When the draw was made for South America’s World Cup qualification campaign, eyes were immediately drawn to the third round clash in Buenos Aires between Argentina and Brazil.
The continent’s glamour game retains its appeal. But it is not, as widely expected, an early joust for the leadership. Indeed, the fascination of the game comes from the fact that neither team have started well and both coaches are already under pressure.
Instead, the battle at the top of the table is taking place further north this Thursday. Ecuador and Uruguay meet in Quito – along with Chile they are the teams who won both matches in last month’s opening two rounds.
Ecuador against Uruguay may not have the appeal of the so-called ‘super-classic of the Americas,’ but it is a game which has developed an interesting history of its own in recent times. Ecuador’s 4-0 win in February 1997 was a massive morale boost, a landmark result in the rise of the country’s football.
Four years later, as Ecuador closed in on qualification for their first World Cup, images from that match were all over the nation’s television screens. For the next few campaigns, Ecuador against Uruguay in Quito was played in the penultimate round, the very time when slots were being defined.
In 2001 the home side needed just a draw to clinch their place in Japan and South Korea, while Uruguay were battling it out with Colombia for fifth position, the play off spot. Nerves were jangling in the crowd and on the field, especially when Uruguay took the lead from the penalty spot just before half time. But inside the last 20 minutes mercurial striker Ivan Kaviedes, who seemed to be having one of his off days, powered home the header that sent the country into raptures.
Four years later the teams met in a very similar situation. This time there was little drama. A tame goalless draw sent Ecuador through to Germany 2006 and helped Uruguay’s bid for the play-off, where they were beaten by Australia.
The real fireworks came in 2009. This time it was a case of one or the other. The teams met with Ecuador standing fourth, the last automatic qualifying slot, and Uruguay down in sixth. When Antonio Valencia headed the hosts into the lead with under 25 minutes to go, Ecuador could dream of a third consecutive World Cup. But they did too much dreaming, and over-did the celebrations. Losing concentration against the Uruguayans is a big mistake, and within a minute Diego Forlan carved out an equaliser for Luis Suarez. In stoppage time Forlan clinched the three points from the penalty spot.
Ecuador, who had been so close to South Africa, finished seventh, and Uruguay, almost down and out, made the play-off spot once more, where they got through Costa Rica and went on to reach the World Cup semi finals for the first time since 1970. This, then, was a huge game.
Last time round, in October 2013, there was not quite so much at stake. Antonio Valencia set up the only goal of the game, a tap in for Jefferson Montero. The win left Ecuador needing to suffer a disaster to miss out on a place in Brazil, and the defeat did not ruin Uruguay’s hopes of finishing in their customary play-off slot. Both sides made it through to the 2014 World Cup – where they were probably the worst of the six South American sides on show.
But now they are at the top of the table – which few would have predicted before last month’s opening rounds. Uruguay had both Suarez and Edinson Cavani suspended, and the horror trip to the extreme altitude of La Paz to begin their campaign against Bolivia. Ecuador, meanwhile, had to follow their group phase exit in the Copa America with an opening day visit to Argentina.
But some of October’s heroes are missing this time. Antonio Valencia, a scourge of Uruguay in the past and in sparkling form this month, has picked up an injury – and the hopes of recalling Enner Valencia, by far Ecuador’s best centre forward, were dashed when his West Ham comeback on Saturday was almost immediately cut short when he was stretchered off. Uruguay, meanwhile, are without centre back Jose Maria Gimenez, such an impressive member of a defensive unit which kept two clean sheets last month. But they can call on Cavani. Will he tip the balance in this unlikely battle for South America’s top spot?