With the next set of World Cup qualifiers little over a month away, Ecuador have hurriedly fixed up a friendly this week at home to Trinidad and Tobago.
The air of panic is justified. The early leaders of South America’s campaign have slipped to sixth in the table, outside the qualification slots, and badly need to recover their momentum. Coach Gustavo Quinteros is restricted to home based players for Wednesday’s match in Guayaquil, and is hoping to unearth some diamonds – especially in one crucial position.
Centre-back has long been a problem for Ecuador. The old guard partnership has been between Gabriel Achilier, who has never looked convincing at the level, and the elegant but vulnerable Frickson Erazo, who has run into injury problems and appears to be surplus to requirements at his Brazilian club.
Hope blossomed last year when Independiente del Valle, a tiny club from the outskirts of Quito, made it all the way to the final of the Copa Libertadores, South America’s equivalent of the Champions League. On the way they knocked out both Buenos Aires giants, River Plate and Boca Juniors, producing some heroic defensive performances in which the young centre backs were outstanding. The gangling Arturo Mina dominated in the air while the classy Luis Caicedo cleaned up on the ground. They swiftly became Ecuador’s first choice centre-back partnership. But this did not solve the problem.
Independiente del Valle are a club that exist to form and sell players. Mina and Caicedo had shone in the spotlight, and both, together with almost all their team-mates, were soon on their way. Mina went to River Plate, while Caicedo moved to Cruzeiro in Brazil. Neither move proved a success. Both lost form and confidence – Caicedo was last week loaned back to Ecuador, where he will join Barcelona of Guayaquil, while Mina has been negotiating with Cerro Porteno of Paraguay. And so Ecuador’s search for centre backs goes on.
This week, then is the big chance for Barcelona’s 22-year-old Dario Aimar to stake his claim. The Barcelona defender has been in excellent form in his club’s Copa Libertadores campaign. But a home friendly against Trinidad and Tobago is one thing- away to Brazil, Ecuador’s next World Cup fixture, is another.
The qualification table is likely to look even worse for Ecuador after the 15th round. Anything they can get from next month’s match in Porto Alegre is a bonus – meaning that they will need to finish with three wins. In between home games against Peru and Argentina comes the trip to Santiago to face Chile – potentially the crunch game of the campaign.
The interesting development in Chile is the return home of playmaker Jorge Valdivia, the perennial enfant terrible of his country’s football. National coach Juan Antonio Pizzi is clearly unsure about Valdivia, perhaps doubting that the player, now approaching 34, is fit enough to tip the balance. But the team’s dearth of goals in the Confederations Cup is a concern, and Valdivia undoubtedly has the potential to unlock defences with the inventiveness of his passing. And now he has moved back from the Middle East to Santiago giants Colo Colo, he has a platform to argue his case – which he did persuasively on Sunday in Chile’s SuperCup, masterminding a 4-1 win over local rivals Universidad Catolica.
Perhaps, then, in that vital game in October, Jorge Valdivia will be making the bombs for Chile and Dario Aimar will be trying to defuse them for Ecuador.