Ecuador look to get rollercoaster qualifying campaign back on track
South America's marathon World Cup qualification campaign reaches the half way stage this Thursday - but for Ecuador the first eight rounds can already be split into two halves.
Quick out of the blocks, Ecuador were the runaway leaders after winning their first four matches, which included a 2-0 win over Argentina in Buenos Aires. The next four brought a scrambled draw with a stoppage time equaliser that probably should have been disallowed for offside followed by three consecutive defeats.
The team now lie fifth, in the play-off position but outside the automatic qualifying slots. What has gone wrong? Perhaps two things. One is that key players have lost form or been unavailable. If a country like Ecuador is going to keep punching above its weight then all of its stars not only need to play but to play well. The other is the growing doubt that a huge traditional advantage might now have lost its power - the altitude of Quito.
Ecuador's successful qualification campaigns - for the World Cups of 2002, 2006 and 20014 - have all been based on points picked up at their mountain stronghold. Quito stands 2,800 metres above sea level, conditions which can have a draining effect on unacclimatised teams - and the fear is that Ecuador are increasingly becoming one of those.
A consequence of the success of the national team over the past 15 years is that it has put players in the shop window. Ecuador now has a group of players in England's Premier League, for example - unthinkable just a few years ago. Others are in Russia, Brazil or Argentina. Might the fact that they play abroad mean that altitude has now become foreign to them? Are they now suffering from the effects just as much as their opponents?
Coach Gustavo Quinteros is certainly starting to think so. Last month he saw his team lose 3-0 at home to Brazil. All the goals came in the last 20 minutes - exactly the moment in the game when he might have expected his team to take control and the opposition to wilt in the rarefied air.
Quinteros has voiced the concern that altitude is no longer an advantage - and that is especially pertinent in the next few days. Because after Thursday's crucial home game with Chile, Ecuador climb even higher up the Andes to meet Bolivia at La Paz, 3,600 metres above sea level, the following Tuesday.
Left winger Jefferson Montero, the team's most potent attacking weapon on his day, misses out through injury. Centre forward Enner Valencia looks short of confidence and has had little playing time after swapping West Ham for Everton. Almost the entire likely team to face Chile have picked up one yellow card and will be suspended from the Bolivia game if they receive another on Thursday.
It helps explain why Quinteros has assembled a squad of 30 players for these two games. He needs cover for these two matches where the stakes are just as high as the altitude.
Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.