2018 Clasura Quarter-Finals (Episode 23 – Shep: Managerial Globetrotter)

Can this be the turning point for Bucaramanga’s future, my own future? I fucking hope so.

Without a win in 9 games, gloom is a permanent fixture around Bucaramanga. The vibrant rays of enthralling, attacking football have been cut out by the thick grey clouds in which managers like Mark Hughes ride all the way to the bank. Failure and humiliation against the team that scraped past us in the Apetura semis is assumed to be unavoidable. Even the jolly optimists like Rodrigo, the groundsman, appear to be have drained by the last three month. Me and him both.

But what this draw presents us with is a chance to prove everybody wrong. On the biggest stage against the biggest odds. All the doubters and the haters, all the nay-sayers, the press, the pundits. Even our own fans. Not a single soul is expecting us to pull off a miracle and while I’m not predicting one myself, our destiny is in our hands. The ball is in our court and if any team was going to prevent the inevitable, it will be Atletico Bucaramanga. It will be Los Leopardos.

The eleven to begin the process of exacting revenge against our rivals is what most would consider our strongest side. Ramos in goal, Cufre and Gomez as wing backs. Quinones is on the bench but he will start at home depending on the score line here. He’s been sparsely used since I took over, only making a handful of appearances but with our current defence failing to impress, he may find his name prop up in conversation more now. Gabby Gomez and his leadership is needed more than ever in the middle with Cardenas and Quintero either side of him. Mojica gets yet another start today behind Morison and Romero as anything remotely creative seems to be going through him.

As we walk out to a dark Sunday night in Barranquilla, I have a quick chat with the Junior staff before taking up my place in the technical zone. The moment I stand still and watch my players wrap up their handshakes, I feel somebody tap my on the head. I turn around but nobody is within reaching distance to touch me. As I swing myself back round, another three little taps on my head. An evil grin spreads across my face. Rain. Time and time again I’ve spoke about rain, how it seems to have special powers on us. When I think back, I can’t remember a time in which I’ve been dripping wet during one of my many outbursts since September. It’s a sign from the footballing gods that our luck is about to turn.

Gabby catches my eye as huge droplets begin hammering down onto the surface of his outstretched palms and gives me a subtle nod. I was close to admitting defeat only a minute ago but that’s before the rain came. The rain that will stop our drought.

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Five minutes. Five minutes is all it takes for faith to be restored. Cardenas has back to goal but turns away from James Sanchez and gives it to Morison. He takes a poor first touch but makes up for it by threading a pass into Cufre but the left back’s shot is blocked Piedrahita. Braian holds him off and keeps the move alive with a quick change of pace to the byline before floating a superb ball to the back past where Mojica rises to head home. I jump up and release a fist pump I’ve been storing for almost half a year, nearly slipping on the wet grass as I touch back down. Can this be the turning point for Bucaramanga’s future, my own future? I fucking hope so.

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We’re really in gear now. Junior just can’t keep up with us! In the 15th minute, Gonzalez and Sambueza collide in a 50/50 but neither wins the ball as it spins away to Quintero. He passes it up to Romero who sees Cardenas’ run and thinks on his feet. He drags the ball with his left and gracefully scoops it over Avila with his right to leave Sherman 1-on-1 with Viera. His first touch is quite heavy but Viera decides to stay on his line. He puts it onto his left, opens his body up for the finesse but curls it an inch wide of the post. This has been the perfect first quarter of an hour so let’s keep this up.

Even better than keeping it up, we bloody raise it a level instantly. The goal kick is won by Cufre and his commanding header finds Morison. Some dodgy control with his knee invites defenders in but he rolls it out Romero. Sanchez gets pulled out of their back line and misses his interception so when a couple fancy touches from Romero sell Avila, there’s a lot of space to run into. Avila tries to cover his mistake by getting his body between the ball and the goal but nobody is tracking the arriving Gomez. Harold chips a ball in and Morison loops a header over Viera for our second. I spin to face Ricky who has the same expression of disbelief as he runs towards me with his arms spread apart. What the fuck is happening?

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In my numerous visits to the Metropilitano Roberto Melendez, I have to say the atmosphere is outstanding. 45’000 fans, constant chants and drums. But today, apart from a section dedicated to the thousand or so away fans, it is virtually silent. The next time the noise really rises is in the 31st minute when a unified groan follows James Sanchez being dispossessed by Cardenas in the centre circle with eight of their players the wrong side of the ball. Morison picks it up and gives it back to him with Sherman putting a measured pall through for Romero. He checks the linesman to his right over his shoulder as rightful appeals for offside are shown but his flag stays down. Romero makes the most of the official’s poor decision and hits a thunderbolt of a travela into the far top corner before simply bowing in celebration. Now I’m not complaining but where’s this bloody performance been hiding?

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I half expect the ref’s whistle to be the the trigger that snaps me awake but it doesn’t. We really are 3-0 up away against Junior. At half time. While we’re been the much better side and all three of our goals were well worked, we’ve only had three shots on target. Viera doesn’t deserve any stick as there wasn’t much he could do about any of them, they were all took brilliantly. This is the day that all of our overdue luck has decided to arrive.

That being said, Junior have seriously been dreadful. Unorganised defending, careless passing and no drive or lethal intent. Basically, if both teams keep playing like they are, it could be a cricket score. More of the same please.

A few minutes into the second half, a series of unusual bounces mean Luis Diaz can be played through just right of centre but Ramos pulls out a brilliant near post save. Not today you annoying little shit. Not today.

Junior seem to have picked their game up after half time and really pry for the opening ten minutes of the half and finally get their reward in the 54th minute. Some lighting quick passing from them on the edge of our box is too much for our pressing defence to deal with. Barrera and Pico interchange a few times before the final pass back to Barrera leaves him wide open. Cardenas is still turning back after trying to intercept the pass and Gabby backs off giving the Clasura’s top goal scorer the space he needs to whip a fine curling shot into the top right. I swallow the worries and overwhelming of dread and bellow positive phrases from the sideline. Even we can’t fuck this up… right?

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Only a handful of minutes after we get play going again, Gonzalez boots a ball clear towards their box which ends up being a great pass to Romero. He plays a first time ball on the spin for Harold Gomez who barges Diaz away before squaring across goal. Quintero is there to hit it goalwards but Viera saves with his elbow. Literally anywhere but there and the game’s 4-1. We’re not made to rue over it for too long as the Cardenas corner finds Morison on the six yard line. Viera’s indecisiveness to come out and claim the cross costs him as he’s too far off his line to stop Morison’s header flying past him and into the back of the net. Piedrahita was on the post but with the momentum of the ball, he was unable to do anything except flick the ball up into the roof of the goal on it’s way. Four bloody away goals.

It seems to be back and forth stuff as in the 62nd minute, some of Junior’s lackadaisical defensive issues have clearly rubbed off on us. Teofilo Gutierrez and Hernandez knock it round Gonzalez with a simple give and go before doing the same when Torres pushes out of the line. An open pass to who else but Luis Diaz means he can sweep it past Ramos for their second. The goals we’ve conceded today have been careless but 4-2 away from home is better than the 2-0 I would have taken in an ideal world about an hour ago.

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In the 66th minute, I reluctantly make a couple changes with the idea of saving legs for what is going to be a crucial second leg. Rodriguez and Rovira are on for Gomez and Cardenas. After the subs are on the pitch, Cufre turns Jefferson Gomez inside out before putting an inviting cross to the back post but Quintero’s diving header misses the mark.

In the 79th minute, Junior have changed tactics and are constantly trying to close our men down. While it can work effectively and lead to winning the ball high up the pitch, it also leaves big gaps at the back for a playmaker to exploit. We do just that when Rovira has acres of space to find Rodriguez who flashed by me a moment earlier. A quick turn of pace puts it onto his preferred left foot and he strokes a pass into the box for Romero. He tries to sweep the ball across his body but his shot bounces off Avila’s knee onto the crossbar. The rebound is too high and has too much pace for Mojica to try and angle a header so he goes the overhead kick which also bounces off the bar before Viera grabs the ball wearily. How have we not scored a fifth?

I make my third and final sub in injury time as a time-wasting technique but the most remarkable game of football in months finishes Atletico Junior 2 – 4 Atletico Bucaramanga. Anything better than a 2-0 loss will see us through to the semi-finals but with this milestone performance today putting our confidence through the roof, I doubt we’ll be worrying about throwing the tie too much. A special mention to our wingbacks, Cufre and Gomez, who were phenomenal today and instrumental in setting us up perfectly for a party back home. Welcome back boys, welcome back.

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My monthly scout report from Gallardo happens to fall in the middle of our two ties and before official matters start, he gives me some deserved appreciation for our historic victory. After a bit of self-love, the matter of discussing potential Colombian starlets takes over. There’s nobody who really appeals to me in his files which is becoming a recurring segment of my monthly routine. If we had an extra couple million, I’d go out and hire the best youth scout in the business who’d pick world class talent out of thin air but for the moment, we have Lisandro Gallardo. He found Neumann and Guerrero is looking like a quality player so he gets the benefit of the doubt for now.

While our achievement is an amazing one, congratulations are in order for Boca Juniors who just won their seventh Copa Libertadores title. They managed to fight back from a 1-0 defeat at La Bombonera by beating Gremio 2-0 in Brazil, taking the title as 2-1 winners on aggregate. I can only hope that one day, we’ll be congratulated for the same feat.

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Training the day before our turn to play hosts to the mighty Junior is a relaxed yet tense affair. I don’t push them too hard or get them over-working but you can tell that there’s a worry we still could fuck it up. Neumann has the arrogance of youth however and asks if I can put him in the line-up. He was going to play anyways so it works well for both of us.

Something I forgot to do while being so wrapped up in my own planning is check the other scorelines in the quarter finals. By the time I get round to it, half of the semi-finalists have already been decided.

Deportes Tolima beat Pasto 2-1 at home and then followed up with a 1-0 win in the reverse leg to advance. America de Cali managed  a 2-1 victory at Estadio Palogrande and even though Once Caldas fought back with a 1-0 victory on their turf, away goals is enough to carry the Red Devils through.

Rionegros Aguila carry on the first leg tradition of 2-1 results against Atletico Huila, taking a goal advantage back to their own ground. An away goal at that. They haven’t played their second leg yet so it’ll be interesting to see if the high flying Huila can pull it back away from home. It’s even more interesting as the winner of that match-up will be our opponents in the semis should we get through.

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Delgado has virtually begged me to start and in all honesty, he deserves to. This could be his last game ever in professional football but if it’s not, he can still help us edge closer to one more title before retirement. Quinones partners Torres in centre back and both wing backs keep their places after stunning performances last week. Jeferson Torres is in for Quintero with Gabby playing slightly further forward than usual. Salazar is back in with Mojica watching from the stands and Nunez the attacking midfield choice off the bench. Morison and Neumann are up front. Jaimes and Gonzalez are the height on the bench as I predict our box to be bombarded with crosses towards the back end of this game.

A hush settles in our changing room while the muffled tunes of the Bucaramanga faithful accompanied the rhythmic thud of drums try to penetrate our safe haven.

“You all did my so proud last week. Muy, muy proud. Everybody is expecting us to win. They need three goals with a clean sheet as a minimum to go through but if any team is capable of doing that, it’s Junior.” My pause for dramatic effect allows the pounding of the drum to take main stage before I continue.

“But, if there’s any team capable of causing an upset and making sure that twenty-one hour round trip is the most pointless trip of their lives, it’s Bucaramanga.

“Ninety minutes lads. Ninety minutes away from becoming heroes. Get out there and get it done.”

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Two minutes is all it takes for us to already kill this game off. A couple of passes take the ball inside before Salazar’s body feint allows him to pass to Neumann. Some great vision from Neumann is on display as he puts a ball in behind with some back spin so it spins into Cardenas’s feet. He positions his body round so he can shoot with his stronger left and tries to find the far bottom corner. He doesn’t need to as the ball ricochets past Viera via Piedrahita’s shin to really get the Alfonso Lopez rocking. It’s a dream start but it’s not an excuse for us to be complacent.

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In the 14th minute, Cardenas shows his all round game by winning the ball in the middle of the park. A pass to Cufre is left to run beautifully by Neumann and Braian gives it to Morison. He then arches a ball round for Gabby to run onto but he slices his shot well wide. It would have been a nice moment for our captain to beyond even unreasonable doubt but his effort was very poor. Five minutes later, Junior come forward with intent as Cantillo and Diaz play a neat one-two. The first cross is blocked but they manage to squeeze a peach of a ball into the middle for Gutierrez to direct past Ramos with his head. My body briefly stiffens as the flashbacks start but I regain composure. 1-1 on the day, 5-3 on aggregate so we’re still very much comfortable.

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In the 33rd minute, a Jeferson Torres clearance is headed on to Salazar who skips over Balanta’s tackle before threading a pass in for Neumann. He sets himself to shoot but Jefferson Gomez slides in with a last ditch block to stop Viera being called into action. That admirable bit of defending is the last thing worth mentioning in the first half apart from an extra few minutes of added time due to a Junior attack that refused to die out. The half doe finally come to a close and I’m honestly over the moon with how we’ve played so far. That being said, another goal would put the game out of sight for Junior but the main thing is stop them scoring. If they score another, that puts them back into the game and it’ll be hard to keep them out again. As our defence has stood strong so far and our attacks have been swift and direct, no changes are made. We’re doing enough.

In the 58th minute, the second half gets it’s first piece of action when Jeferson Torres is doing his defensive duties on the near side. He takes the ball away from Diaz before smacking a lovely mix between a clearance and a pass to Gabby. It’s then pinged over for Salazar on the opposite side who cuts it back for Harold Gomez who cushions a shot through the legs of Avila but the keeper gets down to save. Jose Jaimes comes on with the goalscorer Cardenas making way. He gets some love from me on his way to the bench as he has been the the integral part what’s shaping up to be the upset of the year with both his attacking and defensive contributions.

I make a couple tactical changes as the game gets closer and closer to confirming our place in the semi-finals. With twenty minutes remaining, I bring out Nunez for Salazar and in the 78th minute, I switch to a 5-2-1-2 and bring on Gonzalez for Gabby. We just need to see this out comfortably now without any hiccups.

Hiccup’s appear to be a word erased from Bucaramanga’s vocabulary as the full time whistle brings on what I can only describe as the best feeling in the world, pure elation. As I finish shaking hands with Julio Comesaña, he shouts my name over the roar of ecstatic fans. He simply looks at me and shrugs in the exact same defeated manner I did all those games ago. The boos that were unavoidably present less than a month ago are a distant memory as my name is chanted passionately from every angle of the Alfonso Lopez.

I smile and shrug back. Sometimes, all you can do is shrug.

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Later that evening, the squad all pack into my apartment to watch Rionegros Aguilas hold Huila to a 2-2 draw with a few alcoholic celebrations. That result means they advance to face us in the semis while Tolima play America de Cali. We’ve beat Rionegeros on both previous occasions, 1-0 and 3-1 if we’re keeping track and looking at our potential finalists, they are both teams we can easily beat too.

With that recognition comes a wave of a long-lost feeling I thought had went extinct. Belief that we can win the bloody league.

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