Photo credit: AP
At the close of the first half of the marathonic, 16-game tournament in World Cup qualifying, Ecuador found itself in second place, behind only Argentina. The Atahualpa Stadium is a fortress once more and the team is 5 for 5 so far, totaling 15 points. Additionally, the team has secured two points abroad: ties to Venezuela and Uruguay. The losses were to last-place Paraguay and Argentina.
Although on the surface the qualification chances may seem high, important obstacles remain. The second half of qualifying has stronger visiting teams like Paraguay, Argentina and Uruguay. Ecuador managed positive results in the 2002 and 2006 qualifiers: wins versus Argentina and Paraguay and ties versus Uruguay. The same could not be said for the failed qualification for 2010: tie to Paraguay and loss to Uruguay. The key will be the game against Paraguay in March, where a win could put the team at 20 points and much closer to making the competition.
The real shift comes from winning abroad to weaker teams like Peru and Bolivia. For the last three qualification cycles, Ecuador has won 6 points away from home from both teams. This, thus, is the real key to the qualifiers. At 26 points, a win or tie versus Argentina and Uruguay at the Atahualpa would all but assure the team of making it to Brazil.
As good as the first act of qualifying has looked, it is not a reflection of the true possible outcomes. Narrow wins against Colombia and Bolivia, as well as losses at Argentina and especially Paraguay, show that the team remains vulnerable and sometimes hangs on thanks to a penalty kick. Antonio Valencia, Christian Benitez and Felipe Caicedo will need to come up big in those away games and they will also need to keep their heads cool so as not to be suspended for key matches.
Ecuador has displayed clean, speedy attack with intricate passing and glorious lofted balls from Valencia. The center of the pitch has been well managed so far and the attackers are better this time around than 2010. There may not be a Tin Delgado here but Caicedo and Benitez pack a dangerous one-two punch. The back line, however, is prone to mishaps and the center backs tend to leave a good deal of open space between them when the fullbacks engage in the attack.
There are always plenty of surprises in qualifying and this time Ecuador hopes to become one of them by advancing in a more prominent role. Chile, Colombia and Uruguay are the direct rivals this time around, with Venezuela having increasingly better chances. Stealing points away from these teams is most important, as is keeping the Atahualpa a fortress to get a possible 9 more points at home.