With 18 rounds played over a period of more than two years, South America’s World Cup qualification campaign moves to a variety of different rhythms. Teams can sprint and then stutter, suddenly click or just as quickly fall apart.
One of the remarkable aspects of the start made by runaway leaders Ecuador is that they have yet to be at 100%. Centre forward Enner Valencia, for example, had not kicked a ball before Thursday’s fifth round match against Paraguay. Luis Antonio Valencia missed rounds three and four. Still the team kept winning. For rounds five and six there is only one key absentee, support striker Miller Bolanos. Felipe Caicedo also dropped out, but he would almost certainly have been Enner Valencia’s reserve. Even so, as he called up the squad, coach Gustavo Quinteros made no secret of his anxiety. “It’s the most difficult call up we’ve had,” he said, “because of the problems with our defenders and the inactivity of our attackers.”
Ecuador’s defensive resources are extremely thin, and some were carrying injuries. Keeper Alexander Dominguez passed a fitness test but right back Juan Carlos Paredes was not able to play, and centre back Gabriel Achilier was rushed back after a lay off to face Paraguay – a game where the fears of Quinteros were confirmed.
Most would have seen this fixture, at the altitude of Quito, as a home banker. But although Ecuador took the lead, in the end they needed a stoppage time goal (with more than a hint of offside) to grab a 2-2 draw. The lack of match fitness of some of the players was obvious. Enner Valencia’s return boosted the team, but neither he nor Luis Antonio Valencia were at their best. On the left Jefferson Montero played himself into some kind of form, but on the other flank Fidel Martinez, so effective when he came in for the previous two rounds, did little of note. The absence of Bolanos meant that Juan Cazares was given his first start in the campaign. The little playmaker, so impressive as a late substitute against tiring defenders, was not nearly as eye-catching on this occasion. And at the other end senior centre back Fricson Erazo had a game to forget.
Quinteros was grateful for the continued excellence of central midfielder Cristian Noboa, who kept the ball moving, rattled the woodwork three times, and produced the vital pass for substitute Angel Mena’s last gasp equaliser.
Ecuador, then, had to settle for a point. But they still lead the table, with 13 points from 5 rounds. Another 13 from the remaining 13 matches may well be enough to see them over the line – and with home games against the likes of Bolivia, Venezuela and Peru still to come, they were well entitled to start dreaming of a World Cup appearance.
The campaign, though, is about more than mere qualification. It is also an excellent chance to build a side capable of being competitive in the tournament. Recent World Cups show just how well this has been working in South America. In the last two World Cups only one team from the continent failed to make it out of the group stage – Ecuador in 2014, and that by a narrow margin.
Quinteros will be aiming higher for his side in 2018 – which is why Tuesday’s game against Colombia is so interesting. The current Ecuador team can amass enough points to make it to the World Cup – but can they be more competitive once they get there?
Colombia in the afternoon heat of Barranquilla will present a test. Jose Pekerman’s side made a very poor start to the campaign. But morale will be soaring after Thursday’s 3-2 win away to Bolivia. James Rodriguez was back to his best, relishing his importance in the team and linking well with striker Carlos Bacca. And there was an inspired first ten minutes in international football for 19 year old Marlos Moreno, the youngster who can do no wrong at the moment. At a time when a Bolivia win was looking the more likely result, he came on and brought pace, skill and the priceless gift of choosing the right option. He came very close to setting up a winner for Luis Fernando Muriel – denied by a fine save by keeper Romel Quinonez – before sliding a wonderful pass into the path of Edwin Cardona who clinched the three points.
Colombia will come out looking for three more on Tuesday afternoon. In the process – win, lose or draw – Ecuador should learn plenty about themselves.