affiliation as much as the desperation for improvement at the back, many are optimistic of this young man’s future.

Not entirely dissimilar issues concern the defensive midfield berths as a few domestic league players who rarely make competitive international starts have received call-ups. With regular first-team member Seijas out of the Peru game and late concerns being raised on the fitness of captain Tomás Rincón, it is possible that a very inexperienced and unfamiliar Venezuela takes to the field in Lima.

Change Needed, but What Kind?

Ultimately, with Sanvicente still in his post despite having overseen largely disappointing performances and results that currently place Venezuela bottom of CONMEBOL qualifying without a point, it may be a stretch to call these games ‘must-win’. Indeed, supposed crisis talks were held after the last round of losses with the media and fan consensus concluding that even if the FVF wanted change they simply could not afford it. Thus, although another two defeats will undoubtedly raise the calls for his head to unprecedented levels, Sanvicente has not really given off the impression that his future rests upon these two games.

Nevertheless, even if – as many people feel – Venezuela are already out of realistic contention for a Russia 2018 place, as well as playing for pride and progression, there is also this June’s Copa América  tournament to  consider. Their opponents will surely bring back memories of last year’s competition, with Chile having emerged victors on home soil and Peru playing a significant role in the eventual exit of Sanvicente & co. Indeed, had Amorebieta not been sent off in the second group game against Los Incas, many Venezuelan fans are keen to believe that they ultimately would not have fallen to a late 1-0 defeat and instead secured at least a point that would have been enough to make the knock-out stages.

Although not considered one of the region’s heavyweights, as Peru finished third in that competition, they certainly present a stern challenge, especially in Lima. If only to improve public relations, Sanvicente and his charges know they could well do with a good result or two from these two encounters, though it is difficult to say which game presents the better opportunity to do so. While he will be missing some well-known and much-capped individuals – particularly in the opening game – this nevertheless opens the door for new approaches and players. Given that a lack of stability, continuity and cohesion have been hallmarks of his 20-month reign, these are not things that fans can easily feel optimistic about. However, for very similar reasons, nor can they dismiss them outright as evidently there are problems that, for the sake of a rather promising generation of Venezuelan footballers, urgently need to be solved.

Venezuela Squad

Goalkeepers: Alain Baroja (AEK Athens), José David Contreras (Deportivo Táchira), Wuilker Fariñéz (Caracas FC).

Defenders: Wilker Ángel (Deportivo Tachira), Daniel Benítez (Deportivo La Guaira),  Ángel Faría (Zamora FC), Víctor García (Porto), Rubert Quijada (Caracas FC), Roberto Rosales (Málaga), José Manuel ‘Sema’ Velázquez (Arouca), Mikel Villanueva (Atlético Malagueño), Oswaldo Vizcarrondo (Nantes).

Midfielders: Juan Pablo ‘Juanpi’ Añor (Málaga), Carlos Cermeño (Deportivo Táchira), Arquímedes Figuera (Deportivo La Guaira), Arles Flores (Zamora FC), Alejandro Guerra (Atlético Nacional), Jhon Murillo (CD Tondela, on loan from Benfica), Rómulo Otero (CD Huachipato, on loan from Caracas FC), Tomás Rincón (Genoa), Luis Manuel Seijas (Independiente Santa Fe),  Yeferson Soteldo (Zamora FC).

Forwards: Richard Blanco (Mineros de Guayana), Josef Martínez (Torino), Adalberto Peñaranda (Granada, on loan from Watford), Salomón Rondón (West Bromwich Albion).

Darren Spherical

@DarrenSpherical

Venezuela’s CONMEBOL Qualifying Campaign for FIFA World Cup 2018 – November 2015 Preview

With Venezuela having lost their opening two World Cup Qualifying fixtures, Hispanospherical.com looks at the situation facing manager Noel Sanvicente, his team’s preparations for their visit to high-altitude La Paz to face Bolivia as well as the notable call-ups for this game and the subsequent home encounter with Ecuador.

CONMEBOL Qualifiers for FIFA World Cup 2018

Thursday 12 November 2015 – Estadio Hernando Siles, La Paz, La Paz Department

Bolivia vs Venezuela

Tuesday 17 November 2015 – Estadio Cachamay, Puerto Ordaz, Ciudad Guayana, Bolívar State

Venezuela vs Ecuador
Sanvicente Urgently Needs to Give Fans Something to Cheer About

Estadio Hernando Siles, La Paz, La Paz Department, Bolivia, where Venezuela play on 12 November 2015. (Photo courtesy of David Freeman who travelled to 67 football matches across Latin America. Read more about his adventures here

‘I am not a coward, I won’t resign’. So proclaimed Venezuela boss Noel Sanvicente last month at a lengthy press conference shortly after his nation’s Russia 2018 qualifying campaign had been inaugurated with two straight defeats. The 3-1 loss away to Brazil may have been largely anticipated, but the embarrassing late defensive mix-up that caused a 1-0 reversal in the opener in Puerto Ordaz at home to Paraguay certainly irked fans, greatly lowering morale at the first hurdle. Coming off the back of poor friendly performances and the failure to reach the knock-out stages of Copa América 2015, many fans ran out of patience with Chita.

The ex-Caracas and Zamora director técnico has lost considerable goodwill in his 16 months in charge. Results have not met expectations, displays have been lacklustre and most players have struggled to replicate their club form. Regarding this last point, given the tactical incoherence repeatedly exhibited as well as the high number of attackers fielded with similarly incohesive results, many point the finger of blame at Sanvicente as his intentions continue to puzzle and bewilder.

In further comments to the media, while he acknowledged some of the criticism and accepted responsibility, he seemed unwilling to consider a fundamental shift in his approach. Instead, amongst other things, he lamented the ‘accident’ involving Oswaldo Vizcarrondo and Alain Baroja that gifted the win to La Albirroja and also remarked upon the superior club levels that many of his country’s opponents play at – an observation that ‘you don’t have to be Harry Potter to see’.

Before Sanvicente categorically stated that the thought of ‘resigning doesn’t go through my head’, he also reiterated that ‘my thing is work, work and more work’. Weary words for many Vinotinto fans as ‘all work and no play’ would certainly be a succinctly apt assessment of his goal-shy reign to date.

Under pressure, currently point-less and in charge of the lowest ranked nation in CONMEBOL (83rd), Sanvicente knows that all this much-vaunted labour must be converted into positive results as soon as possible. This month’s challenges from fellow strugglers Bolivia as well as injury-hit high-flyers Ecuador, while certainly substantial and seemingly with the potential to send Chita scurrying out of a job, do also offer opportunities to reinvigorate the cause. However, though he has claimed his methods will not be changing any time soon, the personnel definitely will be – more so than at any other point since he took up the post.

Venezuelan Preparations: Bumper-sized Squad to Help Cope With High Altitude  

Indeed, Thursday’s trip to La Paz’s Estadio Hernando Siles – over 3,600 metres (nearly 12,000 feet) above sea-level – serves up all kinds of logistical issues that South American nations have attempted to counteract in differing ways. Sanvicente has opted to call up an enlarged squad of 33 players, with 20 of them making the journey to Bolivia; these comprise of an equal mixture of ten home-based individuals and ten, largely more established, legionarios who ply their trade abroad. Several of the latter possess experience of playing at high altitude at club and/or international level but it is those currently featuring in the transitory Torneo Adecuación who have undergone the greatest preparation ahead of this game.

For the past three weeks or so, they have been training at La Vinotinto‘s National Centre of High Performance (CNAR) facility on the northerly Isla de Margarita. Ideally, physical trainer Rodolfo Paladini said he would have liked 17 consecutive days with the players but due to club commitments for some – though not all – this was somewhat problematic. Nevertheless, when available, this domestic crop have been spending time in hyperbaric chambers which are intended to help users experience and acclimatise to simulated high-altitude conditions.

In the few days preceding the game, the overseas-based contingent have gradually been joining up with them at CNAR and today, Wednesday 11th, the 20-strong group flew to Bolivia. However, rather than travel straight to La Paz, they are instead staying in the relatively low-altitude Santa Cruz de la Sierra (416 metres above sea-level). Tomorrow on matchday, they will embark on a get-in-and-get-out strategy as they shall enter the city of the fixture no more than two hours before kick-off; some Bolivia-based portable chambers have been hired to assist any breathing problems they may experience. Almost as soon as the game is concluded, the squad will then take an aeroplane back to the national training centre.

A calculated risk, no doubt, though far from the first time something like this has been deployed by a South American nation. The altitude issue has been a bone of contention for decades and FIFA resolutions have been passed more than once (notably in 1995 and 2007) to ban international games in La Paz, though these were subsequently repealed. It is undeniable that even if not all of Bolivia’s players are accustomed to high-altitude conditions, they have more than enough who are and this has been a partial factor in many victories over some of the continent’s heavyweights. Anyone resistant to this argument may wish to briefly peruse the nation’s woeful record away from home – their Copa América win against Ecuador in June was their first competitive victory on foreign soil since 1995.

Nevertheless, though their home advantage has attained near-mythical status over the years and casual observers may consider a visit from CONMEBOL’s lowest-ranking team as a banker win for La Verde, this is far from assured. Indeed, in the past two visits during World Cup Qualifying campaigns Venezuela have attained a 1-1 draw (in 2013, when Juan Arango’s last international goal was cancelled out with four minutes left) and a 1-0 win (in 2009 via an own goal; this was during the same qualification cycle in which Bolivia beat Argentina 6-1 and Brazil 2-1).

If, however, they are unable to get a result, the pressure will be on to get one against Ecuador – no mean feat as La Tricolor are riding high following two consecutive wins, the first of which being a sensational 2-0 away triumph against under-fire Tata Martino’s Argentina. Though they will be missing key-man Antonio Valencia, they have strength in depth and will fancy their chances as last month’s heroics came without Enner Valencia, Michael Arroyo or Renato Ibarra on the pitch (and who are all injured this time around). The likes of Jefferson Montero and Felipe Caicedo promise to offer the Venezuelan backline a consistent threat throughout the game.

Again though, La Vinotinto have a strong recent qualifying record in this particular fixture, drawing the last encounter 1-1 and winning the preceding two 3-1. Post-La Paz, after the full Venezuela squad reconvenes at CNAR, they will head over to Puerto Ordaz for this game looking to give the Estadio Cachamay public something to cheer about. Indeed, not only did the 1-0 debacle against Paraguay occur at this ground but in September it was also the site of two dreadful displays: a 3-0 reversal meted out by Honduras which was followed by a 1-1 draw with Panama on a bog of a pitch. An on-field apology of sorts is very much in order.

Predicting who will line-up for this second fixture is only marginally more problematic than that of the Bolivia game. Nevertheless, what follows is a brief overview of some players to look out for in the upcoming week, starting with the La Paz trip.

venezuelabolivia

20-man Venezuela squad for the trip to face Bolivia in La Paz (photo: @SeleVinotinto)

Players to Keep an Eye Out For

‘The following are the matches of our lives. We have to go out with impetus. [We] can not give away more points.’ Experienced Franklin Lucena understands the significance of these two games and will more than likely start in La Paz, either as a central defender or a holding midfielder. This is owing to his club outings this season at Colombia’s Once Caldas who play home matches at over 2,000 metres above sea-level and who are accustomed to similar levels of altitude in certain away matches. For similar reasons, Luis Manuel Seijas of Colombia’s Independiente Santa Fe has also been touted for a place in the line-up. If both men start, then Lucena will be more than likely at the back with Seijas partnering captain Tomás Rincón in defensive midfield – that is, if El General of Genoa has recovered from his injury.

First-team spots have also been rumoured for the versatile right-back/wide-man Alexander González (Young Boys) and centre-back Wilker Ángel (Deportivo Táchira), who both scored the last time Venezuela played in La Paz in a 3-2 defeat in November 2014. So long as he has shaken off his minor injury then first-choice goalkeeper Alain Baroja (AEK Athens) will be between the sticks. Once again, the attacking positions are the hardest to predict though, if utilised effectively, there is certainly talent in the 20-man squad: Josef Martínez (Torino), Jhon Murillo (Tondela, on loan from Benfica), Juan Falcón (Metz) and Mario Rondón (Shijiazhuang Ever Bright) may all be granted a chance to wangle their respective ways into the long-term thinking of Chita.

Regarding potential starters from the home-based crop, aside from Ángel, few strong rumours exist though Sanvicente has said he is keen on giving youth a chance. If he follows through on this, many fans will be keen to see international debuts granted to 20-year-olds Carlos Cermeño, a highly rated defence-minded player at Táchira, and Caracas’ attacking full-back, Jefre Vargas. However, one youngster who will not be featuring is the league’s top-scorer, 21-year-old Manuel Arteaga who, despite intiially being called up to the full squad, was the victim of some kind of communication failure between his club and country and so was unable to make the trip. On a more experienced note, midfielder Arquímedes Figuera (Deportivo La Guaira) can not be too far away from a starting berth, having featured as a substitute against Brazil.

Who from this group will be in a state to play against Ecuador is anyone’s guess though it can be said with the closest thing to certainty that the following cracks will start in Puerto Ordaz: right-back Roberto Rosales (Málaga), centre-back Oswaldo Vizcarrondo (Nantes) and striker Salomón Rondón (West Bromwich Albion).

The locals as well as most fans will also be keen to see Christian Santos and Jeffrén Suárez, two men born in the state but who were raised in other countries and who have only in the past year acquired the relevant citizenship documentation to represent La Vinotinto. The former in particular has been in eye-catching form, banging in 9 goals in 12 games for NEC Nijmegen in his debut season in the Dutch Eredivisie. The latter has also shown promising form as he seeks to revitalise his career with KAS Eupen, who currently reside at the top of the Belgian second tier. One other individual who, due to injury troubles, is featuring in his first international squad since he ran the show away to Honduras in February is 23-year-old Rómulo Otero (Huachipato). For some, a possible successor to Juan Arango, this Chile-based playmaker has long been tipped for a long-term spell in the first team.

Alas, this is all largely educated conjecture at this stage. On matchdays, Sanvicente’s line-ups tend to be revealed in advance to the press, so those interested in being in the know at least a couple of hours before kick-off should either return to this page for a short update or follow @DarrenSpherical on Twitter. Otherwise, enjoy the games and feel free to return for some thoughts on them in the upcoming week.

UPDATE (12 November): This, courtesy of @SoccerDataVEN, is the Venezuela line-up that will face Bolivia:

venezuelavsbolivialineup

Full Venezuela Squad

Goalkeepers: Alain Baroja (AEK Athens), José Contreras (Deportivo Táchira) and Wuilker Faríñez (Caracas FC).

Defenders: Wilker Ángel (Deportivo Táchira), Francisco Carabalí (Mineros de Guayana), Carlos Cermeño (Deportivo Táchira), Jhon Chancellor (Mineros de Guayana), Gabriel Cichero (Sion), Alexander González (Young Boys), Roberto Rosales (Málaga), Jefre Vargas (Caracas FC), José Manuel Velásquez (Arouca) and Oswaldo Vizcarrondo (Nantes).

Midfielders: Rafael Acosta (Mineros de Guayana), Arquímedes Figuera (Deportivo La Guaira), César González (Deportivo Táchira), Jacobo Kouffati (Deportivo Lara), Franklin Lucena (Once Caldas, on loan from Deportivo La Guaira), Jhon Murillo (Tondela, on loan from Benfica), Rómulo Otero (Huachipato), Tomás Rincón (Genoa), Luis Manuel Seijas (Independiente Santa Fe) and Ronald Vargas (AEK Athens).

Forwards: Richard Blanco (Mineros de Guayana), Juan Falcón (Metz), Josef Martínez (Torino), Mario Rondón (Shijiazhuang Ever Bright), Salomón Rondón (West Bromwich Albion), Christian Santos (NEC Nijmegen) and Jeffren Suárez (KAS Eupen),

Notes: Fernando Amorebieta (Middlesbrough, on loan from Fulham) and Juan Pablo Añor (Málaga) were initially called up to the 33-man squad but have since been ruled out due to injury.

Also, Manuel Arteaga (Zulia) was also in the initial squad but has been unable to join up with the group following a communication problem between his club and the Venezuelan football association (FVF).

Darren Spherical

@DarrenSpherical