Operation: Z-Day (Episode 9 – Shep: Managerial Globetrotter)

It’ll be hard to avoid his name in team sheet selections now.

Now I gave the media a bit of stick a few weeks back after they tried to pit Rangel and Morison against each other. So when they show up at the training ground, I’m hesitant to ask why but it turns out that it’s for a good cause. Gabby Gomez, our veteran captain, has been named the Primera A Player of the Month for February. Considering most teams played seven or eight games, he had a lot of competition. Teofilo Guterriez scored six goals for Junior, Jeison Lucumi scored three and assisted three from out wide for Nacional. But El Capitano fought them all away with his masterclasses in midfield that more than warrant the award. Seeing him hold his award as the camera flashes,  I shoot him a wink and leave him for his interview. Hopefully, this is the first of many for Bucaramanga.

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Even more good news as after this game against Patriotas Boyaco, we only have the one game a week. This gives us the flexibility to spread out training and give me more free time. I feel like it’s been non stop since the opening day against Pasto and all the travelling around Colombia has made me feel like ripping my hair out my skull at points. But, we’re over the hump and we’ve done exceptionally well so far so long may it continue.

Aguirre is the man in goal today and Jose Jaimes gets his first appearance for the club as he asked me to start this particular match. He comes in for Quintero with Morison and Rangel up front. It’s still a strong side elsewhere and I’m confident we can pick up another three points today.

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Patriotas have the first attempt of the match a couple minutes in when Echavarria controls a move before playing a switch that catches Salazar out after a few swift passes. Salazar tries to make up for his mistake by sliding in to either tackle or block Avila from progressing but he sends Kevin to the shop with a simple drag back. He pushes the ball forward onto his right and blasts a shot off the post. It takes us another 10 minutes to get a foothold and come back at them with a looping Salazar cross finding Jose Jaimes at the back post but he heads it a few yards over.

The deadlock is broken in the 27th minute when Salazar wins a corner and goes over to take it. He raises four fingers to signal a corner tactic in which all players run from the edge of the box. Kevin drills a ball into the front post when Rangel rises above three red shirts and power a header into the very top corner. I can’t help but shout with excitement as I jump up and throw a punch into the air. He’s finally broke his bloody duck and judging by his erratic leaps between steps, it means a lot to him. As his team-mates finish mobbing him, I tap my wrist roughly before giving him a big thumbs up. He flashes a grin my way as the game restarts.

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Patriotas don’t give up however as Harold is outdone by a simple 1-2 shortly after we take the lead. Torres does well to cover for him and force Osorio to shoot wide of the mark. The last chance of the half comes in the 42nd minute when a Rangel cross is headed as far as Jaimes. He volleys it forward to Gabby who hits a volley of his own into the face of Malagon. It’s nearly a vital one as it beats the goalkeeper but can only skim the far post and go out for a corner. Salazar aims for the penalty spot and the head of Steve Morison but it bounces off the shoulder a defender and flies past his face. It bounces up to Jaimes who touches the ball into his chest and flings his left peg high to twat a volley into the roof of the net. You really could not write it. A debut goal after asking for his chance and boy has he took it. The score at half-time is 2-0 and things couldn’t be going more swimmingly.

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The second half is a bit more back and forth but chances are of a limited supply. With half an hour left, Nunez and Rovira are brought on for the shattered Cardenas and Gomez. The armband is again passed to Steve Morison. The lull in play continues until the 69th minute when Benavidez surges forward and skins Salazar before offloading to Osorio. He’s completely free to touch and shoot from around 10 yards but Aguirre pulls out a great save to parry it away. Romero prepares to come on and the moment Rangel’s number is shown on the fourth official’s board, rapturous applause from the away end ensues. He’s slightly tearful as I pat him on the back and hand him his coat.

Once Romero takes the field, Torres boots a ball upfield to start a counter. Morison and Romero exchange possession before Rodriguez pings a pearler over for Romero who uses his pace to leave tired defenders in the dust. He enters the box and opens his body to curl a shot home but he can’t quite get all the whip needed as he rattles the post. Mosquera gets to the rebound first but tries a suicide pass back across the box that bounces up off the leg of Steve Morison. It neatly falls for Romero to strike on the turn but it’s straight into the keeper. Nunez was screaming for the cutback but it would have been hard for Sergio to make that call in a split second.

The game sizzles back down to it’s prior boredom and we take home another three points. Aguirre impressed me when called upon and Jaimes actually picked up Man of the Match. He completed every pass, tackle and dribble he attempted and he didn’t shy away from the ball either. Well played son, you’ve just put yourself into the mix for the rest of the season.

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Something which really takes me by surprise is the fact there’s an offer for Jhon Perez waiting in my voicemail. From Bundesliga side Hamburger SV. It’s a bit of a low ball from the Germans at just £710’000 but after a brief phone call, I manage to knock it up to £800’000 which is about £50’000 more than my lowest agreeable deal. This leaves it down to Perez to negotiate his contract and the offer of European football and a decent pay rise should get it over the line. Fingers crossed.

Morison comes to me wanting to start in hopes of carrying on his good from against Huila. I oblige but he will be the lone striker as my second creation is going to unveiled today. Commence ‘Operation: Z-Day’.

Operation: Z-Day is a variation of your standard 4-3-3 except the three in midfield are organised in a diagonal line. The three up top, the jagged midfield and back line form the shape of the letter ‘Z’. Hence the name Z-Day. Nunez and Quintero are the wingers and I’m intrigued to see how Quintero does. Ricardo has been urging me to try him out wide but I haven’t had the chance until now. Asprilla is on the bench for a injection of pace later on.

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It takes just under 10 minutes for the first chance to arise when Tipton flies down the touchline before placing a deep cross to Lopez. He puts it on a tee for Barreiro to smash a volley past Ramos and give them the lead. Ramos did get a touch on it but it was from point blank range so I can’t expect him to stop that.

Not long after the goal, Huila are coming forward again with Barreiro playing provider with a low cross in. A poor clearance from Harold stitches up Torres with Herrera pouncing to half volley into the ground. It’s an awkward bounce but Ramos gets a hand to it and after a mad scramble to deal with the back-spinning ball but it just goes wide. On the half hour mark, we finally get a chance of our own with Morison moving up and picking out the run on Quintero. He cuts back and waits for Cardenas to be borderline offside before playing a chip over for him to volley goalwards. The Huila keeper pushes away with his foot as its too central. Nunez looks destined to follow up and equalise but a last ditch slide from Berrio denies Maxi the chance to shoot.

A few minutes before the end of the first half, Huila are knocking the ball around beautifully with the final pass cutting through the back line. Diego Gomez hits the sweetest strike, cutting across the ball to give it enough swerve to come back inside and clip the inside of the near post to make it 2-0. Ramos was static as it was hit with so much venom, there was little use in diving for it. I do give them a bit of a stick in the changing rooms with my slowly improving Spanish but more in the disappointed father way.

We don’t step things up a gear as it’s Huila who have the first chance of the second half in the 58th minute. A deflected Herrera shot skims over to Lopez who forces an unreal save from Ramos to keep the scoreline respectable. It’s very similar to his last minute save against Junior, sprawling across the goal and flinging a strong hand in the way. In the 71st minute, I finally admit defeat as they ball sails out for a Bucaramanga goal kick and bring out Operation: Spearhead to try and salvage a result. Rovira, Asprilla and Romero all come on.

Not even a minute after the change, it appears to work perfectly as the goal kick is flicked on to Morison by Asprilla. The Huila defence are flat footed and Romero exposes them all as he peels behind to latch onto Morison’s ball over. He wastes no time in controlling and smashing it into the back of the net with his second touch of the game to make it 2-1. Comeback on?

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Comeback fucking on. A sloppy pass just seconds after Huila kick off is intercepted by Steve who again threads Romero through on goal. He runs it close to goal and shoots but the reflex jump of the trailing arm from Castillo just about clears the ball over the crossbar. The corner that comes in is a good one which Rovira meets, only to be cleared an inch away from crossing the line.

We don’t let up and really keep pushing for what would be a brilliant point but all our hard work comes undone as a Barriero cross enters our box. Gonzalez just can’t reach it with his head which leaves Diego Gomez an open goal to grab his brace and put any dreams of a comeback to bed. It’s heartbreaking as we were really coming into our own and troubling the Huila defence but alas, it’s 3-1 with five minutes to go.

Gomez gets a chance for his hat-trick with a minute left as he slides to meet a low ball but he can’t direct it goalwards with the game finishing shortly after. Huila have truly outclassed us today and had Romero’s second shot not been saved, it would have been our first thoroughly undeserved point of the season. We’ll probably get one at some point but right now, the pride of earning all the points we have is a big deal. And if we have to be pushed around on the odd occasion, so be it.

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Our next game against Rionegras Aguilas is our last until the 7th of April meaning we have a whole 3 weeks off before playing the under-performing America De Cali. They’re currently sat in 13th place and will most likely use that three weeks off to reset and come back to face us on a clean slate.

The debut of Operation: Z-Day was a mixed bag. There were some positives as I felt the width we were given was brilliant but considering our full backs usually provide the width with their supporting runs, we were prone to being understaffed at the back. It needs to be revised before we can use it again so we’re back to our ol’ reliable 4-1-2-1-2. It’s only really dawned on me that we don’t have a cool name for our usual shape and I’d hate for it to feel excluded.

Operation: Diamond. Simple, rolls off the tongue. So, our return to Operation: Diamond allows Quinones to get his first start under my management with Cufre and Vallecilla as the wing backs. Mojica is another fringe player who gets the nod in front of Cardenas and Quintero, with Nunez alongside Rangel as a striker. He’s played very well as a striker when called upon so I decide to throw him top with the newly confident Rangel and see how they work together.

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We get off to a promising start when a high ball is nodded down by Quintero to Mojica. He’s completely unmarked around 25 yards out so he waits for it to settle before trying to whip a shot round into the top right and he isn’t far away as it bounces of the pole behind the goal that’s holding the net upright.

We keep up a high level of intensity and by the 20th minute, we’re really in control. We’re passing around the outside Aguilas box for a short while and Nunez gets himself tangled with the ball underneath his feet. He does manage to get a shot off that beats the keeper but hits the woodwork. Luckily, Cardenas is there to tap home the rebound for his first goal since pre-season to make it 1-0. It’s only another 5 minutes before we double our lead when a recently cautioned Vallecilla takes a throw in about level with the Rionegros 18 yard box. Nunez passes it to Quintero who deftly flicks a cross into the middle for Rangel to leap and squeeze a header the right side of the woodwork. He couldn’t score for toffee and now he’s scored twice in his last two. Let’s pray the floodgates have opened for his sake.

There’s only one chance of note before half time that just prefaces the whistle as Cufre runs half the length of the pitch before playing it into the centre. Nunez connects with a volley as he stumbles back but the keeper is at full stretch to push it round the post. The corner isn’t taken as the ref blows for half-time. With everything going according to plan, a stark contrast to this point in our previous game, no changes are made to either tactics or personnel.

In the 58th minute, Vallecilla does well to shield ball out wide before cutting back to Quintero. Cesar manoeuvres through the midfield until Cardenas is open on the edge of the box to aim for the bottom right but Valencia gets down to save. Asprilla replaces the average Mojica in attacking midfield. My remaining two subs come on quarter of an hour later with Marlon Torres covering at right back and Jose Jaimes taking to the field in a defensive set up.

Or so you’d think. Asprilla bursts away into the Rionegros half and waits to thread a ball in for Nunez. It’s got slightly too much on it so Maxi drags it wide and lays it off for Torres to put a peach of a cross into the middle for who else but the 6’4 frame of Jose Jaimes to plant a header off the underside of the bar and into the back of the net for our third. You couldn’t write it, the impact he’s having on the Bucaramanga faithful. 2 goals in as many appearances and contributing all over the pitch. It’ll be hard to avoid his name in team sheet selections now.

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As is the story with our season so far, there always has to be a negative towards the end to dampen all the good vibes. In the 84th minute, Franco weights a pass between Palacios and Cufre. Our defensive line are all bunched up and confusion ensues. Arango squares across to Mauricio Gomez who puts his laces through the ball without any real consideration for direction. It’s flying straight into the right leg of Ramos until he slides towards the ball, effectively dodging it and giving it an unchallenged path into the middle of the goal. I have no idea what he was thinking and I have no intention of mentioning it. Maybe if I avoid the issue as much as Ramos avoids his clean sheets, it’ll all vanish into thin air. Regardless, the game has no further shots and ends as a reverse of our previous game: a 3-1 win.

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Once I finally get home to my quirky little Piso 18 flat, I collapse exhausted onto my bed. Only to be rudely awakened by a knock of the door minutes later. I open the door to greet Jhon Perez and Oscar Alvarez. Jhon has agreed personal terms with Hamburg and will be ending his fourth spell at Bucaramanga on July 1st. Alvarez decides to take along to inform me that only £550’000 of his fee will be made available for transfers. The missing quarter of a million is Oscar’s ‘fair’ chunk as compensation for the whole youth scout extravaganza. It’s understandable as of right now but truthfully, I can’t wait for the day when we have talent coming out of our arse and he has to admit he was wrong. I’m already practicing my ‘I told you so’ grin.

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