Ecuador vs. Argentina: 5 Key Battles to Watch in World Cup Qualifier
Tuesday's World Cup qualifier brings together two teams with great hopes of qualifying for Brazil 2014, as first-place Argentina visit the heights of Quito to take on Ecuador. The Tricolor stumbled to a 1-0 defeat to Peru but still find themselves in third place in the Conmebol standings, and a fantastic record at home means they will fancy their chances against Alejandro Sabella's men.
The Albiceleste coach, meanwhile, has seen his hand forced, as injury and suspension oblige him to make several changes to the side that drew 0-0 against Colombia. Gonzalo Higuain and Pablo Zabaleta are suspended, while Lionel Messi is still struggling for fitness and could start off the bench once more.
On paper, Argentina should be clear favourites, but the altitude always plays a key part in Ecuador's home clashes, and Reinaldo Rueda's men will be hopeful of recording a seventh straight home victory against their South American rivals.
We bring you the most intriguing head-to-head clashes from Tuesday's game, as the World Cup qualifying campaign moves into its final stages.
Christian Benitez vs. Jose Basanta
Two of the Mexican league's biggest talents will face off in Quito on Tuesday evening, as both teams look for three points that would make qualification almost a formality.
Benitez, who became known to English fans thanks to a loan spell with Birmingham City, compensates for his diminutive stature with a rapid, dynamic style of play that is good enough to unsettle most defences.
The 27-year-old was last month crowned Clausura champion with America, and his four goals so far in the Conmebol competition have played a big part in keeping Ecuador amongst the qualifying places.
Tasked with stopping him will be Monterrey's stopper, Jose Basanta, who will play in the middle of a back three alongside Ezequiel Garay and Federico Fernandez. A veteran of countless trips to the heights of Mexico City, Basanta is known as somewhat of an altitude expert among the Argentina team and will not be phased in keeping tabs on Benitez and the rest of the Tricolor frontline.
Sergio Aguero vs. Jorge Guagua
In the absence of Gonzalo Higuain due to suspension and with Lionel Messi unlikely to make the starting XI, Sergio Aguero remains as the only member of that devastating attacking trio. The onus will, therefore, fall on the Manchester City star to lead the line and try and find goals against a well-drilled defence.
Aguero has been used primarily as the creative foil for Messi and Higuain so far, doing the hard work out wide and helping the pair notch eight and nine goals respectively during the campaign. On Tuesday, however, it will be up to him to do the damage, as he is likely to start alongside Rodrigo Palacio or Ezequiel Lavezzi in attack.
Veteran defender Jorge Guagua will be the man tasked with stopping El Kun. The 31-year-old centre-back may have been born on the coast, but he has played the vast majority of his career in the Ecuadorian capital and is at home in Quito's altitude of 10,000 feet. His strength and physicality will mean Aguero will have to be at his best to overcome what is sure to be a thorough marking job.
Felipe Caicedo vs. Ezequiel Garay
A muscle injury sustained in the recent friendly against Germany put Felipe Caicedo's presence in doubt for this doubleheader of matches. Although he came on during the second half against Peru, he could not move to change the fate of the match, and Ecuador slumped to a 1-0 defeat that robbed them of third place.
Tuesday, however, should be a different prospect altogether. Caicedo has had time to rest and will resume his dangerous partnership with Christian Benitez up front, one which has already yielded nine goals in the qualifiers. Ecuador's top scorer is a fast, strong striker who loves to make life uncomfortable for his marker before spinning away and hitting the net.
He may have met his match in Ezequiel Garay, though. Few players have done such a thorough marking job on Radamel Falcao as the Benfica man's effort on Friday, keeping the Colombian superstar quiet throughout the 90 minutes. Fatigue may be an issue at altitude, but Garay will be itching to repeat his success once more in Quito.
Angel Di Maria vs. Segundo Castillo
Angel Di Maria's last match at altitude is still recalled with admiration by fans and observers of Argentine football. The Real Madrid winger put on an incredible performance, running all over the La Paz pitch to such an extent that he needed to be administered oxygen in the latter stages.
For the Argentina side's second test at such heights, in the Ecuadorian capital, Fideo will once more be called upon to be the engine of the team in the middle of the pitch, supporting a double pivot of Javier Mascherano and Ever Banega further back and driving the Albiceleste forward on the counter. It is a punishing job, but Di Maria proved against Bolivia that he has the legs for it.
Looking to stop the winger in his tracks will be another veteran of the Ecuador national team and Mexican league, midfield destroyer Segundo Castillo. The 31-year-old Puebla player will sit in the holding role, frustrating incursions into the box and playing the ball out to the more dynamic members of the team to do the damage.
Antonio Valencia vs. Marcos Rojo
Although he did not enjoy the best of seasons for Manchester United, Antonio Valencia was still a key part of the team that ran out comfortable champions in the Premier League. His connection with Robin van Persie proved to be a vital contribution for the Red Devils, and compatriot Felipe Caicedo will hope that the winger can provide the same quality possession as the Dutchman enjoys on a weekly basis in Old Trafford.
Valencia's explosive pace has the ability to trouble even the best defences, and Argentina's weakest point is arguably down the flanks. Tasked with stopping the flying winger will be young Sporting fullback Marcos Rojo.
The natural left-footer has seen his place questioned by some in the Albiceleste, and he has looked uncomfortable at times in the national team against sides, such as Peru, who direct their attacks down his wing. Although Angel Di Maria will be called back to aid his colleague out wide, the onus is on the 23-year-old to nullify Valencia and stop crosses flowing into Caicedo and Benitez in the area.