Gustavo Alfaro, the Ecuador coach, has accused the big European nations of underestimating South America’s less heralded sides ahead of a potential last-16 clash with England.
Ecuador need to avoid defeat against Senegal on Tuesday to secure their passage through to the knockout stages and could still top Group A if they better Holland’s result against Qatar. If they finish second and England go on to top Group B, then Alfaro will go head-to-head with Gareth Southgate in the last 16.
Alfaro has warned Europe’s elite that the smaller nations are closing the gap and questioned why they did not arrange friendlies against South American opponents in preparation for the World Cup.
Of the 13 European nations at the tournament, only Poland played a friendly against South American opposition this year, when they beat Chile 1-0 in November.
“This World Cup has been thrilling and beautiful so far and I can see a big evolution from the teams in the third or fourth phase – before there was a big difference to the big international teams but now you can see sides who weren’t favourites playing against the bigger sides in evenly matched games,” said the Ecuador coach who has some concerns over the fitness of his star striker Enner Valencia, who was injured in Friday's match against the Netherlands.
“You can see the growth in Asian football, South American football – not including Argentina and Brazil who were always big teams – and the Concacaf [Central American] teams.
“The football at this World Cup is the football now being played in Europe. Europe, I notice, didn’t play any friendlies against South American teams coming into this World Cup.
“But European football didn’t take into account that South American football has grown in tactics. We can see how football is evolving and what happens in the World Cup we can see happening in the rest of football.
“We were able to transform things to be able to grow up. We kept our physical skills and natural skills but knew if we wanted to grow we had to do other things better too. I really hope this trophy goes to a South American team. We are ready to fight, we are feisty.”
Ecuador are hopeful that Valencia will be fit enough to start against Senegal but the Fenerbahce striker – who has scored three goals at the tournament – has a knee sprain he sustained in the opening victory against Qatar and which forced his substitution late in the 1-1 draw against Holland.
“His ligaments are okay and according to the medical department it’s just a knee sprain,” Alfaro said. “But he has a big heart and wants to be in every battle and we have the leadership from our captain. He’s an extraordinary player, someone I will always pick, so we will try to have him ready. If he’s not ready for the start of the match we will see but I have confidence.”
Ecuador World Cup 2022 squad
Goalkeepers: Alexander Dominguez (Liga de Quito), Hernan Galindez (Aucas), Moises Ramirez (Independiente del Valle).
Defenders: Pervis Estupinan (Brighton & Hove Albion), Angelo Preciado (Gent), Piero Hincapie (Bayer Leverkusen), Xavier Arreaga (Seattle Sounders), Diego Palacios (Los Angeles FC), Jackson Porozo (Troyes), Robert Arboleda (Sao Paulo), Felix Torres (Santos Laguna), William Pacho (Royal Antwerp FC).
Midfielders: Moises Caicedo (Brighton), Jose Cifuentes (Los Angeles FC), Alan Franco (Talleres), Jhegson Mendez (Los Angeles FC), Carlos Gruezo (Augsburg), Gonzalo Plata (Valladolid), Angel Mena (Leon), Ayrton Preciado (Santos Laguna), Romario Ibarra (Pachuca), Jeremy Sarmiento (Brighton)
Forwards: Enner Valencia (Fenerbahce), Michael Estrada (Cruz Azul), Djorkaeff Reasco (Newell's Old Boys), Kevin Rodriguez (Imbabura SC) (Reporting by Angelica Medina in Mexico City).
Who is likely to be the star name in the squad?
Former West Ham striker Enner Valencia, now 33, remains the team’s most experienced forward. Now signed with Fenerbahce, he scored four goals in qualification.
This could be a big tournament for Brighton midfielder Moises Caicedo, with Real Madrid reportedly interested in signing the 21-year-old as a replacement for Luka Modric. His transfer value could sky-rocket if Ecuador have a strong run and he plays well.
What are Ecuador's results and fixtures?
November 20: Qatar 0 Ecuador 2
November 25: Netherlands 1 Ecuador 1
November 29: Ecuador vs Senegal
What is Ecuador’s World Cup record?
This is Ecuador's fourth World Cup. They first appeared in Japan and South Korea in 2002, before competing at Germany 2006 and Brazil 2014. They reached the round of 16 in 2006, their best result.
Ecuador raised eyebrows in the South American qualifiers, winning away in Chile, losing to Paraguay, and drawing to Argentina and Brazil, which saw them reach fourth spot ahead of Peru, Colombia, Chile and Paraguay.
Going into the tournament, their form was promising, winning two and drawing three of their last six matches, including a 1-1 tie with Argentina.
The Andeans, who have qualified alongside regional powerhouses Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay, have now qualified for four of the past six finals, a better record than the likes of Chile, Colombia, Paraguay and Peru.
Argentina | Australia | Belgium | Brazil | Cameroon | Canada | Costa Rica | Croatia | Denmark | Ecuador | England | France | Germany | Ghana | Iran | Japan | Mexico | Morocco | Netherlands | Poland | Portugal | Qatar | Saudi Arabia | Senegal | Serbia | South Korea | Spain | Switzerland | Tunisia | Uruguay | USA | Wales
Ecuador are currently a best price of 125/1 to win the World Cup 2022.