Tag Archives: Sema Velázquez

USA 1-1 Venezuela – International Friendly (3 June 2017)

Somewhat overshadowed by events in South Korea, Venezuela’s senior national side have begun their two-stop American tour…

International Friendly

Saturday 3 June 2017 – Rio Tinto Stadium, Salt Lake City, Utah, USA

USA 1-1 Venezuela

Video Highlights of USA 1-1 Venezuela, International Friendly, 3 June 2017 (YouTube)

Youthful Venezuela Maintain Composure To Earn A Draw

As younger representatives of the two nations were preparing to face one another shortly afterwards at the Under-20 World Cup, the seniors of Venezuela and the USA played to a draw that the South Americans may come away happier with.

Indeed, fielding an XI featuring just two or three players who, based on recent encounters, could be described as regulars, they initially found themselves on the backfoot. In these opening exchanges, they were content to sit back and wait for potential counter-attacking opportunities as the Americans got forward. However, their CONCACAF opponents, in turn, were unable to really test goalkeeper José Contreras, instead only being able to cause some mild fright amongst the backline. To give the first of a few examples, in the 14th minute the creative Fabian Johnson appeared to have an opening on the edge of the area and thus played a neat through-ball towards Clint Dempsey, though this narrowly evaded the Seattle Sounders striker. Three minutes later, from a similarly promising position inside the area, Dempsey was unable to finish off a decent chipped forward ball, with centre-back Sema Velázquez instead getting in a foot to divert the ball towards Contreras. Then, shortly afterwards in the 19th minute, wonderboy Christian Pulisic received a cut back on the inside-left of the area, though his shot was always rising and went a few yards over.

Throughout all of this, Venezuela managed to get forward a couple of times, Darwin Machís’ 10th-minute stepover and blasted low cross being perhaps their most significant moment. That said, when they scored in the 29th minute, it was certainly against the run of play. This goal came as Junior Moreno’s corner was knocked back out towards him only for his header to send the ball straight back into the goalmouth where centre-back Velázquez instinctively stretched out a high leg to hi-yah the ball home for 1-0.

Subsequently, Venezuela had a couple more opportunities with impressive international debutant Moreno involved in both. The 23-year-old Zulia midfielder has some footballing pedigree as his father Carlos Horacio Moreno briefly managed the national side in 1989 (and was also sadly caught up in the nation’s seemingly never-ending cycle of violence late last year when he was shot – albeit thankfully not fatally). Here, in the 33rd minute, Moreno Jr. did well to find some space and strike a fine swerving right-footed shot from 30 yards, which required a good low save from goalkeeper Tim Howard. From the subsequent corner, Moreno’s ball was headed on and reached left-back Rubert Quijada, whose nodded effort was well-gloved by Howard onto the post.

Upon half-time, the USA – who wore shirts with rainbow-coloured numbers to show their support for the LBGTQ community – had to confront the fact that for all their early possession, they had encountered a well-organised makeshift Venezuela and would need to find more effective ways of breaking them down.

Three minutes after the restart, they had a half-chance when Dempsey rose well to a cross from the left, yet headed slightly wide of the near post. Up the other end in the 55th minute, Christian Santos was to curl an effort not too far over from the edge of the area, though six minutes later, his side were to be pegged back. Indeed, just after the hour-mark, Borussia Dortmund starlet Pulisic did well to evade a challenge on the inside-left before striking low with his left boot across goal and past the despairing dive of Contreras. 1-1.

The remaining half-hour was rather short on clear opportunities and/or any real rhythm as both teams struck a blow against competitive action by making six substitutions each. One of these, Venezuela’s Jefferson Savarino, was making his debut in front of the fans of his new club Real Salt Lake and, in the 74th minute just two minutes after coming on, impressively roamed into space. He got into a good position on the inside-right and played a decent chipped ball forward, though the otherwise quiet Salomón Rondón was unable to control this.

The USA, on the other hand, caused a minor scare when Michael Bradley’s 80th-minute low ball upfield had to be cleared by the onrushing Contreras and, at the death, had another moment of note when Omar González headed a couple of yards wide from a corner.

Overall, acting manager Marcos Mathías as well as the South Korea-residing Rafael Dudamel must be pleased with this outcome, particularly the defensive solidity and organisation that their men displayed, not to mention the attacking threat of Moreno. Unsurprisingly given the nature of the match, its timing as well as the mutual unfamiliarity of so many in the Vinotinto shirts, it was far from a classic, but if they can put in a similar shift on Thursday, then it will surely be considered a worthwhile journey.

Team Selections

USA (4-1-3-2): T. Howard; D. Yedlin (G. Zusi, 90+1′), G. Cameron (O. González, 46′), J. Brooks (M. Hedges, 56′), J. Villafaña; M. Bradley; F. Johnson (T. Ream, 63′), C. Pulisic, D. Nagbe (J. Morris, 70′); B. Wood, C. Dempsey (K. Acosta, 63′).

Venezuela (4-4-2): J. Contreras; P. Camacho, S. Velázquez (Y. Osorio, 56′), M. Villanueva, R. Quijada; J. Murillo (J. Vargas, 89′), J. Moreno (F. La Mantía, 83′), F. Flores, D. Machís (A. Romero, 67′);  S. Rondón (A. Ponce, 90+3′) & C. Santos (J. Savarino, 72′).

The second game of Venezuela’s American trip is on Thursday 8 June 2017 against Ecuador. For live updates on this match, please follow @DarrenSpherical and, for a full report with video highlights, do consider returning to Hispanospherical.com a day or so after the full-time whistle.

Darren Spherical

@DarrenSpherical

Venezuela’s Friendly Internationals – June 2017 Preview

At the end of April, two friendlies were announced to aid La Vinotinto‘s preparations for a more prosperous future, though now in early June, most Venezuelan minds are focused elsewhere. Here, the beleaguered @DarrenSpherical takes a quick look at the squad preparing to face the USA and Ecuador…

International Friendlies

Saturday 3 June 2017 – Rio Tinto Stadium, Salt Lake City, Utah, USA

USA vs Venezuela

Thursday 8 June 2017 – FAU Stadium, Boca Ratón, Florida

Ecuador vs Venezuela

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Venezuela assistant manager, Marcos Mathías (GettyImages)

Places Up For Grabs in the States

Since La Vinotinto‘s last pair of disappointing outings in March, the FVF have managed to cobble together two warm-up games before the team concludes their depressing World Cup Qualifying campaign later this year.

However, coach Rafael Dudamel will not be overseeing these two America-based encounters as he is currently in South Korea where he has led his remarkable Under-20 squad to the Quarter-finals of the World Cup. Indeed, the head-turning Sub-20 side have won all four of their games without conceding a goal and their do-or-die clash with USA’s youngsters shall commence barely two hours after the seniors of both nations have duked it out in Salt Lake City.

Thus, assistant manager Marcos Mathías will instead be leading this still-rather-youthful 27-man squad into battle in the States and will have to make do without the likes of Wuilker Faríñez, Yangel Herrera, Adalberto Peñaranda and Yeferson Soteldo. At least three, if not all, of these players – as well as some others currently in South Korea – have strong chances of being regulars in a future rebuilt Venezuela on the road to Qatar 2022 and there are several, more senior, players who have also not made the trip.

Most significantly, the captain Tomás Rincón will be somewhat preoccupied with the small matter of the Cardiff-hosted Champions League Final which his Juventus will contest against Real Madrid. One wonders how many Venezuelans will have the stamina to watch this game, plus the first senior friendly some five hours later and then the Under-20 knock-out tie.

There are again no places in the squad for the Málaga pair of Juanpi and Roberto Rosales. Regarding the former, who has recently been spotted in his home country participating in political demonstrations, he has had an injury-plagued 2017 though when he recuperates he will surely be welcomed back to the fold with open arms. However, this is something that is difficult to assert regarding Rosales – who has also made his anti-government sentiments known – as, though he is currently also carrying a knock, he was also surprisingly left out of March’s World Cup Qualifying double-header despite being fully fit.

Another absentee is forward Josef Martínez (Atalanta United), who was injured against Peru three months ago and has yet to resurface on a professional pitch – though he is apparently knocking on the door for a return at club level. Otherwise, as he was in March, goalkeeper Dani Hernández is again left out, though this is probably due to him still being involved in Tenerife’s vital promotion push. Also, possibly owing to some poor performances for the national team, there is no place for Terek Grozny’s Wilker Ángel.

One says “probably” and “possibly” because there has not been a great deal of press coverage for these two games, with Mathías/Dudamel’s plans shrouded in secrecy and/or a yawning cloud of indifference.

Still, what can be said is that there is a surprise return to the squad for Alain Baroja (Sud América, Uruguay, on loan from Cádiz CF, Spain) who, some two years ago had looked as if he could be Venezuela’s number one goalkeeper for the long haul yet, after some galling errors, was banished into international exile. This is his first-ever call-up in Dudamel’s 14-month reign.

There are also a fair few players in this squad who ply their trade in the domestic league, such as striker Edder Farías, who has scored 22 times in his last 37 league matches for Caracas FC. It would be greatly beneficial for Venezuela to have more options up top for when Martínez and/or West Brom’s Salomón Rondón – who has also been included – are unavailable. Farías could well provide one possible alternative though another possibility is 20-year-old Jefferson Savarino, a more versatile forward/attacking-midfielder, who was banging in the goals for Zulia until recently moving on loan to the MLS with Real Salt Lake. Who knows, for the USA game at the Rio Tinto Stadium, there may even be a few locals in the stands on hand to give him a wave, if not a cheer.

Otherwise, one can not help but feel these games are good opportunities for some of the more experienced-yet-still-relatively-young individuals to further entrench themselves in the coaching staff’s thinking following their appearances in March’s qualifiers. Perhaps chief amongst this crop are the likes of attacking-midfielders Darwin Machís (Leganés, on loan from Granada, Spain), Jhon Murillo (Tondela, on loan from Benfica, Portugal) and Rómulo Otero** (Atlético Mineiro, Brazil on loan from Huachipato, Chile).

Ultimately, though one is not anticipating a vintage set of clashes on American soil, with almost every first-team place seemingly up for grabs – barring Rincón’s and Rondón’s – these are undoubtedly good chances for these players to make it hard for Dudamel, Mathías and co. to overlook them come August.

To keep up-to-date with these two friendly encounters, please follow @DarrenSpherical on Twitter and check back to Hispanospherical.com for match reports and highlights.

Venezuela Squad

Goalkeepers

Alain Baroja (Sud América, Uruguay, on loan from Cádiz CF, Spain) & José Contreras (Deportivo Táchira).

Defenders

Pablo Camacho (Deportivo Táchira), Jhon Chancellor (Delfín, Ecuador), Rolf Feltscher (Real Zaragoza, on loan from Getafe, Spain), Alexander González (Huesca, Spain), José Luis Marrufo (Mineros de Guayana), Yordan Osorio (Tondela, Portugal), Rubert Quijada (Caracas FC), Jefre Vargas (Arouca, Portugal, on loan from Caracas), José Manuel “Sema” Velázquez (Arouca, Portugal) &  Mikel Villanueva (Málaga, Spain).

Midfielders

Arquímedes Figuera (Universitario, Peru), Francisco Flores (Mineros de Guayana), Alejandro Guerra (Palmeiras, Brazil), Jacobo Kouffati (Millonarios, Colombia), Francisco La Mantía (Deportivo La Guaira), Darwin Machís (Leganés, on loan from Granada, Spain), Júnior Moreno (Zulia FC), Jhon Murillo (Tondela, on loan from Benfica, Portugal), Rómulo Otero (Atlético Mineiro, Brazil, on loan from Huachipato, Chile), Aristóteles Romero (Mineros de Guayana) & Jefferson Savarino (Real Salt Lake, USA, on loan from Zulia).

Forwards

Edder Farías (Caracas FC), Andrés Ponce (Lugano, Switzerland, on loan from Sampdoria, Italy), Salomón Rondón (West Bromwich Albion, England) & Christian Santos (Deportivo Alavés, Spain).

**Please note that, according to renowned journalist Juan Sifontes, the following players will not be available for the clash vs USA: Alexander González, Jhon Chancellor, Rolf Feltscher, Arquímedes Figuera, Alejandro Guerra, Jacobo Kouffati and Rómulo Otero.

venezuelasquadjune2017

(Source: @SeleVinotinto)

Darren Spherical

@DarrenSpherical

Venezuela’s CONMEBOL Qualifying Campaign for FIFA World Cup 2018 – March 2017 Preview

Jornadas 13 and 14 of the CONMEBOL World Cup 2018 Qualifying Campaign have finally arrived and whilst Venezuela have long been out of the running, they’re now playing the long-term game. Here, @DarrenSpherical takes a look at the squad preparing to face Peru and Chile…

CONMEBOL Qualifiers for FIFA World Cup 2018

Thursday 23 March 2017 – Estadio Monumental de Maturín, Maturín, Monagas State

Venezuela vs Peru

Tuesday 28 March 2017 – Estadio Monumental David Arellano, Macul, Santiago

Chile vs Venezuela

josefmartinez2

Josef Martínez Celebrating in the Snow in Atlanta United’s 6-1 win away to Minneapolis United, MLS, 12 March 2017 (Image: josefmartinez17)

Dudamel Bids To Rejuvenate Venezuela’s Long-term Ambitions

A Youthful Injection

Four months on from their last two fixtures, Venezuela return to competitive action as they enter the final third of their 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign. Despite being bottom of the ten-team group and long since out of serious contention, manager Rafael Dudamel has said in the build-up that his men shall approach the games with Peru and Chile as if they are wilfully ignorant of the CONMEBOL table.

Well, what else could he say, really? Coasting it for the next six games was never going to be an option when there is a future out there to be won. Thus, as was also anticipated, Dudamel is looking to try out and integrate new faces to give La Vinotinto the best chance of fulfilling their collective potential by the time qualification for Qatar 2022 rolls around. This was partly expected as changes in personnel and/or tactics were clearly needed, but also because of the widely-celebrated success earlier this year of the World Cup-qualifying Under-20 national team, who Dudamel also manages. All of the three stand-out performers, Yeferson Soteldo, Yangel Herrera and Wuilker Fariñez, have made it into this 28-man squad and, having already debuted for the senior team, must fancy their chances of call-ups for the foreseeable future.

Admittedly, 5 feet 3 inch-dribbler Soteldo (Huachipato, Chile) will have his work cut out to earn a regular starting place in the unsettled attacking line behind the striker(s). Here, the front-runners in recent times have included Josef Martínez (Atlanta United, USA), Rómulo Otero (Atlético Mineiro, Brazil, on loan from Huachipato, Chile), Alejandro Guerra (Palmeiras, Brazil), Adalberto Peñaranda (Málaga, Spain, on loan from Watford, England) and the injured Juanpi. However, given the fluidity and rotation of the players in this area, Soteldo could well gain some minutes over the next week; if not, waiting in the wings are the marginally older yet similarly inexperienced internationals, Jhon Murillo (Tondela, on loan from Benfica, Portugal), Jacobo Kouffaty (Millonarios, Ecuador) and Darwin Machís (CD Leganés, on loan from Granada, Spain).

Under-20 captain Herrera, recently signed by Manchester City and shipped over to New York City FC, currently appears to have a much stronger chance of consistently seeing first-team action for the seniors. Indeed, Tomás Rincón (Juventus, Italy), captain of the big boys, could do with a consistent partner-in-crime in front of the back four. The likes of Renzo Zambrano (Real Valladolid, Spain) and Arquímedes Figuera (Universitario, Peru) have been tried but Herrera, a man not shy of a challenge (and a yellow card) who can also be a positive influence further upfield, may have more to his game. Momentum is on his side.

This can also certainly be said of Caracas FC’s Fariñez, even if is not yet clear if the universally acclaimed goalkeeper of the Sudamericano Sub-20 tournament will get the nod over domestic rival José Contreras (Deportivo Táchira). He is the favourite but if he loses out, he does nevertheless seem a safe bet for a run as first-choice at some point; time will tell if the sprightly 5-feet-9-incher can – to repeat a recurring theme – become a mainstay of future line-ups.

This goalkeeping issue as well as the inclusion of one other member of the Under-20 squad – Joel Graterol, who never featured between the sticks in the tournament and has hardly ever done so for domestic side Carabobo FC – leads into a less anticipated matter.

Surprise Omissions

First of all, there’s no place for Dani Hernández. He had reclaimed the No. 1 jersey at last year’s Copa América Centenario and, though the side has since leaked goals, accusatory fingers have rarely been pointed his way. Perhaps more pertinently, since the national side last convened he has been a vital component of Tenerife’s promotion push to return to the Spanish top-flight, contributing to an impressive defensive record. His absence has caught many off-guard and while there has been idle – though plausible – speculation that his club side may have requested he stay to play in their crucial domestic fixtures, there has been no explanation from Dudamel.

Also left out is experienced centre-back Oswaldo Vizcarrondo, virtually an ever-present for La Vinotinto who has earned over 80 caps. 33 in May, though Dudamel has stressed that the Nantes man hasn’t been put out to pasture just yet, he has also stated that he wishes to open up opportunities for others. That will have been news to the ears of 25-year-old Jhon Chancellor, who has recently moved to Ecuadorian side Delfin and may receive a rare opportunity. Alternatively, Wilker Ángel (Terek Grozny, Russia) and Sema Velázquez (Arouca, Portugal) had once looked the likeliest contenders to form a consistent partnership with Vizcarrondo or each other, though their performances, particularly that of Ángel, have often left much to be desired. Though they haven’t played themselves out of contention just yet, Vizcarrondo’s partner for the previous two games was instead Mikel Villanueva. Dudamel has said how he prefers to consider the Málaga man for a position in the middle, rather than at left-back, where he can also play; thus instead on this flank, it is Rolf Feltscher (Real Zaragoza, on loan from Getafe, Spain) and Rubert Quijada (Caracas FC) who will be competing for the manager’s approval.

Over on the right side of defence, however, is where the most surprising omission is concerned. Despite being Mr. Consistent at club level, a mainstay of Málaga’s defence for nearly three years now (which has included three clean sheets in five games against Barcelona) and easily one of Venezuela’s most high-profile performers, there is no place for Roberto Rosales. Given that he’s 28 years old, it’s a bit premature for him to be making way for a new generation. In justification, Dudamel has asserted that Alexander González of Spanish second-tier side Huesca has impressed by taking advantage of his opportunities since they first came his way following an injury to Rosales at last June’s Copa América Centenario. Yet whilst González has looked assured in glimpses, he has also played in several comfortable losses, though even if one is in accord with Dudamel’s viewpoint, champions of Rosales find his outright exclusion with Víctor García (Nacional, on loan from Porto, Portugal) as back-up hard to swallow. At best, this decision may instil a determination in Rosales not to be complacent for his nation, though if not matching club performances at international level were consistently enforced grounds for exclusion, none of this mob would survive three consecutive call-ups.

High-Profile Concerns…and Some Joy

With no Rosales, there shall be no Three R’s, leaving Salomón Rondón (West Bromwich Albion, England) and Tomás Rincón as the only two players in the current squad who can be classed as dead certs to be repeatedly named as starters. Naturally then, there are nevertheless some concerns about this pair, which have been aired in the Venezuelan media: with Rondón, it’s his goal drought in the Premier League since his hat-trick against Swansea City on 14 December; with Rincón, it’s his lack of match-time since his big move from Genoa to Juventus back in the January transfer window.

Rincón is one of ten players in the present selección who have moved club since the national team was last convened. One of these, Adalberto Peñaranda, has also struggled to make it onto the field, both for Udinese at the start of the campaign and, since January, new club Málaga. Though the Andalusian outfit twice managed the remarkable feat of fielding four Venezuelans in January, these have also been Peñaranda’s only two appearances. His stock has fallen somewhat since this time last year, when he was being hyped by football hacks as a potential superstar off the back of little more than a handful of observed appearances. However, as he is still a mere 19 years of age, Dudamel has included him in part so that support can be provided and spirits hopefully raised.

As always, there shall be much competition for one of the inner-channel/flank positions behind the striker(s) that the jinking Peñaranda is tailor-made for. One potential rival, who could also be moved elsewhere along the line or up front with Rondón, is 23-year-old Josef Martínez – another man who has recently moved clubs. By contrast, however, three games and five goals into his MLS career with Atlanta United, he has already been proclaimed a rip-roaring success; so much so, in fact, that Tata Martino’s club have just this week been able to make the loan deal from Torino a permanent one. Though a starting spot is not always guaranteed for him, he does tend to link up well with Rondón, either from behind or in tandem. As Rondón was injured last November, Martínez was afforded the rare opportunity of leading the attack alone and managed to notch a hat-trick against Bolivia. If, any time soon, the unthinkable happens and Rondón actually loses his place when fit, then the Atlanta new-boy – also his country’s top-scorer in qualifying with five – is easily the front-runner to displace.

Is It Even Possible To Pick Up Momentum?

Overall then, as always there is much speculation and few concrete certainties except the predominance of uncertainties. Several players are likely to be given new and/or rare opportunities over the upcoming two games and almost all of those who start can not feel too comfortable about this consistently recurring for the remainder of the campaign, let alone for the next few years. However, as the subsequent two qualifiers are not for another five months, one can not help but query in advance the weight that may be placed on the upcoming two matches in informing August’s squad. As evidenced by the justification behind Rosales’ omission, Dudamel is willing to overlook long-standing club form in favour of what he sees in these comparatively short spells when the men on his radar don the burgundy shirts. If this is the case, then Herrera, Soteldo and Fariñez will have more opportunities than most to sway his mind, given that he will be leading them to the Under-20 World Cup in two months’s time.

Nevertheless, despite the omissions and the new-look rearguard, there’s plenty of attacking talent in their ranks. A home win against Peru – who they should have beaten away in March 2016 but let a 2-0 lead become a 2-2 draw – is precisely the result a Venezuelan side challenging for World Cup qualification should attain; to do so would provide a significant boost to the hitherto underwhelmed faithful and subsequently decrease fears of another tonking from Chile. The last one came after the draw in Lima and turned out to be Noel Sanvicente’s last ever game as Venezuela manager; a year on, two more positive results against the same opposition would mark a symbolic shift in the right direction for Rafael Dudamel.

To read about how Venezuela get on against both Peru and Chile, please check back here and/or follow @DarrenSpherical on Twitter. 

Venezuela Squad

Goalkeepers

José Contreras (Deportivo Táchira, Venezuela), Wuilker Fariñez (Caracas FC, Venezuela) & Joel Graterol (Carabobo FC, Venezuela).

Defenders

Wilker Ángel (Terek Grozny, Russia), Jhon Chancellor (Delfin, Ecuador), Rolf Feltscher (Real Zaragoza, on loan from Getafe, Spain), Víctor García (Nacional, on loan from Porto, Portugal), Alexander González (Huesca, Spain), Rubert Quijada (Caracas FC, Venezuela), José Manuel ‘Sema’ Velázquez (Arouca, Portugal) & Mikel Villanueva (Málaga, Spain).

Midfielders

Arquímedes Figuera (Universitario, Peru), Francisco Flores (Mineros de Guayana, Venezuela), Alejandro Guerra (Palmeiras, Brazil), Yangel Herrera (New York City FC, USA, on loan from Manchester City, England), Jacobo Kouffaty (Millonarios, Ecuador), Darwin Machís (CD Leganés, on loan from Granada, Spain), Jhon Murillo (Tondela, on loan from Benfica, Portugal), Rómulo Otero (Atlético Mineiro, Brazil, on loan from Huachipato, Chile), Adalberto Peñaranda (Málaga, Spain, on loan from Watford, England), Tomás Rincón (Juventus, Italy), Aristóteles Romero (Mineros de Guayana, Venezuela), Yeferson Soteldo (Huachipato, Chile) & Renzo Zambrano (Real Valladolid, Spain). 

Forwards

Josef Martínez (Atlanta United, USA), Andrés Ponce (Lugano, Switzerland, on loan from Sampdoria, Italy), Salomón Rondón (West Bromwich Albion, England) & Christian Santos (Alaves, Spain).

venezuelasquadmarch2017

(Image: @SeleVinotinto)

Darren Spherical

@DarrenSpherical

Venezuela 2-2 Argentina– CONMEBOL Qualification Stage for FIFA World Cup 2018 (6 September 2016)

The eighth matchday of La Vinotinto’s 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign yielded one point more than anticipated yet two less than many Venezuelans felt attainable at half-time. Here, Hispanospherical.com provides a full match report plus thoughts…

CONMEBOL Qualifying Stage for FIFA World Cup 2018

Tuesday 6 September 2016 – El Estadio Metropolitano de Mérida, Mérida State

Venezuela 2-2 Argentina

Video Highlights of Venezuela 2-2 Argentina, 6 September 2016, CONMEBOL Qualifying Stage for FIFA World Cup 2018 (YouTube)

Mixed Emotions for Both Sides as Juanpi Announces Himself on the International Stage

Match Report

‘Bottom versus top’ could have been mistaken for ‘seventh versus eighth’ as what began as a tepid affair ended as a slugfest with Venezuela being denied a famous victory.

La Vinotinto went into the game with just one point, having just been comfortably dispatched 2-0 by neighbours Colombia, yet really needing to raise the morale of their compatriots in the Andean city of Mérida. Pace-setters Argentina were thus hardly the ideal opponents. However, the hosts were far from overawed in the opening half and with each passing period of play, the pre-game predictions of a pounding proved increasingly preposterous.

Indeed, the first threat they had to contend with – the closest Edgardo Bauza’s men came all half – occurred in the 16th minute. Inter Milan new-boy Éver Banega received a pass centrally, quickly turned and from 25 yards out struck a low drive that went just wide of the far post. Banega often appeared to be one of his side’s likeliest catalysts for a goal as at times he enjoyed plenty of midfield space in which to roam before searching for a key, incisive pass – though this latter, crucial phase largely proved elusive.

Ángel Di María, with his tormenting runs down the wing and balls into the area, was a more noticeable threat in the first period. Just after the 20th minute, he crossed in a fine ball for Lucas Pratto, but the Atlético Mineiro striker – playing in part due to the absences of several more high-profile strikers – stretched but could not make a meaningful connection. He certainly did, however, in the 32nd minute, when he met Di María’s cross but his solid header was a little too close to goalkeeper Dani Hernández, who managed to get his body behind it.

The hosts’ early chances were hardly much more threatening. Rafael Dudamel’s men sometimes resorted to pumping long balls towards star striker Salomón Rondón, but this rarely proved propitious, even if it was a cunning way of bypassing Javier Mascherano. The West Bromwich Albion forward did nevertheless have his country’s first opportunity of note when, after 21 minutes, he received the ball just outside the area. However, although some space opened up for him, it was not enough to warrant the headlines that must have been swirling in his head; he may have shaped up with intent but his tame shot trickled goalwards for goalkeeper Sergio Romero to gratefully collect.

One Venezuelan causing more problems for the Argentine back-line was Rondón’s strike-partner, Josef Martínez. He regularly beat defenders for pace, causing uncertainty as well as winning throws and corners. In the 23rd minute, he was especially of concern when he received a pass in the area and soon hit the deck, but his penalty claim was waved away.

The other leading attacking threat for the hosts in this half was the man who was to break the deadlock. The profile of Juan Pablo ‘Juanpi’ Añor has been rising since he made his Málaga debut two years ago, with last season’s exploits really helping him emerge to prominence in La Liga. Aiding his cause in particular during that campaign were three goals in consecutive weeks (including one against Barcelona) and he is already off the mark for 2016/17. With the experienced Alejandro Guerra and Luis Manuel Seijas not part of this particular squad, he has been provided with opportunities to bolster his claims for a first-team spot in midfield. Overall, he has taken them.

Yet though he is capable of pinpoint accuracy from dead-ball situations, thankfully his largely wayward set-pieces throughout this half are unlikely to be used as arguments against future starts. Indeed, it is more the events in the 35th minute that shall be uppermost in most people’s minds when the line-up for the trip to Uruguay in October is being mulled over.

As befitting a largely listless half, it came almost out of nowhere. Rondón’s low cross in from the right was cut out before being immediately knocked back to the edge of the area, where it fell to the feet of Juanpi. Two players quickly tried to close him down yet somehow he bundled his way through them, before making some space for himself on the right corner of the area. Judging by the reaction of at least one Argentine defender, they did not consider him a serious threat from this position. Big mistake. Before anyone could get near enough to him, he unleashed a phenomenal strike that scorched past Romero and nearly burst the top corner of the net. The crowd erupted and the 22-year-old diminutive Málaga maestro was mobbed by his team-mates, both starters and subs alike. His first international goal, his formal arrival on this stage; aficionados of this balletic young man’s career will have been aware that it bore more than a slight resemblance to his first ever club goal against Levante in January 2015. Now, all Venezuelans know that no matter how bleak their nation’s prospects often seem, there will always be reason to keep an eye on them so long as the likes of Juanpi are in embryo.

Just four minutes later, Dudamel’s men nearly enhanced the euphoria in the ground to unprecedented levels. Rondón helped the ball on to Alexander González on the right inside the area. The Huesca right-back quickly slid the ball into the goalmouth where Josef Martínez was waiting and the goal was a-gaping, yet the Torino striker was narrowly beaten to the ball by Pablo Zabaleta, who managed to clear.

Thus, when the half-time whistle blew, the hosts had to resign themselves to being just 1-0 up against the No. 1 ranked side in the world. In the ever-bewildering and screen-throttling social media world, more than a few were quick to denigrate Venezuela’s lead by pointing out that Lionel Messi was missing and that this was a ‘depleted’ Argentine team. Risible claims, as aside from two attacking players, this was virtually a first-choice Albiceleste XI and, as no Venezuelan was staggered to observe, the hosts had problems of their own. Indeed, they made four changes from the Colombia loss, all of which were forced upon Dudamel: three of the four defenders were out (two due to suspensions, one due to injury) and one of the defensive-midfielders (suspended) was also unavailable. Such absences made their lead and hitherto ability to repel trouble all the more impressive.

Yet when the second half kicked off, the visitors returned with more intent to extricate themselves from the mire that they had slipped in. Much anticipation greeted Banega’s free-kick in the 50th minute, but when he finally took it, the ball sailed comfortably over. The hosts were nevertheless able to withstand such pressure and not long afterwards they broke free up the other end where Rondón nearly fed in Martínez, but the latter had his run abruptly blocked off.

However, shortly afterwards in the 53rd minute, the same combination sent the stands into raptures. The nation’s talisman robbed a hapless defender flailing in the Mérida rain and strode into the area, where he slipped a short pass to his Serie A-based partner who, with the visitors on the back foot, was afforded acres of space. Had he desired to, Martínez would have had time to whip out the day’s paper and read his horoscopes before pulling the trigger; regardless of what it would have said, the Torino man certainly would have felt it was his lucky day when his well-placed shot hit the back of the net. 2-0.

Over the next 20 minutes or so, the hosts celebrated their dizzying lead by going immediately on the defensive as Argentina raised their game and/or Venezuela pondered the ‘2-0 is the most dangerous lead in football’ cliché for a bit too long. Given such a change in approach, it came as little surprise when the visitors halved the deficit in the 58th minute. Here, Erik Lamela was gifted plenty of space to slide the ball through to Pratto in the area. Despite having left-back Mikel Villanueva and centre-back Sema Velázquez seemingly on his case, it seemed a little too easy for him. He nudged the ball forward and it ricocheted off Villanueva back to him in slightly more space and he simply toe-poked it goalwards past the possibly blindsided Hernández. 2-1. Game well and truly on.

Bauza’s men thus went on the hunt for an equaliser. Some more shaky goalkeeping from Hernández from a corner was to follow not long afterwards and the visitors were not too far from catching him out in the 66th minute. Here, Banega, on the inside-left just outside the area, went for a cross-shot which rebounded kindly off a defender, thus necessitating the Tenerife goalkeeper to scramble over to ensure his near post was covered. He got there just in time to block out the resultant shot that Di María fired from an acute angle from inside the area on the left.

One rare reprieve from the pressure came after 74 minutes when the much-touted 19-year-old Adalberto Peñaranda burst forward and gave a rare glimpse of why he made so many headlines at Granada last season. In a characteristically direct run, he passed through a few Argentine shirts before being cynically fouled not far from the area. This bought his nation some time, though the free-kick was duly squandered.

With the clock not ticking fast enough, Dudamel made some changes yet his second, replacing Martínez with Ecuador-based Jacobo Kouffaty, unfortunately did not reap the desired dividends. Indeed, officially he lasted no more than three minutes before succumbing to an injury and being replaced by Yonathan Del Valle in the 81st minute.

Compounding Kouffaty’s misery, as he was walking dejectedly along the sidelines, Di María whipped in a low corner which was clinically struck into the back of the net to level things up. Manchester City’s Nicolás Otamendi beat his centre-back counterpart Velázquez to the ball and restored some pride for his nation. Now, they were favourites to snatch all three points.

Ultimately, although they certainly put the jitters up their hosts, it was in fact Venezuela who came closest to emerging victorious in a five-goal thriller. First, with five minutes remaining, Juanpi curled in a free-kick from the right with his left boot which Romero went to catch but was easily beaten in the air by Rondón – unfortunately for the latter, his header also comfortably cleared the crossbar when it seemed as if with a bit more direction, he could well have won the game.

It was a let-off for the Manchester United goalkeeper and yet with a minute of regulation time left, he somehow had time to emerge relatively unscathed from an even greater howler. This time, Juanpi’s central free-kick from range bounced harmlessly through to the out-of-favour stopper, yet perhaps his rustiness affected him, as he was slow in anticipating the ball’s trajectory. Instead of catching it, the ball caught him by surprise and bounced off his chest and straight to Villanueva. The 23-year-old Atlético Malagueño left-back instinctively struck at the ball in textbook centre-forward fashion; he had Romero well beat but unfortunately his effort cannoned straight back off the near post.

Alas, the final whistle soon blew and it was greeted by both sides with a mixture of emotions. The visitors’ comeback could not mask the fact that they had once again struggled to contend with the absence of Messi and had been displaced from their perch, now finding themselves 3rd in the CONMEBOL standings. For the hosts, while it is a credible point, they will surely feel that they could have added a little more dignity to their campaign by gaining their first victory.

With Peru having beaten Ecuador 1-0, Venezuela now find themselves five points adrift at the bottom on a paltry two points. Although ten games still remain, as Dudamel’s men are 11 points away from the play-off spot (5th), sights are undoubtedly now set on Qatar 2022 and not Russia 2018. Building a new team with the likes of Juanpi at its core will be uppermost in the manager’s thoughts. After all, next month will involve a trip to Uruguay (1st) and a home clash against Brazil (2nd); Rome was indeed not built in a day.

To keep up-to-date with the Venezuelan football world, feel free to follow @DarrenSpherical on Twitter. 

Team Selections

Venezuela (4-4-2): D. Hernández; A. González (V. García, 71′), O. Vizcarrondo, S. Velázquez, M. Villanueva; Juanpi, T. Rincón,  A. Flores, A. Peñaranda; S. Rondón & J. Martínez (J. Kouffaty, 78′) (Y. Del Valle, 81′).

Argentina (4-2-3-1): S. Romero; P. Zabaleta, N. Otamendi, R. Funes Mori, M. Rojo (N. Gaitán, 83′); J. Mascherano, L. Biglia (L. Alario, 71′); E. Lamela (Á. Correa, 67′), É. Banega, Á. Di María; L. Pratto.

Darren Spherical

@DarrenSpherical

Mexico 1-1 Venezuela -Copa América Centenario Group C (13 June 2016)

With the group stage complete, Venezuelans are slightly disappointed to have finished 2nd. Who would have thought…?

Copa América Centenario Group C

Monday 13 June 2016 – NRG Stadium, Houston, Texas, USA

Mexico 1-1 Venezuela 

Video Highlights of Mexico 1-1 Venezuela, Copa América Centenario Group C, 13 June 2016 (YouTube).

Corona Thwarts Resilient Venezuela 

Venezuela narrowly missed out on an unprecedented third consecutive Copa América victory, as Jesús Corona’s late strike means Rafael Dudamel’s men finish 2nd in Group C and will most likely face Argentina in the Quarter-Finals.

Up until the 80th minute, it looked as if La Vinotinto were going to defy the odds yet again as they put in a fine defensive performance, soaking up huge amounts of pressure and once more dispelling the myth that Venezuelans lack mental fortitude. The fact that they were facing a Mexico side with nine changes to their previous line-up should do little to undermine their achievement – especially as they themselves had made five, including consigning star man Salomón Rondón to the bench.

In contrast to their other two group games, Dudamel’s charges were quicker off the mark, with the opening goal coming after just 10 minutes. This time, Alejandro Guerra’s free-kick from the left was curled into the area where Christian Santos – making his debut in the tournament – headed the ball back towards centre-back Sema Velázquez. The Portugal-based centre-back, himself fielded instead of Oswaldo Vizcarrondo, was afforded an obscene amount of space to fire home a sensational bicycle kick. This was certainly not what the sea of green in the stands had eagerly paid months in advance of kick-off to see. Yet thrilled though the minority of Venezuelans were at the time, it could not have been long before a few cautious sorts began to contemplate the cliché regarding scoring ‘too early’. Indeed, if they were going to beat El Tri for the first ever time, they knew a lot of defensive work was going to be required.

That said, though Juan Carlos Osorio’s side had more of the ball in the first half, the quality of the chances they created certainly did not reward the voluminous and nerve-jangling support they received. Also, owing to the number of bodies they often committed forward, they were occasionally vulnerable on the break.

Indeed,  in the 22nd minute, a slight fright was provided by one Yonathan Del Valle, who from the left hustled his way into the area and struck a rasping shot which swerved wide of the far post. It was one of a few occasions that the Kasımpaşa attacker was to both remind the hardcore of his abilities as well as introduce himself to thousands, if not millions, of fans who may have missed him first time around. After all, this was a remarkable personal story, as it was the player’s first international appearance for four years, going back to June 2012 when the then-22 year-old was considered a potential star of the future. Yet, just a year ago around the time of his 25th birthday, angered by the subsequent lack of opportunities and being overlooked by then-manager Noel Sanvicente, he resigned from the national team. However, the tables appeared to have turned as while he faces much competition at the top of the field, one suspects that this will not be his final outing in the burgundy shirt.

Returning to the action, though it felt to many Venezuelans that just one error could bring them swiftly back down to earth, Mexico continued to threaten without really making the opposition goalkeeper work too hard. Their opportunities were no more than half-chances, such as in the 34th minute when Jorge Torres crossed in for Jesús Corona whose diving header went straight to Dani Hernández. Or four minutes later when Héctor Herrera’s corner was headed by Héctor Moreno against the arm of defender Wilker Ángel – claims were made, but nothing was given.

When the half-time whistle blew, plenty of Venezuelan fans were left daydreaming about the further kudos from unexpected quarters that three consecutive 1-0 victories would bring their nation.

After the restart, the game continued with Mexico dominating the play and they were to get closer and closer to the target as the final whistle approached. One early notable moment was in the 50th minute when Porto full-back Miguel Layún played a one-two on the left inside the area and slid it along the goalmouth where it looked like it was going to be a tapped in by Oribe Peralta. However, centre-back Ángel once again got himself in the way, this time rather dramatically as his extremely low diving head diverted the ball off for a corner. A fine example of a player putting himself on the line for his country.

There was little respite for Venezuela as in the 57th minute on the inside-right 30 yards out, Corona picked up the ball and struck hard with his left but his shot went several yards wide. Then, just after the hour-mark, Layún from 25 yards out hit a fearsome shot that Hernández simply punched as far away outside of his area as possible.

Three minutes later, a better chance was created as Layún played in a low ball from the left. Rolf Feltscher’s attempted clearance went straight to Jesús Molina who, first-time, instinctively hit the ball and had to watch it trickle agonisingly wide of the far post.

However, just before this moment, Del Valle had managed to get away from his marker to hit a low strike at the goalkeeper and, a few minutes later, his replacement Josef Martínez had a golden opportunity to double his nation’s lead. Indeed, the Torino forward was slid through just inside the area, yet though he had plenty to aim for, he struck far too close to goalkeeper José Corona.

Venezuela were made to rue this miss and were nearly back on level terms in the 75th minute when Herrera’s free-kick in from the right met the head of Diego Reyes. However, Hernández earned plaudits around the globe for his astonishing double-save as he stretched down low to thwart and then, with the goal gaping, also blocked out the rebound whilst on the floor.

Nevertheless, Mexico kept up the onslaught. In the 79th minute Corona embarked upon a fine run on the left, powering through the Venezuelan back-line before striking wide from the left of the area. La Vinotinto survived, though not for long as barely a minute later the tenacious Porto youngster roamed infield from the left before taking the ball directly past four or five players and then blasting home for a sensational equaliser. The Venezuelan rearguard, which up until this point had seemed inpenetrable, was made to look all-too-mortal by this humbling. It was a great moment of relief for the El Tri faithful.

However, though their opponents were on the ropes for the remainder of the game, they did not merely lay down and invite the inevitable. Instead, with just over five minutes left, out of nowhere Martínez chested and teed himself up for an overhead kick, which dipped tantalisingly and had to be parried out for a corner.

Nevertheless, it was generally Mexico who were on the front-foot and with two minutes left, they came close to completing the reversal. This time, a ball was pulled back from the right-hand byline for substitute and fan-favourite Javier Hernández. However, though ‘Chicarito’ had a fair amount of the goal to aim for, Velázquez managed to get in his way and block his shot.

Thus, when the final whistle went, though they no longer had a 100 per cent record in the tournament and had in fact experienced their first draw after 11 consecutive wins, Mexico could console themselves with their first-placed finish. However, if as seems likely, Chile finish 2nd in Group D,  one can not help but wonder if a meeting with last year’s winners is really much of a reward for Mexico emerging victorious from their own group.

For Venezuela, however, just being in the knock-out phase seems like a prize in itself. Also, though they will face some sublime attacking talent, they will have picked up plenty of confidence from the way their players have absorbed so much pressure in the past three games, conceding just one goal.

One can not help but wonder if these strengths will be crucial for La Vinotinto as they enter a stage of the tournament in which, for the quarter- and semi-finals at least, matches level after 90 minutes go straight to penalties.

To find out how Venezuela get on, remember to keep up-to-date with @DarrenSpherical and this website.

Team Selections

Mexico (4-5-1): José Corona; P. Aguilar, D. Reyes, H. Moreno, J. Torres (M. Layún, 46;); H. Lozano, H. Herrera, J. Molina (J. Hernández, 68′), A. Guardado, J. Aquino (Jesús Corona, 18′); O. Peralta.

Venezuela (4-4-2): D. Hernández; A. González, S. Velázquez, W. Ángel, R. Feltscher; A. Guerra (R. Otero, 83′), T. Rincón, L. Seijas, A. Peñaranda; C. Santos (S. Rondón, 78′) & Y. Del Valle (J. Martínez, 65′).

Darren Spherical

@DarrenSpherical