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Before a ball was kicked in Qatar, Ecuador were tipped as potential World Cup 2022 dark horses. They impressed in South America’s notoriously tough qualification process, finishing fourth behind only Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay - countries that have all lifted the famous trophy on more than one occasion.
They also had the benefit of a reasonably kind draw. As hosts, Qatar were placed in Pot One alongside the likes of Brazil, Spain and France. Needless to say, they were the team everyone wanted to draw. Lady Luck smiled on Ecuador, as well as the Netherlands and Senegal.
Gustavo Alfaro’s side made light work of Qatar on opening night. It is true that Felix Sanchez’s players fell to the occasion, failing to deal with a level of pressure and expectation that they never experienced before. But Ecuador were mature and professional on their way to a 2-0 win. In truth they could easily have triumphed by a wider margin.
More impressive, though, was their performance against the Netherlands on Friday. If you did not know which nation was three-time World Cup finalists and had a team featuring players who ply their trade at some of the biggest clubs on the planet, you would not have guessed it was the Dutch.
Ecuador fell behind early on but they were much the better team thereafter. In the end they could consider themselves highly unfortunate not to have emerged with all three points. It was the Netherlands hanging on at the end, not Ecuador.
That will give Alfaro and his group confidence ahead of this must-not-lose meeting with Senegal, which looks set to determine which of the two teams advances alongside the Netherlands (who will progress as long as they avoid defeat by Qatar).
For Senegal the calculation is simple: unless Qatar can pull off a major upset against the Netherlands, the Lions of Teranga must win this match in order to advance to the knockout stage of World Cup 2022.
Senegal held their own against the Netherlands on matchday one. It was an even game that looked set to end in stalemate, but two late goals from Cody Gakpo and Davy Klaassen were enough to get Louis van Gaal’s team over the line. Still, Aliou Cisse was able to take a few positives from his side’s performance.
Senegal then got the job done against Qatar, winning 3-1 on Friday. However, the game was not as comfortable as that scoreline appears to suggest. Qatar put Senegal under real pressure at times, and they could consider themselves hard done by when they were not given a penalty at 0-0.
Senegal were still the better team but they actually struggled to create clear openings against probably the weakest side in this tournament. That might sound strange given the winners of this year’s Africa Cup of Nations scored three times, but a lack of guile and creativity remains the primary question mark against this group.
Senegal are clearly missing Sadio Mane, their greatest ever player who was cruelly ruled out of the tournament through injury just days ahead of the big kick-off. Without the Bayern Munich forward, Cisse’s side have lacked a spark in attack.
They still managed to score three goals against Qatar, but this will be a much stiffer test - and given the nature of Group A, the pressure will be ratcheted up a few notches too.
On occasion, knowing that a draw is enough to achieve your objective can work against a team. Going out with the intention of playing for a point would be a high-risk strategy, especially in a low-scoring sport like soccer. But it can be hard to match the level of urgency shown by a team that finds itself in a win-or-bust situation.
Ecuador will have to deal with that potentially tough balancing act on Monday. But when we consider the characteristics of Alvaro’s side, it might not be too problematic for la Tricolor.
Ecuador are a well-balanced team and they showed they are comfortable in possession in the 1-1 draw with the Netherlands. But they are at their best when there is space in front of them in transition. One of their preferred routes to goal is via a quick burst down the flanks.
With Senegal needing to score at least once at the Khalifa International Stadium, there should be plenty of opportunities for Ecuador to launch fast breaks forward. Enner Valencia has scored three goals so far and looks set to be fit despite an injury scare last time out. That is a huge boost for Alfaro and co.
Senegal have looked solid but not particularly inventive so far, whereas Ecuador have created chances against both Qatar and the Netherlands. That stands them in good stead for Monday’s pivotal encounter in Group A. Back Ecuador to beat Senegal in Al Rayyan.
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Greg Lea is a freelance soccer journalist from London. He is the former editor of The Set Pieces, and has contributed to the Guardian, FourFourTwo, and ESPN. A Crystal Palace fan, he is a long-time subscriber to the belief that it's the taking part that counts. Email: [email protected]More info on Greg Lea
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