Los Leopardos (Episode 11 – Shep: Managerial Globetrotter)

Like a pride, ready to hunt down a fresh herd of buffalo that dared to stop at our watering hole.

I can’t bloody believe it. How have we bottled this? A nine point cushion with four games left and we threw it all away. Boos ring around Estadio Alfonso Lopez as Medellin applaud their small corner of away fans. I try to walk towards the tunnel to escape the judging glares but my feet physically won’t move. I’m forced to be jeered by the club I’d forced to love me. Rain spits down onto me with disrespect as I catch the eye of Oscar Alvarez, smoke visibly rising from his ears. I wince in preparation for the bollocking of a lifetime in front of 27’000 disparaging Bucaramanga fans. Oscar inhales, points his finger and begins.

As soon as the first boom of his thick accented voice echoes round the stadium, I shoot up out of bed dripping in sweat. Thank fuck, it was just a dream. I check my phone and see I have a text from Andreas asking to start against Envigado tomorrow. I drop him a text saying he was in the eleven anyways and get out of bed an hour earlier than planned.

Fresh from a 4-1 defeat and with only one victory to their name, Envigado are the first hurdle in our last sprint towards the knockouts. A win would secure a place in the top eight bar a miracle of goal scoring proportions and while it’s an important game, I want to field a side of younger/fringe players.

Aguirre is in goal and it’s extremely reassuring to have someone of his quality as our third choice. I wasn’t keen when I first saw him due to his height but he’s had great showings when he’s been in the side. Quinones comes in next to Gonzalez with Jeferson Torres and Asprilla coming into the midfield. As previously mentioned, Andreas Neumann will be getting his first start next to Romero. That does mean we have no real height up front which is something we’ve become used to so the message will be to get it and keep it on the ground. Romero has a decent vertical and can get up there if needed but Rangel and Jaimes are on the bench in case we need some heads to aim for late on. Jose Fellow Englishman George Saunders is in the middle of the park for our opponents today and I have a good chat with him before kick off. It feels strange talking to a London lad in the centre of Columbia but alas, the focus is three points. And we need them now more than ever.

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This game is looking like a slow burner as the first 15 minutes are a tad hesitant but the first opportunity is one of our own. We switch the play to Vallecilla who brings it down nicely before threading a pass into Neumann. He twists in and out a couple times before managing to get a ball central but Cardenas’ header is easily held by the backtracking Londono. It’s almost half time before the next real chance arrives. Envigado push forward with speed and Lemus puts a ball down the wing for Rubio to chase. Asprilla is covering but even he isn’t fast enough to track back and stop a first time cross. It lands at Moreno’s feet who wrong-foots Gomez before blasting home at the near post. Quinones did fly in with an attempt to block but he’s half a second late. 1-0 Envigado.

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We come ever so close to bringing it level before half time however as a game of head tennis between Jeferson Torres and Cardenas is continued over to Vallecilla. His first time half volley cross is deep and Torres wins the header but it bounces off a defender for a corner. Romero manages to lose his marker with a run through the pack but Arrieta is on the front post to get just enough of a touch to direct it onto the crossbar. It’s 1-1 if he isn’t there but we go in 1-0 down at the break. Neumann’s pace and wide support runs have been our best option and I sense we can easily get back into this so I refrain from making any changes.

It takes twenty minutes but my hunch was correct as after a long period of pressure, we win a corner. Salazar comes on for a creative spark and plays a part instantaneously. The corner is very poor and heading away from goal but Kevin puts it back into the mixer with a delicate chip. Gonzalez heads it on to Quintero who scissor kicks the ball down past the keeper from 6 yards. I don’t celebrate however as I scream out instructions with the hopes of capitalising and getting a winner.

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In the 73rd minute, the ball is worked out to Torres who puts a waist height cross in for Neumann to meet on the volley but he can’t wrap his foot round it enough and it’s a few yards wide. It’s his last action of the game as Rangel and Rodriguez replace him and Harold Gomez. Fabio is thrown straight in at the deep end as Torres and Quintero play it between each other before picking out Cardenas. A tasty heel flick leaves Rodriguez open and while his first time shot is powerful and heading for the far bottom corner, Londono does very well to drop low and push it away.

The last 10 minutes are painful to watch as it’s a game of pinball with no real football and the game ends in a 1-1 draw. We’ve been wasteful today and should have won this game against an under-performing side. Neumann looked promising today with his support play however and to get anything from a game when you’re down at half time is a plus. Mixed bag of a result.

*Meta-Note: Forgot to screen capture the result of this game, apologies!*

While we being held to a point, 9th place Tolimas picked up three points. This does mean they’ve gained some ground on us but unless we lose all three of our games and they win all three of theirs, we’ve done enough to get through.

I can’t help but feel sorry for Jhon Perez. He’s got the move he wanted, I’d told him he was starting against La Equidad but he’s only went and broke his ankle in training. The doctors predict he’ll be fit again just in time for his move to Germany but it’ll take him all of pre-season to build back up his fitness and state his case before the season starts.

Before the game against La Equidad, their manager, Luis Fernando Suarez, makes a remark to the press about Gabby Gomez being an emotional player who is ‘perceived as ill disciplined’. It absolutely reeks of reverse psychology so I come out and heap praise of our captain for his style of play. The following day, press show up at the training grounds in what’s becoming a monthly visit. Sherman Cardenas picks up the Player of the Month award that alluded him last month, That’s three on the bounce but who’s really counting, right?

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This is a nothing game for our opponents as they are 13th and the complete mirror of ourselves. While we are 99.9% confirmed to be in the Apetura play-offs, they are 99.9% confirmed not to be as they are 9 points away. This could be dangerous as when you have nothing to play for, that’s the best time to play. To try something new and different. Speaking of which…

Operation Z:Day is back! It’s the exact same shape, no tweaks, no differences apart from the personnel. Ramos returns along with Marlon Torres and Gabby Gomez. Jaimes is the man in the middle of our diagonal midfield as I think he’s the most capable player we have to play that role. Neumann is the attacking midfielder and he’s been told to play close to Quintero. Nunez is on the right with Morison the lone striker. It’s really pissing down in Bogota today but it’s not a sign okay. Operation Z:Day is going to emerge triumphant today.

It’s hard to articulate excitement in a foreign language. Trying to encourage a bunch of Spanish speaking footballers to get stuck in and play for the fans, stuff that rolls of the tongue in the dressing rooms of England. I rack my brain for a solution in front of a patiently waiting squad. Until it hits me.

“Los Leopardos!” I exclaim, startling a few of the lads closer to me. “Tu ere Los Leopardos, somos Los Leopardos!” I notice a few of the younger lads stifle a laugh as I frantically tap the badge, similar to Ricardo before the Leones game. “Feroz, implacable leopardos.” I stutter on my words trying to think of the translation for the conjunctive before saying it English.

“But, hoy… somos Leones!” Now I don’t know why but my instinct tells me the best thing to do is to roar. I roar the loudest fucking roar of my life and wave my arms upwards to jesture them to join. One by one, the sound grows until we sound like a pride, ready to hunt down a fresh herd of buffalo that dared to stop at our watering hole. I clap my hands and smack all of them on the back as we continue to roar down the tunnel and out onto the pitch. Let’s try this again shall we?

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5 minutes in, Zapata uses his first touch to flick the ball past Rodriguez and holds him at arms length while running half of the pitch. His low cross is struck beautifully by an unmarked Cabezas but he rattles the crossbar and Gomez clears before any scraps can be taken by the Equidad attackers. We’ve been massively let off there.

It’s only 10 minutes before we get a brilliant chance of our own with Neumann dropping deep to work a ball out to Gomez. It’s then on to Nunez who turns inside and passes to Morison. He lets it run through his legs to a wide open Neumann on the edge of the box but his shot is a poor one that loops over the bar. It was on his weaker foot to be fair but I’ve seen him do much better with his left in training. We attack again in the 28th minute when a Quintero ball across goal is just collected in time before Morison clatters into him. Steve gets a verbal warning but it was a matter of milliseconds between smashing into the keeper and tapping it into the net.

In the 39th minute, we finally break the deadlock after breaking down an Equidad attacks and pumping it up-field as quick as possible. Morison plays a lofted through ball over for Neumann to chase and the young German really has to use all of his blistering pace to keep it in play. He pulls out a stepover and fakes onto his left foot, allowing him to whip an inch perfect cross onto the head of Quintero who gets his second goal in as many games. I give Andreas a big thumbs up as that move was dead without his dedication.

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A minute before half time, Equidad are again lacking in defensive numbers as Quintero uses the outside of his boot to curve a pass into the feet of Neumann. A couple heavy touches help him to lose his man and he is clear through on goal, he has to score. But of course, he drags it wide. There’s not a drop of composure whatsoever in this kid. Romero, Morison and Rangel would have all scored that. He needs to work on his finishing so his case for a starting spot over them is valid. Half-time shortly follows and I give him a pat on the back as he’s done everything else right today. The entire team has actually but a second goal would make me a lot more comfortable.

The first half hour of the second half isn’t even worth mentioing apart from a few substitutions. On the hour mark, Rovira comes on for Jaimes and 10 minutes later, Mojica replaces the goalscorer Quintero. Mojica is involved within a few minutes of stepping on the pitch as he intercepts a sloppy Equidad pass and moves it up to Neumann. He plays a good ball behind for Morison who still has a lot to do. He shields the ball from two defenders before cutting it back to a wide open Neumann. His eyes light up, my arms involuntarily start to rise as he swings his right peg back… and slices it 3, maybe 4 yards wide. It’s the final straw in what’s been his best yet most frustrating showing in a Bucaramanga shirt to date as Cardenas comes on as my final change.

In the 82nd minute, our opponents finally decide to switch on and some quality passing draws a foul from Mojica just past the halfway line. Zapata floats a delicious ball in for De Alba to flick towards the bottom right but Ramos does excellently to save the initial header and follow up by smothering the rebound. He’s basically been a statue all game so well done to him for staying alert.

In the final minute of added time, we win a late corner which Gabby Gomez takes. Instead of playing it short and holding it until the whistle, he puts a great cross in which Morison meets with a bullet header. The keeper flaps at it and while he’s beaten, the crossbar denies Morison as it bounces onto the line and out of the box. Plenty think the score is 2-0 but the ref makes a point of letting the throw in being taken to show the crowd before calling time. Neumann picks up his first ever MOTM performance and while it’s thoroughly deserved, the three chances he got to score were golden and he didn’t even hit the target with any of them. He really needs to work on keeping his head and at least hitting the target.

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I have a voicemail on my office phone the next morning from Danish side Hobro IK reminding me that Jose Jaimes is still on the loan list and that they’d like to take him for a year. Following his recent emergence into the side, I kindly decline and take him off the list while putting Juan Jimenez up for sale. He’s only played a handful of minutes but hasn’t really impressed me at all. With Jaimes and Jeferson Torres being much better options to fall back on, it’s hard to justify his place in the squad. He does have a release clause of £540’000 in his contract but I’d imagine a figure around £450’000 would be a more likely offer for his services.

If he is shipped off, it would be give us some much appreciated funding before the summer transfer window. While incoming transfers are something we may be able to look into, we need to sort out new contracts for Aguirre, Harold Gomez and Asprilla who are key players with only months left on their contracts. Gonzalez and Jaimes could also do with new deals to take away, or at least raise, their release clauses too.

However, back to on the pitch matters. That win finally lets us breath that anticipated sigh of relief as we are mathematically unable to drop below 8th place. It’s in good timing too as our remaining two fixtures are Millonarios away followed by Independiente Medellin at home. The latter are just two points away from dropping out so if they need a result to confirm their place in the knockouts, it could be a fiery game.

Regardless, we’ve weathered the storm and my goal for the Apetura has been achieved with two weeks to spare. While I want to make some rotations and allow some of the less frequent players to shine, I don’t want us to roll over and accept defeat now we’re in the clear. Bucaramanga are not that type of team. Especially my Bucaramanga.

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