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 By Tim Vickery

Venezuela seek Argentina upset in the Copa America Centenario last eight

Venezuela celebrating
Venezuela have reached the quarterfinals for the third time in four Copa America tournaments.

The team that tops the table in South American World Cup qualifying, Uruguay, have already exited the Copa America Centenario, having been effectively eliminated by the team at the bottom of those standings, Venezuela.

How can this be explained? In part, perhaps, by the natural perversity of football. But this is also a case of a different format and a different coach.

The qualifiers are played on a home and away league basis and so there is onus on the host teams to take the initiative, while the visiting sides have to deal with long, tiring journeys and intimidating atmospheres.

A tournament is different. First, it is such a condensed version of reality: A team can pick up momentum and swell with confidence after a single favourable result and carry that into the next game just a few days later. Also, neutral ground means there is no blanket obligation to take risks, which are only necessary when a team is chasing the game.

This scenario has suited Venezuela, who have scored relatively early in all three of their matches and then been able to sit deep and soak up pressure.

A lack of defensive pace has been one of their key problems in the World Cup qualifiers but, over the last two weeks in the United States, they have only once had to force the issue. That came in the last few minutes against Mexico when they were looking for the win that would steer them clear from Argentina in the quarterfinals.

The other development is the change of coach. Noel Sanvincente was sacked at the end of March after the last two rounds of qualifiers and replaced by flamboyant former international goalkeeper Rafael Dudamel.

The mood in the camp has since improved beyond all measure. The relationship between Sanvincente and the players had all but broken down, with the coach at one point complaining in a post-match press conference that he was not receiving the support of his squad.

The president of the Venezuelan Football Association said that the players were deliberately losing matches in order to get the coach sacked and, when Sanvincente did not come to their defence, almost all of the senior members of the squad threatened to stop representing the national team. The coach's position had become untenable and Venezuela could only gain from his replacement.

At face value, little has changed. Dudamel has retained the tactical formation: A back four, plus two hard-working midfielders in the centre, a pair of more creative men working from wide and a contrasting pair of strikers, with one usually operating deeper than the other so that a 4-4-2 line up can look similar to a 4-2-3-1.

The new man in charge has also not made widespread changes in personnel; almost all of the Copa America squad were selected at some stage during the two-year reign of Sanvincente.

The biggest call has come in Dudamel's former position. A masterstroke decision saw the recall of goalkeeper Dani Hernandez, who was foolishly overlooked for the last year of Sanvincente's time in charge.

Hernandez has spread calm through a defensive unit that has been under pressure for long periods against Uruguay and, especially, Mexico. And Venezuela can expect to be under pressure for long periods against Argentina as well.

Lionel Messi has been nursed along by coach Gerardo Martino in the hope that he has enough gas in the tank to inspire his team to three more victories, which would mean that Argentina end their long wait, which dates back to 1993, for a senior title.

When Mexico's Jesus Corona danced his way through a tiring Venezuela defence to score a wonderful solo goal in the teams' final group game, an alarming thought must have crossed many Venezuelan minds: Next time we will be up against Messi.

How will they cope? The obvious move would be to employ the diligent lung power of defensive midfielder Arquimedes Figuera to close down Messi's space.

The problem, though, is that Figuera is always a candidate to pick up a card -- he missed the Mexico game after being booked in the opening two fixtures -- and so there has to be a risk of Venezuela going down to 10 men.

The suspicion is that Dani Hernandez and company will have to play the game of their lives to prevent Argentina from scoring. The good news, though, is that it is possible to see Venezuela causing the favourites a few problems at the other end.

One of their attacking midfielders, Alejandro Guerra, is playing the best football of his career. The other is teenager Adalberto Penaranda, who is filling out physically and has the fearlessness of youth. There are also some interesting options on the bench, such as free kick specialist Romulo Otero and the skilful Juan Pablo Anor.

And most of all, there is the forward partnership of Salomon Rondon and Josef Martinez; one a burly centre forward and the other a speed merchant. When Venezuela were looking for a goal in the last few minutes against Mexico, this pair nearly managed to get it.

They work well together, offering contrasting threats, and it is possible to imagine them troubling an Argentina back line that frequently fails to inspire much confidence.

One of the highpoints in the history of Venezuelan football was a 1-0 win over Argentina at the start of qualifying for the 2014 World Cup, which led to hopes of a tournament debut in Brazil. It did not happen; the campaign ended in disappointment.

This is their best moment since then. Argentina are the clearest of favourites in New England but, in a region historically associated with baseball, Rafael Dudamel and his men can still dream of hitting the biggest home run of their careers.

Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.


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