The loss of Christian Benitez during qualification for the World Cup threatened to derail what has become a fine Ecuador side but under the stewardship of captain Antonio Valencia, they qualified despite suffering a 2-1 defeat at the hands of Chile.
They have a decent chance to get out of Group E as with France, Switzerland and Honduras but can they get any further?
The Peoples Person sat down with South American football expert Nick Dorrington who offered his views on their chances.
How important is Antonio Valencia to Ecuador and their chances at the World Cup?
As their captain and most famous player, Valencia is central to Ecuador’s hopes this summer. He plays a key role in helping the side transition from defence to attack, receiving the ball and carrying it into the attacking half. He also works hard to get back and help out defensively, setting an example for his teammates.
Valencia has sometimes spoken of a move to central midfield in the future. Do you believe he is capable in the middle for Ecuador or should he stick to the right wing?
At this stage in his career, he looks best suited to the right-wing-role that he occupied throughout Ecuador’s qualifying campaign. I could see him being relatively effective as a box-to-box midfielder in a 4-3-3 – the sort of role Angel Di Maria plays for Argentina.
But I don’t think he currently has the attributes to play in a two-man midfield. In the future, who knows? Maybe. Former Aston Villa and Reading full-back Ulises de la Cruz reinvented himself as a defensive midfielder towards the end of his career in Ecuador. As his mobility decreases, Valencia could well look to do the same.
Has his poor form for his club damaged how he is viewed by the Ecuadorian fans?
Not at all. He is unarguably the most famous Ecuadorian footballer of all time on the world stage and his countrymen are extremely proud of his achievements. They are, of course, disappointed that his form seems to have tailed off over the last year or so, but it is something that is seen as a temporary issue rather than an indictment of his underlying ability. He has continued to perform solidly for the national team.
In fact, I’ve noticed that his form for country has been much better than for his club, do you feel he gets more freedom when he plays for Ecuador? I would say it’s the opposite – his role for the national team is very clearly defined and he thrives within that remit. Another difference is that he usually has much more space to work in at international level. Most teams adopt a defensive approach against United, staying compact and limiting space in behind. Without space to run into, Valencia can sometimes look short of ideas. For Ecuador that is rarely a problem.
Do you believe he is the best choice for captain for Ecuador, some United fans don’t have the same faith in him particularly after his comments when he shunned the No. 7 shirt due to pressure?
Valencia was handed the captaincy following the tragic and sudden death of his close friend Christian Benítez last July. Until then, the captain had been Walter Ayoví, but Reinaldo Rueda felt that giving the captaincy to Valencia would unite the group and help push them over the line to qualification. Despite initial doubts, he seems to have taken it in his stride.
I don’t think the situation is comparable to his issues with the No.7 shirt at United. Most players would struggle to follow in the footsteps of Best, Cantona, Beckham and Cristiano Ronaldo – Valencia particularly so, as his game is built more on physical qualities and work-rate than outright talent. He didn’t really have the degree of showmanship one would associate with previous holders of that particular shirt. The pressure is less with Ecuador because he is comfortable in his role. His captaincy duties are simply are extension of what he already brought to the team before he was handed the armband.
With Van Gaal having a strong belief in wing play, do you think Valencia could recover his fantastic form of 2011/12 when he lit up Old Trafford?
Firstly, I think it is dangerous to assume that Van Gaal has a set philosophy. Yes, most of the tenets carry over from club to club, but the variety of formations he has used (3-3-3-1 at Ajax; 4-3-3 at Barcelona; 4-4-2 at AZ; 4-2-3-1 at Bayern Munich; now 3-4-1-2 and 4-3-1-2 with Netherlands) suggests that he is willing to adapt to his surroundings, at least to a certain degree.
In addition, a lot of the wingers/wide forwards in his teams have been far from the Valencia mould of a classic up and down wide-man. He had Figo and Rivaldo at Barcelona, and Robben and Ribery at Bayern, for instance.
Valencia’s biggest asset could be his versatility. He could feasibly play at right-back, as a box-to-box midfielder in a three-man midfield or as a right-winger. Having such a multi-functional player at his disposal would allow Van Gaal to switch formation in-game without needing to make a substitution. That is the sort of role I would envisage for Valencia going forward.
How do you think Reinaldo Ruerda will line up Ecuador for the coming World Cup?
Ecuador usually lined up in a 4-4-2 formation during the qualifiers, although there were occasions on which they used a 4-2-3-1. Most of the starting XI is set in stone, although the late-injury to Segundo Castillo means there is a place up for grabs alongside Christian Noboa in midfield. Young Stuttgart midfielder Carlos Gruezo is the one most likely to take it.
Ecuador’s likely XI is: Banguera, Paredes, Guagua, Erazo, W.Ayovi; A.Valencia, Gruezo, Noboa, Montero; Caicedo, E.Valencia
How far do you think Ecuador can go? Do you expect them to pull any surprises?
I think the round of 16 is a realistic aim. The result of their opening match against Switzerland will be crucial to their chances. If they lose, it will be an uphill battle to qualify, particularly with France awaiting in their final fixture. A win would mean that victory in their second match against Honduras would likely be enough to see them through.
What are the strengths and weaknesses of the Ecuador squad?
Ecuador have plenty of pace and power in attack. They sometimes lack precision, but they are a real handful in full flow. Their problems come at the other end of the pitch – their defence is error-prone and struggles to deal with teams with varied final-third movement.