Small fry no longer, Venezuela dream on

London: Uruguay may be the favourites as the last big-name side left standing at a Copa America full of shocks - but there is little doubt which team is the people`s favourite among the final four.

Venezuela meet Paraguay in Wednesday`s second semi-final after Uruguay prepared to duel with Peru on Tuesday.

The Venezuelans, hailing from the Caribbean end of Latin America, should be fish out of water at an event taking place deep in Argentina`s chilly winter.

Yet they have warmed the hearts of tens of thousands of fans.

The exception is the city of Mendoza, which stands to lose an estimated four million dollars in tourist receipts after 30,000 Chileans flooded over the border for the quarter-final only to see a different shade of red in the Vinotinto, who beat them 2-1.

"Now we have come so far we have to go one step further and reach the final," said defender Oswaldo Vizcarrondo, whose goal against the Chileans helped to bring a famous victory and a first-ever semi, a step further than his side had managed on home soil four years ago.

"It`s been a great experience and we are improving all the time," he told reporters.

Venezuela coach Cesar Farias will have to rejig things a little against a Paraguayan side against whom they thrillingly came back from 3-1 down to draw in the group with creative midfielder Tomas Rincon suspended following his red card in the quarters.

But Farias is undaunted by that, insisting: "We have great faith. We have the chance to play the final if we can get through this one and we don`t feel inferior to anyone.”

"We are unbeaten and have scored the most goals."

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, keenly following his compatriot`s progress, is happy to pay Cesar his due.

"Cesar knows what he is doing. Applause for Cesar Farias and the Vinotinto," enthused Chavez on his Twitter feed as he prepares to undergo chemotherapy in Cuba, clearly seeing the team`s performances as a something of a tonic.

Even after the opening group draw with Brazil, Farias had indicated the team would target a run to the final.

Such has been Farias` influence that Spanish daily El Mundo on Monday dubbed the 38-year-old "The Venezuelan Mourinho."

Farias fell out with keeper Renny Vega after dropping the latter some time ago but the pair are now united in their desire to conjure the sporting earthquake that a Venezuelan Copa win would comprise.

"He`s key for us - he works very well," says Vega.

Much could depend on how the underdogs compensate for the loss of the impressive Rincon with Luis Seijas and Giacomo Di Giorgi the mooted alternatives.

Paraguay, whose second and last title to date came in 1979, will see an omen in their favour in that both times they won international football`s oldest event they put out Brazil, as they did here in the quarters.

Coach Gerardo Martino knows his side should be favoured to reach Sunday`s trophy match in Buenos Aires but has wasted no time in eulogising Wednesday`s rivals.

"Venezuela will be a very tough opponent. They have come on so much in recent years," Martino told a news conference in Buenos Aires.

"But we must not seek to improve ourselves by thinking about Venezuela but improve within ourselves if we are to achieve our dream of reaching Sunday`s final.”

Bureau Report

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