Ecuador show spirit, but time is up
They all watched eagerly, fearful of the worst but hopeful for the best. In the Maracaná, where thousands of yellow-shirted fans cheered on their team. In the packed bars of Quito and Guayaquil. And in a house on the outskirts of the latter city, where the mother, sister and other relatives and friends of star striker Enner Valencia gathered to watch the decisive match of Ecuador's tournament.
The equation was simple. Match Switzerland's result against Honduras and a place in the round of 16 awaited. The identity of Ecuador's opponents did, however, make the task harder than it first seemed. France came into the match on the back of two highly impressive victories. France manager Didier Deschamps made changes to his starting lineup, but his team was still packed with players from Europe's top leagues.
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Ecuador knew they would need the rub of the green if they were to get the result they needed, but things quickly turned against them. First, the referee failed to punish French defender Mamadou Sakho for a clear elbow to the face of Oswaldo Minda. Then, moments later, news came of a goal for Switzerland vs. Honduras in Manaus. If that score held, victory was required for Ecuador to progress.
The Swiss goal did not materially change Ecuador's approach. Honduras were still capable of equalizing vs. the Swiss, and it would have been unwise for Ecuador to throw caution to the wind at such an early juncture. They continued to sit deep and limit France's ability to play between the lines. Jefferson Montero was guilty of wasting a couple of good opportunities on the break.
Manager Reinaldo Rueda had chosen to employ a 4-2-3-1 formation, leaving Enner Valencia to toil away alone up front. He rose majestically to head Michael Arroyo's cross on target late in the half but was otherwise given little to work with. Such were his struggles that in a postmatch interview he said playing France was like facing a team of 30 opponents.
Ecuador were a little brighter at the start of the second half -- by which time Switzerland were two goals to the good -- but then Antonio Valencia was dismissed for a rash challenge on Lucas Digne and their mission became all but impossible. A Manchester United winger, Valencia endured a disappointing tournament and this was a fitting conclusion.
The final 40 minutes played out fairly predictably. France began to create chances with greater regularity and Ecuador were grateful to Alexander Dominguez for a string of good saves to deny them. La Tri did threaten occasionally but were unable to muster a shot on target of note until substitute Renato Ibarra's drive was parried away by Hugo Lloris in the 82nd minute.
By then, Switzerland were already 3-0 up in Manaus. Felipe Caicedo was belatedly thrown on for the final few minutes of play, but Ecuador, for all their efforts, were already out.
The players looked dejected and exhausted in the middle of the pitch at the end, while Rueda looked heartbroken as he gave a short postmatch interview. Supporters filed out of the ground and out onto the streets of Rio de Janeiro as their compatriots back home emerged onto the streets of Quito and Guayaquil. In Enner Valencia's household, there was both disappointment and pride.
"We lost, but the guys gave everything," his mother said.
The long-term recriminations of Ecuador's early elimination are unclear. Rueda is due to meet with football federation president Luis Chiriboga after the team's return to Quito on Friday, with both parties apparently keen to renew the relationship for another four years. For Enner Valencia, the breakout star of Ecuador's tournament, a move to Europe awaits; for Antonio Valencia, the underperforming captain, a period of repentance.
Ecuador worked hard and showed commendable spirit but lacked that little extra bit of quality and the sprinkling of luck that is required to reach the round of 16.
"The matches have been very tight, but we just haven't been able to tilt them in our favour," Rueda said after the match. "We've paid for our bad performance against Switzerland at the start."