Collapse (Episode 20: Shep – Managerial Globetrotter)

Surely, our luck has got to turn soon.

For the first time in a while, I feel under pressure. After our amazing start which propelled us into the limelight, people were backing us to finish at the very tip of the table. However, our gritty showing against Junior and an underwhelming performance against Tolima have made me get a little hot under the collar. For my and Bucaramanga’s sake, I hope we can get back on our feet and pick up some big wins before the last few games of the season.

Arguably, it’s probably the best time for us to play Millonarios then. This will be our fourth time facing Jorge Pinto’s side so far in my short tenure here in Columbia but we beaten them twice and drawn once. History therefore suggests we are the favourites to pick up a win against the severely lacking 12th place side but they’ll be desperate for a win to get closer to the knockout spots. It really could go either way.

In hopes it will go our way, Marlon Torres is our captain to allow the in-form Jeferson Torres to take Gabby’s spot in midfield. Vallecilla also gets a start with Neumann playing behind Morison and Romero.

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Quarter of an hour into the game, Barreto and Marrugo trade possession with the latter slotting a weighted ball in between our two centre backs for del Valle to chase. Ramos makes the call to come out early and with Gonzalez right on his heels, del Valle tries to chip it over Ramos but it’s a yard or two wide. A risky decision from Nelson to come off his line but it paid off. Ten minutes later, del Valle is involved again as he plays Barreto down the line. Vallecilla just catches up as the winger drills a low ball across the face of goal. Gomez tries to stop it but he’s an inch away from cutting it out. Hauche is there at the back post but he can only smash his effort off the woodwork.

Apart from a late flurry of crosses and blocked efforts in the last couple minutes, there’s nothing worth mentioning in the rest of the first half. It’s a much harder game than I anticipated and it doesn’t help that nobody is making the runs in the final third. During my team-talk, I ask Neumann to roam freely round the attacking third and ask for the squad for more width. In a unprecedented move, I also request we switch to a long ball mentality to find those runners. Our strikers will be right of the shoulders, ready to chase. It’s not the prettiest style of football but management is situational and it feels right for this game.

I need to shut my fucking mouth. Just minutes into the second half, a ball over our defence is poorly cleared by Gonzalez. del Valles claims the ball and lays it off to Hauche who hits a laser from 20 yards into the bottom right. It’s honestly unstoppable and I don’t expect Ramos to do any better than his fragile dive but Marlon Torres turns sideways just before Hauche shoots. If he stayed facing the striker, the ball would have hit his shin and the score would still be 0-0.

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In the 58th minute, I make a double change with Rodriguez and Mojica coming on for Gomez and Neumann. Both are tired and bringing nothing to the game so some fresh legs and ideas could be beneficial. Shortly after they take to the field, our two strikers combine with some one touch passing with Romero being played in 1-on-1. For some reason, he tries a diving header for a waist height ball instead of volleying it and the keeper catches easily.

In the 76th minute, Gonzalez collects the ball from just inside our box and passes it to Cardenas. He’s fouled from behind but he stays on his feet with the ref playing the advantage and sweeps the ball to Jeferson Torres. His first time ball is flicked on by Quintero who plays Rodriguez on the overlap. We get a lucky bounce from the Dominguez tackle which allows Fabio to keep advancing before squaring it back for the arriving Mojica to control and smash past Farinez to bring us level. Our best string of play all game has brought us a goal and it was a textbook counter-attacking team goal. Hats off to the referee though as he let play continue after the foul on Cardenas. I make my final sub with Cardenas making way for Rangel and Morison dropping back. The question now is do we push for a winner or sit back for the draw?

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It’s looking like we’re not done yet as in the 83rd minute, a Quintero interception bounces high into the air but he shows his commitment as he flings himself at the ball to head it to Morison. It’s knocked between him, Torres and Mojica until Steve can play a ball behind for Romero. He puts it onto his right as he’s level with the penalty spot and curls a shot round the goalkeeper but he doesn’t get all the whip needed to be the hero as it grazes the far post.

There’s only two minutes of added time and just as we enter the second, we win a corner and pile men forward. It’s floated in by Mojica to the edge of the box runner Morison whose bullet header is amazingly saved by Farinez. Rangel heads it back across goal but the Millonarios keeper is up to tip it away from Quintero. Gonzalez tries to head home at the back post but it’s blocked off the line. Quintero tries to chip it back into the mix but Farinez comes out and claims. He has really kept them in it.

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Once the ball is kicked up the pitch, the ref brings an end to the game at 1-1. It’s probably a fair result considering how easily we could have been two or three goals down in the first half but we came to life after our equaliser and could have nicked it at the death. Surely, our luck has got to turn soon.

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Our youth scout Gallardo has been scouting and searching all of Santander over the last couple months and he’s actually found our first little gem. Seventeen year old Feliciano Guerrero has been highly recommended so I use a spare day to go and watch one of his local teams games. I’m not disappointed. A left midfielder that could grow into a technically brilliant winger, Guerrero is a very promising player. While we don’t use wingers often, it doesn’t mean I don’t want him involved with us in the future. Our first Colombian starlet is signed into our new youth academy and I make sure Alvarez knows about it.

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Coincidentally, our only other player to experience the youth set-up here comes into my office just as Gallardo is leaving. Andreas wants to start against 8th place Deportivo Pasto as he feels he’s playing well. I oblige and tell him he’s be partnering Rangel up top. We have Nacional next week so a win here would be ideal to keep spirits high and put us in good shape to face them.

Now Pasto are a team I expect to beat and normally, I would make a few more left wing inclusions. Our current run of games however isn’t good enough so I want to pick our best squad possible. Aguirre is getting a start in goal though as I want to start integrating him slowly into the side. It’s a big game for him as I’m weighing up my options for next season. It’s whether to bring a keeper in on loan to play second fiddle or buy a solid first choice in January and ship Aguirre out. Either way, he needs to impress today. Jaimes and Salazar are in the midfield with Gabby back captaining the side. I want nothing less than three points today and the lads all know that. My aggressive pre-game rant has made it clear.

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Eight minutes have passed by the time the game has been flipped on it’s head. Pasto are passing it round our right hand side with no difficulty. Palacios tees up Villota to hammer a shot past Aguirre for 1-0. Don’t get me wrong, he put his laces through that but Aguirre didn’t even attempt to save it when it was only a foot or two away. If he just swung an arm out, he probably would have stopped it. I give him a bollocking from the dugout but it’s disgraceful defending from everybody involved. Disgraceful.

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Five minutes later, the response is looking positive as Cardenas cheekily flicks it out wide for Salazar. He plays Neumann in who hits across his body with his left but the keeper is catlike with his reflexes as he flies up to pluck the ball out the air. From this point on, the first half is extremely frustrating. Teeth grind and blood veins pop as we constantly try different approaches to penetrate the Pasto goal. High and low, central and wide, nothing works for us. And the finite amount of times we manage to work it into a good position, there’s not a Bucaramanga shirt to finish it. Our ‘best’ moment of the first half is from a free kick late on after Copete hacks down Neumann on the left hand side and earns himself a spot in the referee’s notepad. Cardenas’ initial cross is headed out but Cufre is on hand to volley it well but it’s just over the crossbar.

We come back quickly in the second half and five minutes after Rangel gets us back underway, he has to turn back after dragging play out wide. He passes back to Rodriguez who dodges an impending challenge nicely before finding Gabby in the middle. He hears Cufre’s shout and clips a ball in behind for the wing back but his first time shot is saved. The keeper can only push it to the back post where Rangel is waiting to strike but as he pulls the trigger, he’s pushed off balance. He scuffs his shot into the ground, giving Losada time to scramble across goal and stop it from crossing the line.

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With half an hour left, I take off Jaimes and replace him with the more attacking minded option of Quintero. The substitute wastes no time in getting himself involved as he finds a delightful reverse ball for Salazar who has his strong shot from the edge of the box stopped by a great one handed save.

In the 77th minute, Salazar is in again but the ball gets tangled under his feet and he can’t get his shot away. He does manage to punt a pass to Gabby during his Bambi-on-ice impression but our captain hits his shot straight at the keeper. That through ball was Salazar’s last contribution to the game as Mojica replaces him. Romero also comes on for Neumann.

Pasto are having a rare venture into our box as the added time is shown on the fourth official’s board but Rodriguez smacks a poor cross clear. Rangel flicks a header on for Mojica who nutmegs the defender with his pass forward for Romero. He tries to lose Ortiz for pace and looks up to switch to a wide open Cardenas only to be clattered by the Pasto centre back. The ref clearly isn’t up to the same standard as in our previous game as he doesn’t even play an advantage and deems it a fair tackle. Luckily, Mojica reacts first and backheels the loose ball into Rangel who slides Cardenas in 1-on-1. Obviously, Losada keeps up his amazing display with a fingertip save that just directs the ball onto the post.

A few late corners are desperately cleared by Pasto bodies and they hold on for all three points. They had two shots all game, one of which went on target and into our goal. We had plenty more shots than them but we were wasteful and a complete shadow of our usual selves in front of goal. I’m really not happy with our recent performances and now we’re without in a win in four games right before we play Nacional. Which is fantastic.

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To make matters worse, Neumann has the cheek to tell me he thought he played well while training a couple days later. I honestly could have decked him there and then. In a move partially fueled by frustration after training, I send instructions out to my first team scouts asking them to look for tall, first team quality keepers in a direct fuck you to Aguirre.

Taking a press conference when you’re in a bad run of results can always backfire as journalists will always put pressure on you, steer you away from the predetermined responses you set yourself. So when I sit in front of the Santander press, I decide to give them what they want and tell them exactly how it is. Consistency is the key and the only thing close we’ve been over the last month is consistently shit. We’ve been off the pace and really need to rediscover our summer form. There’s plenty of questions about Rangel’s place in the team as he’s currently goalless in nine appearances throughout the Clasura. Even though he’s disappointed me just as much as anyone one else in my squad, I’m not a man to throw my players under the bus. I’m persistent that he will break his duck, similar to how he did in the Apetura, and rise like a phoenix from the ashes. God knows we need goals more than ever.

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The Japanese seem to have taking a fancy to Andreas Neumann as another J1 League team make an offer for his services. Urawa Reds decide they can’t afford the fee for him however and ask if they can take the young German on loan for a year. I audibly laugh down the phone and hang up after an abrupt no. Are they that daft?

Now for Nacional. They are massively under-performing as the current champions of Colombia as they aren’t even in the top eight. Salazar picked up his third yellow of the Clasura which means he is suspended and out of selection for this one. He’s someone who signifies our fall from grace over the last three or four weeks as he was on fire during August and has been barely noticeable since. An interesting statistic is that despite our recent affection towards losses and score draws, we’re still the best defensive side in the league, conceding only nine goals.

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Ramos is back in goal (obviously) and our main defensive four are back together again. Rovira starts against his parent club over Cardenas with Nunez taking the spot on the bench as the attacking midfielder option. Mojica is starting again as he’s finally playing somewhat close to how I expected him to play when I first saw him back in January. Morison and Romero are the two up front.

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Three minutes in, the welcoming warmth of hope flutters around my stomach as a Gabby misplaced pass is mopped up by Mojica and played wide to Gomez. He passes it inside for Mojica who chips a pass over his marker to Romero. He sets himself and hits a finesse with a lot of power round the defender but it’s a safe height for the keeper to get across and push away from his goal. Let’s keep this up, ey lads?

Numerous half chances and threatening attacks fill the rest of the first half but neither side are looking likely to find the vital first goal that would really open this game up. By half time, both teams only had a couple shots each so it’s a game that’s there for the taking. I’ve been pleased with our overall play, hence I leave the side untouched for the second fourty-five.

Over the first fifteen minutes of the half, we absolutely pepper the Nacional box with shots and passes of all types. The best chance falls in the 61st minute when Rovira heel chops a pass for Romero into the box but his low shot is well saved by Monetti.

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With just over twenty minutes to go, I bring on Rangel and Nunez on for Mojica and Morison as like-for-like substitutions. The remainder of the second half is similar to the first as we keep banging and banging on the door but we just can’t convert anything. The full time whistle can’t help but feel like it’s came early as we’ve constantly had the feeling that we’ll score in the next five minutes. We were by miles the better team today and thoroughly deserved to take three points back home.

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Despite our barren run and severe lack of points, we’re only three points behind the top spot which is split on goal difference between Deportes Tolima, Junior and Atletico Huila. Rionegro Aguilas and Deportivo Pasto are also in the current surprising top eight with only four games left. That means Millonarios, Deportivo Cali, our previous opponents Nacional and our next opponents Independiente Medellin all out of massively out of form and out of the knockout spots as a result. I’m hoping it can stay that way so we can face some of the easier teams on paper in the knockout stages but knowing our luck, we’ll probably draw Junior again.

Either way, we’re not guaranteed a place in the top eight yet. We need start playing well and winning games again. Fast.

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