FIFA World Cup: Out-muscled, out-thought, out-played

FIFA World Cup: Out-muscled, out-thought, out-played

When the final whistle went, one that tore through Qatar’s hearts like a poisoned arrow, the home players fell to the ground dejected. They dragged their defeated bodies and defeated minds with them, ruing the chances they played at the end and their sloppiness at the start, as sanguine coach Felix Sanchez embraced them and applauded the crowd who had turned out in droves to support their nation’s greatest moment on the global stage .

The sweetest moment had also turned into their sourest. After a smooth and great opening ceremony, the defeat was the anticlimax they had never wanted, or feared. The 2-0 defeat broke their hearts and opened their eyes in despair, but it was a clear verdict on where they stand as a footballing nation. Ecuador played out, thought out and out-muscled, even without playing their best football, although their game was full of mistakes. Qatar froze, Ecuador pumped in heat and fire, led by the evergreen Enner Valencia, who put on a vintage show.

However, the game was won long before the final whistle was blown; The result was a foregone conclusion the moment Valencia and Renato Ibarra began running the Qatar defense to shreds with their impeccable precision and telepathic understanding in the opening minutes of the game. Qatar had spent the past year drilling their team into a slick unit, even excluding them from league matches. But here, on a windy night at the magnificent Al Bayt Stadium, Ecuador were clearly the more coordinated side. Qatar were bland and flat, lacking both imagination and grit, as Ecuador repeatedly opened up their defense with fluid passing and bossed the midfield.

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Not that Qatar gave up too soon. As they staggered off the pitch at half-time, shoulders slumped and eyes flickering, captain Hassan Al Haydos stopped beside the stands near the tunnel to the dressing room, waving to the fans and gesturing to the crowd to shout louder, throw their heart and soul deeper into the game. He then put a comforting arm around goalkeeper Saad Alsheeb, whose sloppy hack by Valencia resulted in the penalty, and Ecuador’s first goal.

Just a few minutes ago, he had almost conceded another goal, reacting late to the lobbed ball inside the box and then rushing to clear it, but was too slow and ended up hitting the air. In those fleeting seconds, Valencia had hit the ball in the back of the net. Returning after halftime, Haydos pulled a couple of his teammates aside for an animated chat on the sidelines.

There was a sense of urgency, a whiff of a comeback, a whiff of hope perhaps, an exciting narrative waiting to unfold. But nothing significant appeared. Ecuador, as they had in the first half, tore the defense apart, demonstrating the quality between the teams. All of Qatar’s players ply their trade in the local league, while most of Ecuador’s play in the top European leagues. None perhaps as sparkling as Valencia. For a long time, Europe’s best coveted him. He was long linked with Manchester United but eventually ended up at West Ham before joining UANL and now spending the sunset of his career at Fenerbahce. He is 33 and almost a forgotten figure in Europe, having lost some of his dazzling pace but making up for it with recklessness in front of goal, a trait that blossomed late. It was his sloppy finishing that hindered his progress from a mid-table club to an elite club. Often he was accused of showboating, of having an expansive playing style. At the sunset of his career, when no European powerhouse would be knocking on the doors for his signature, he has matured into what he always wanted to be, a versatile striker.

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Clinical in front of goal

His two goals, the penalty and the header, illustrate his career perfectly. There was a touch of arrogant impudence. He waited until the moment Alsheeb dived and caressed the ball into the bottom right corner. He then grabbed the ball, kissed it and ran towards the ecstatic Ecuadorian fans. He almost pulled his shirt off but for Moises Caceido’s timely intervention. Ecuador cannot afford a yellow card for their striker if they are to have any serious ambitions of progressing to the last 16, which they have managed just once in four games.

Valencia’s second symbolized another aspect of his game. The goal came from a laser-guided pass from Caceido. It fell to the feet of Angelo Preciado, who stroked a first-time cross to the far post. Valencia was nowhere in the frame but spun past Bassam Hisham, who must have sensed that Valencia was a phantom lurking in the shadows, jumped and stretched every sinew in his neck to drive a downward header past Alsheeb, again clueless and petrified.

It is the pole Valencia could not acquire in his prime. The goal eventually ruled out as offside, VAR making an immediate presence, was from the poacher’s playbook.

But as much as the goals, his movement off the ball confounded Qatar’s defenders. He twisted and turned, nutmeged and fooled them, so much so that they finally gave up on him. He combined beautifully with Romario Ibarra, a more direct player and threatened to inflict even more pain on Qatar. An embarrassment was saved, however, although the defeat would put into perspective that the hosts are a few notches away from setting up a stern test for better teams on the global stage. Qatar may be capable hosts, but not so capable opponents on the pitch.

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