Ecuador dreams alive after victory
Ecuador came into the World Cup hoping to at least match the round-of-16 exit achieved by their class of 2006. With thousands of their countrymen inside the stadium in Curitiba and millions more at home in Ecuador -- where President Rafael Correa mandated a shortened workday for public sector workers -- watching on, they prospered against a strong and determined Honduras side on Friday to keep alive hopes of meeting their goal.
It was far from pretty, but another two goals from Enner Valencia saw Ecuador overturn a one-goal deficit to win 2-1 in a match featuring plenty of energy and aggression but little genuine quality. Much had been made of the supposed mental fragility of the side in the wake of their stoppage time defeat to Switzerland five days previous, but La Tri largely kept their composure to hold off a late rally from their opponents and take all three points.
The match was a bitty affair, regularly interrupted by the shrill sound of the referee's whistle. Ecuador played well in patches, but under-par performances from wingers Antonio Valencia and Jefferson Montero meant that they struggled to create many chances of note. There were also the customary defensive lapses at the other end of the pitch, with Jorge Guagua thrice allowing Carlo Costly to get the better of him, including for the Honduran goal.
It is clear that improvement will be required in Ecuador's final group match against France if they are to reach the knockout stages. The French have been excellent in back-to-back wins over Honduras and Switzerland, with the speed of their transitions particularly impressive. Reinaldo Rueda will need to find a formula that allows his side to remain secure in defence without sacrificing too much of their own attacking potency.
It was a balance he failed to strike in the defeat to Switzerland, but he does have solid options in his squad if, for instance, he elects to match France's three-man midfield. There were suggestions before the Switzerland match that he was considering employing Carlos Gruezo, Christian Noboa and Oswaldo Minda in a midfield three, while Édison Mendez -- one of four players in the current setup who were part of Ecuador's 2006 squad -- is another possible alternative.
In addition to possible formation changes, Rueda also needs Antonio Valencia to perform at somewhere near his best. He had urged his captain to be more incisive in possession in the wake of a poor display against Switzerland, but Valencia was again largely anonymous on Friday. His status as Ecuador's most renowned player means that he often receives special attention from opposing defences, but his teammates nevertheless need him to lead them forward against France.
The mathematics of Ecuador's situation are relatively simple. They are currently level on points with Switzerland but enjoy a two-goal advantage on goal difference. Providing Honduras don't produce an unlikely thrashing, Ecuador just need to match or better Switzerland's result on the final matchday in order to go through in second place. Easier said than done against the French, but there are at least a couple of rays of light for Ecuador.
Firstly, France are likely to rest some of their regular starters, with their qualification already all but secured. They remain fearsome opponents, but if they do put out a weakened team, the difference between the sides will not be as large as it might otherwise have been. Secondly, the match between Honduras and Switzerland will take place the Amazonian city of Manaus in climatic conditions that should favour Honduras.
Chants of "Yes we can, yes we can," followed the Ecuadorian squad through Quito when they bade farewell to their countrymen last month, and were again heard inside the stadium on Friday. It will be difficult, but providing Honduras can do their former coach Rueda a favour against Switzerland, Ecuador are still in with a decent shot of making the last 16.