DOHA: Ecuador’s “Superman” captain Enner Valencia led a feisty fightback on Friday as the South Americans drew 1-1 with the Netherlands in Group A to keep both teams in the running for the last 16 while ending hosts Qatar’s chances of qualifying.
Valencia, 33, tapped in his third goal of the tournament from a rebound in the second half after Cody Gakpo had put the Dutch ahead in the sixth minute with a sizzling shot in a result that advanced both sides to four points.
Qatar lost their second successive game at their debut World Cup earlier on Friday to Senegal and are eliminated. The African champions are third in the group with Ecuador to come in Tuesday’s final group games.
Ecuador had a subdued first half as Louis van Gaal’s side looked comfortable but unhurried. But the South Americans, roared on by a large yellow-clad contingent at the Khalifa International Stadium, stepped up a gear in the second half and could have won it when Gonzalo Plata’s strike hit the crossbar.
Plato thrashed a powerful shot onto the woodwork in the 59th minute as the South Americans went from strength to strength, consistently hustling the Dutch off the ball by applying a physically-demanding press that did not allow their opponents to play their usual flowing game.
“They had a few biters, guys who are hot on your heels. Then you have to act quickly, and (we) could have dealt with that better. We should have done better in possession of the ball,” said Dutch captain Virgil van Dijk.
It had started out most promising for the Dutch, looking for their second win of the tournament that would have ensured they were the first team to qualify for the knockout stages, when Gakpo scored.
A stray ball back to his defence by Moises Caicedo was stolen by Davy Klaassen, who then left Gakpo to take over possession and slam a left-footed rocket into the net.
But that was as good as it got for Louis van Gaal’s side. Valencia’s clever pass in the 24th minute sent Caicedo away down the left and, although his touch was heavy and allowed the Dutch to intercept, it provoked a burst of noise from the large number of their fans that injected energy into the Ecuador players.
Valencia cut inside to fire a shot that forced a full stretch save out of Dutch goalkeeper Andries Noppert soon after the half hour mark and, as they kept up the pressure, Ecuador had the ball in the back of the net in first half stoppage time as Pervis Estupinan deflected the ball home.
However, it was ruled out because Jackson Porozo was both offside and standing in front of the goalkeeper and blocking his line of sight.
The equaliser four minutes into the second half was always on the cards, as Ecuador stole possession in midfield and fed Estupinan for a stinging shot on the left that Noppert did well to parry but with Valencia pouncing on the rebound.
The 33-year-old, who went off near the end of the game, has now netted Ecuador’s last six World Cup finals goals – three at the 2014 tournament in Brazil and three in Qatar.