Valencia-reliant Ecuador can repeat feat of 2006 in Brazil
Ecuador go into the World Cup this summer with a great chance of matching their best effort at the finals, in 2006, of reaching the second round – where they narrowly lost 1-0 to England. Back them at 2/1 to get eliminated in the last 16 again.
This will only be Ecuador’s third World Cup finals, but the first time in their own continent of South America, and have a great chance of making it to the knockout stages after being placed in a relatively favourable pool.
Nicknamed La Tri, Reinaldo Rueda’s side are priced with Coral as third-favourites to qualify and win their Group (E) at evens and 9/2 respectively. However, they come up against an inconsistent France, over-rated Switzerland (according their FIFA ranking of eighth) and minnows Honduras at the first hurdle.
Midway through their World Cup qualifying campaign, the nation were hit by the tragic death of Ecuador star Christian Benitez, who got four goals in his nine appearances. Since then, however, the team managed to regroup, adapt and finished fourth in the South American section – ahead of the likes of Uruguay.
The transition included making Benitez’s close friend and Manchester United winger Antonio Valencia national captain, taking over from left back and veteran Walter Ayovi, of Pachuca in Mexico – who played in every qualifier.
On the situation, Ruelda said: “It was hard on Walter Ayovi, who is 50 per cent excellent. But Antonio Valencia was closest to Benitez, they were like twins, and so making him the captain was a way of rallying the group.
“Valencia was reluctant initially, out of respect for Ayovi, but it ended up being, from a psychological point of view, a change that gave us a boost in the final straight,” the Colombian added.
Red Devils star Valencia, 28, is very much the big name of the squad, and the only player plying his trade for arguably a top club. His big-game experience, as well as pace, crossing ability and determination will be crucial for La Tri’s hopes.
Ruelda, who has managed Ecuador since 2010, prefers a 4-4-2 formation, and Valencia will be used out on the right wing to support the two forwards of Felipe Caicedo and one of Mexico-based pair Enner Valencia (Pachuca) or Jaime Ayovi (Tijuana) – cousin of Walter.
Former Manchester City striker Caicedo, now of Al-Jazira in the United Arab Emirates Pro-League, managed the most goals for his country in qualifying, with seven from nine games, and is priced with Coral at 200/1 to be World Cup top scorer.
Along with captain Valencia, the Ecuador midfield will likely consist of Christian Noboa (Dynamo Moscow) and Segundo Castillo (Al-Hilal, Saudi Arabia) in the centre, with Jefferson Montero (Morelia, Mexico) out on the left. Centurion Edison Mendez, 35, may go as backup.
At the back, they can rely on Juan Carlos Paredes on the right and Flamengo central defender Frickson Erazo – who both played a big part in qualifying, alongside Ayovi on the left. Twice-capped teenager Cristian Ramirez (Fortuna Dusseldorf), meanwhile, will be hoping to get himself on the plane to Brazil as backup to the latter.
One of domestic-based Jairo Campos (Barcelona Sporting Club), Jorge Guagua Emelec and Gabriel Achilier (both Emelec) – who each started six games in qualifying – will be vying to partner Erazo in the middle. The former, however, has been out with a ruptured achilles since January, and it remains to be seen if he will be fit in time.
The current crop of Ecuadoran keepers ply their trade in their home country, and Liga de Quito stopper Alexander Dominguez is set to get the number one jersey for the World Cup. The 26-year-old played in the majority of the qualifiers, and will be backed up by Maximo Banguero (Barcelona Sporting Club).