Rumours are rife that Edgardo Bauza is about to be sacked as coach of Argentina – but he is not the only one at risk after the last two rounds of World Cup qualifiers. Ecuador coach Gustavo Quinteros is also hanging by a thread, with a six-man national team committee meeting to discuss his fate, and a decision expected by Tuesday.
Quinteros, who has been in charge for a little over two years, may well be a victim of his success in their early part of the qualification campaign. His team shot off like a train, winning the first four games. At that point they stood proudly on top of the table with 12 points. But the subsequent 10 rounds have brought just eight more. The recent defeats away to Paraguay and at home to Colombia have plunged the team to sixth place, outside the qualification slots.
So where has it being going wrong?
A debate is raging in the country about whether the altitude of Quito, usually Ecuador’s mountain fortress, is still a significant advantage. An increasing number of the country’s players are based abroad – in the last few years England and Brazil have both been buying from Ecuador. The team are clearly stronger than they used to be away from home – beating Argentina in Buenos Aries in the opening round of the campaign, and only going down to narrow defeats in their last two visits, to Uruguay and Paraguay. But they are not as strong as they used to be at home – that defeat to Colombia means that they have only won two of their last five qualifiers in Quito.
Perhaps more relevant is the undeniable fact that the team is dependent on a handful of top class performers. If they are absent or out of form, then the quality of play inevitably declines.
The most important player in the team is probably central midfielder Cristian Noboa, whose splendid range of passing means that he serves as the supply line for the dangerous wingers. Noboa missed the loss to Colombia through suspension, and proved impossible to replace.
Dow the right there is the rampaging power of Luis Antonio Valencia, who can carry considerable swagger as a consequence of his success with Manchester United. He has missed three of the recent defeats. On the other wing, Jefferson Montero was the star turn at the start of the campaign, torturing opposing right backs with his pace and trickery. But then he ran into injury problems, and – save for a five-minute appearance off the bench away to Paraguay – he has not appeared since the eighth round.
Noboa distributes, the wingers get good service into the box and a centre forward takes advantage. At the start of the campaign that was Felipe Caicedo, deputising for the injured Enner Valencia. On a hot streak for the previous few years, Enner Valencia’s form has suffered of late. But he is quicker and more athletic than Caicedo. There has been a tendency, enhanced by injuries and suspensions to other players, to field them both in some of the recent games, and this has seldom worked. It has usually left the team looking top heavy.
This is a problem because Ecuador’s list of leading players does not include any of the defensive unit – with the possible exception of veteran left back Walter Ayovi, whose strength has always been going forward. At centre-back no one has emerged to replace the great Ivan Hurtado, the Bobby Moore-esque figure who held the defence together for some 15 years.
Quinteros has brought the defensive line higher up the field. It keeps the team more compact and means that the likes of Luis Antonio Valencia do not have to drop so far when the team loses possession. But it does mean that the lack of defensive pace can be exposed, especially if the line up is top heavy. Last Tuesday Colombia won the game by getting behind the Ecuadorian line.
Can Quinteros get things right before the next round at the end of August? And will he be give the chance? The pressure is now on, with the team very possibly needing three wins from the final four games – a run which begins with the visit to the all conquering Brazilians.
Should the Ecuadorian FA see the situation as so desperate that only a change will do, then the likely replacement is Pablo Repetto, a Uruguayan who led little Independiente del Valle to the final of last year’s Libertadores Cup. He is free after a short, unsuccessful spell with Olimpia of Paraguay. But whether he comes in or Quinteros stays, the former altitude specialists from Ecuador now have a mountain to climb if they are to make it to Russia.