2018 Apetura Quarter-Finals (Episode 13 – Shep: Managerial Globetrotter)

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: rain is not a sign.

I crack open another bottle of beer and listen to the cap fall onto the tiles of my balcony. I take a huge swig before taking a seat in front of the evening sun setting behind the Estadio Alfonso Lopez. As initially hesitant as I was, I have to admit that Ricardo knows a view when he sees one. As crazy and as foreign as this job has been over the last six months, this is my safe space, this is my sanctuary.

Just as I’m thinking of his potential career path as an estate agent, he joins me outside and opens a bottle of his own. He jestures towards me and nods his head in acknowledgement before taking his first drink.

“Gervais, where do you think I can go from here?” He chokes on his drink a little and looks at me with a panicked expression. “No no, not like right now mate.” I chuckle. “I mean, in general. I love working here, I love the club, I love this bloody view. Just look at it!” I fling my arms outwards in a dramatic fashion, letting them slowly recoil to my armrests. “I don’t know, I just don’t see how I can do this, drink a beer on my sun-covered balcony with no interruptions anywhere else.” I turn to Ricardo, hoping for some form of guidance or interpretation I hadn’t thought of but he just shrugs. Not so differently to how he shrugged when Ruiz scored that sensational bicycle kick for Junior all that time ago. I shrug back and turn my attention to the thin archway of sun still visible over the top of the stadium. Maybe just shrugging is the answer. It doesn’t need an answer yet, I don’t need to worry about that right now. The only thing I have to worry about right is picking a team to face Millonarios tomorrow.

Before I detail the dilemmas and thought processes behind my team, Chilean side San Luis de Quillota have been in touch to pay Juan Jimenez out of his contract by offering all £540’000 of his release clause. I really hope he agrees to personal terms as he’s only 24 and needs game time which he’s not going to get here. Also, we need all the money we can get coming into the Clasura.

Now onto the team sheet. The only remotely easy choices were Ramos in goal, Quintero in midfield and our captain. The rest of the eleven were troublesome to pick but I think that this team can get the job done. I think.

Rodriguez is unlucky to miss out as Cufre starts at left back but the Argentinean has been outstanding in recent weeks. Gonzalez and Marlon Torres are our centre backs with Harold Gomez retaining his place on the right hand side. Gabby enforces in front of the back four with Cardenas and Quintero either side of him. Both have been quality over the last couple months but Quintero was a definite choice due to his physicality and contributions at both ends. Sherman is more of an Ozil, a luxury player if you will. Neumann starts in the middle of a wealth of experience with Morison and Romero in front of him. It’s a big, big ask for him to start this game and Nunez or Salazar could have easily came in but I want him to show what he can do today.

Today is the most nervous I’ve felt for any game of football by a country mile but I need to look calm and command my troops. If they sense that I’m not confident, they won’t be confident and the one thing we’ve had all season is the preemptive belief we can beat anybody. I’d happily take a replay of our score draw back to Bucaramanga but as long as we get that away goal on the board, we’ll be in a good position to push on at home. Once I finish my team-talk and the deafening roar of 36’000 Millionarios fans lingers outside the changing rooms, I order my men to march out there and do me proud. Here we go.

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Understandably, the first quarter of an hour is a cagey affair with a few dangerous tackles and cautious spells of play but it doesn’t take too long for the game to turn on it’s head. A Ramos’ goal kick is headed to Romero by Morison. Steve’s pass back is cut out but Cardenas pounces to play a delightful reverse ball for Neumann who’s completely free on goal. I’m holding my breath, flashbacks of his attempts against Equidad racing through my mind, as he runs into the box and calmly slots a left footed shot under Farinez’s foot and into the bottom right corner. I run out of my dugout and spring as high as I can, releasing an uppercut at the peak which Anthony Joshua would be proud of. If he ever could score his first goal in professional football, it would be right now. You beautiful German bastard. 1-0 Bucaramanga.

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After the goal, we’re immediately on the back foot. The words ‘holding on’ could easily be applied. Both sides do have the occasional half chance but the back lines stand strong and limited anything clear cut. In the second minute of added time, we win a corner which is taken by Cardenas. It’s a deep one that’s headed back across goal by Gonzalez to Morison who does brilliantly to aim a header of his own to the top left but the keeper leaps across goal to save. Millonarios are lucky as the man on the near post wasn’t tall enough to reach that and it was a certain goal otherwise. A blue shirt hammers the ball into the air and the ref brings a pretty mute first half to a close. We’re 1-0 up however so trying to alter a winning formula seems counter intuitive so we jog out with an unchanged side and an unchanged mindset

Millonarios come out and really throw bodies at us early in the second half. In the 50th minute, Barreto architects a move around our right hand side before getting a shot away but Ramos is equal to it. Not even 10 minutes later, a tight passing play from Millonarios out wide ends up at Barreto’s feet again. The wingers swings a shot in and really gets Ramos working a sweat but it hits the side netting. Close one to say the least.

We come back with consecutive chances of own shortly after however as some one touch passing in the 63rd minute allows Quintero to play Harold Gomez in behind. He looks up, spots Cardenas completely free at the back post and manages to pick him out with a lovely cross. Cardenas hits is after controlling but Farinez yanks it out of the air with lightning quick speed. A world class save to be fair to him. We’re not disheartened by the cat-like reflexex of their goalie though, especially Andreas Neumann. He bombs back to cover for a seemingly absent midfield and puts in a solid last ditch tackle but the referee calls it back for a foul as Romero is played 1-on-1. I start my rant but stop myself and signal Salazar to replace the youngster. He gets a hug and a pat on the back from myself and every member of our bench as he grabs his Bucaramanga jacket. Finally off the mark which means I can be smug as I like when I next see Alvarez.

In the 80th minute, Salazar works hard to intercept a pass and play a neat 1-2 with the captain. Morison collects possession and plays Romero through on the spin. Sergio puts his laces well and truly through the ball but subsequently, accuracy is sacrificed as it’s a few yards away from threatening Farinez. Rodriguez and Jaimes come on to help us sit back and defend our one goal lead and they do so perfectly. The referee’s whistle is a welcome sound that echoes around an almost silent Estadio El Campin. We take our away goal advantage back home with Neumann’s first goal of many the difference today. There’s only two words to describe how I feel: fucking buzzing.

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We were actually the only away side to score in the first leg of fixtures with Junior and Nacional taking 1-0 victories on the road while Deportivo Cali are probably planning for the semis after thrashing Independiente Medellin 3-0 in front of their home fans. Obviously, crazier things have happened but I cannot see that Deportivo defence conceding multiple goals if I’m honest.

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Jimenez has agreed terms with San Luis over in Chile and seems pretty excited to move over there. He won’t be getting any more game time with us unless a plague with a lust for first team midfielders kills off Gabby, Cesar, Rovira and Jaimes so it’s nice to see him further his career elsewhere. The best part is another £375’000 will be put into my hands when July 1st rolls around which means just under a million pounds total will be coming into the club. This is more than enough to tie down the players we need to with new contracts and maybe even dip our toes into the transfer market. In my spare time, I’ve been doing some digging and making some calls about the availability of ex-Premier League players. If we get ourselves into the Copa Libertadores, I bet a few big names could be persuaded to have their swansong, their last hoorah with the Bucaramanga boys. With all this money coming in, some more high profile and high earning players can be added to the shortlist under the bracket of ‘Realistic(?)’.

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We only train for half a day in between the first and second leg. I don’t want to over-work anyone before a crucial game. Quintero gives us all a scare when he has issues with his knee in training but luckily, it’s just bruised. He won’t be 100% fit for the reverse Millonarios fixture but he’ll be 100% if we advance.

With that in mind, my starting eleven has a few changes. Ramos keeps his place in goal but Rodriguez replaces Harold Gomez on the right. Marlon Torres is also dropped for Palacios. Jose Jaimes is in for Quintero with Rovira the midfield option on the bench. Salazar starts behind Rolls Royce. You might question why I’d drop Neumann after he’s finally got a goal under his belt but the lad’s only 17, he isn’t at peak physical form yet. I want him fit for the semis, if we get through of course, so he’s not even in the matchday squad..

It’s yet another rainy day in Bucaramanga which makes me question the yearly forecast I looked at in January. There’s already been 7 days worth of rain and we’re only at the back end of May. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: rain is not a sign. It’s actually when we play some of our best football so let’s hope today isn’t an anomaly. Semi-finals, here we come.

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The entire first half is a touch and go affair. Neither team wants to commit which obviously suits us with the goal lead but I can’t help but feel uneasy whenever the ball enters on own half. There’s not a chance worth mentioning until the first minute of added time when we win a corner which Gomez takes. The cross is headed out to Cardenas who volleys over his shoulder to Salazar. Kevin chips it in for Rangel to head up into the air. Farinez is too way indecisive and stutters between claiming the ball and staying on his line. He opts for the latter which allows Jaimes to run in and volley from point blank range but it’s straight into the keepers chest. The half ends immediately after and I imagine Farinez is going to on the wrong end of a bollocking for that. Our changing room is quite the contrast as we’re all happy and confident we can see this game out.

In the 52nd minute, a series of backheels and fancy passes leaves Gabby Gomez open to hit a thunderbolt from 20 yards towards goal but the keeper gets down with urgency to push it onto the post. He really stung the palms with that effort. Five minutes later, I make a double substitution with Nunez and Rovira coming on for Jaimes and Salazar.

In the 68th minute, a Cufre cross is deflected out for a corner so I decide to use my final sub with Steve Morison replacing Romero. The corner comes in and Gonzalez and Eliser Quinones battle with our man emerging victorious. It falls a metre behind Nunez but he does well to run back and strike on the turn. Matias de los Santos blocks on the line, the ball bobbles up for Morison to direct a shot through the legs of Duque and into the back of the net. It’s a scrappy goal, it’s an ugly goal but honestly, who the fuck cares? We can finally breath and relax with a two goal lead on aggregate but we can’t just switch off. Props to Morison for making an impact and scoring with his first touch but just cause one cloud has floated away, it doesn’t mean that plenty aren’t still lingering overhead.

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With 10 minutes left, I switch us to a 4-5-1 and ask the team to sit back until full time but my Bucaramanga team don’t listen all the time. Sometimes for the better. In the 84th minute, Rovira receives the ball in the middle and has all the time in the world to spot Cardenas’ run down the right hand side. Sherman pulls out a skillful little turn and finesses the ball into the mixer. Rovira continued his run all the way into the box and surprises everybody in the Alfonso Lopez with an exquisite header across goal as he’s falling back that loops straight into the top right corner. All I can say is wow. A technically beautiful goal to confirm our progression into the semis.

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Millonarios try their best to get anything, even a constellation goal, but we hold out and the full time whistle sparks pandemonium inside the Estadio Alfonso Lopez. Wild celebrations all around us, the team taking a lap or two of the pitch to clap the fans and sing the chants. And I can’t stop smiling from ear-to-ear.

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The other ties threw up some intriguing results. Nacional advanced after beating Santa Fe 2-0 in their own back yard, meaning they won 3-0 on aggregate. Deportivo Cali and Independiente Medellin finished as a 1-1 draw which obviously wasn’t enough for to overturn Cali’s 3-0 win a few days prior. Once Caldas did manage to pull off a surprise victory against Junior and were heading for the semis until heartbreak struck in the 80th minute. Junior pulled one back and even though they won, Junior advanced on away goals. Junior advanced to play us in the semis. Oh boy.

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While I believe that this Bucaramanga side can beat anybody put in front of them, I can’t help but recall to our game against Junior months ago in which we had to hold on for dear life to scrape a draw. Ironically, we’ll play at their place first meaning the decider will be in front of the Los Leopardos faithful but how much can a 12th man do if we’re already 3-0 down on aggregate?

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To make my worries even more evident, Ramos decides that this is the best time to sprain his knee. He comes to collect a cross in an exercise and lands awkwardly. The physios tell me that Nelson’s Apetura season is over as he will be out for around 3 weeks. Aguirre and Delgado are in the room at the time and I instantly snap to them. My eyes dart between them in a suggestive manner as one of them is going to have to step up to the plate and prove their capable. In the semi-finals against arguably the best team in Columbia. No pressure lads.

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