Welcome to the latest round of our World Cup 2014 tactics board, where this time we're putting Ecuador under the microscope.
In this series we're looking at each of the 32 qualifying nations; assessing their strengths and weaknesses and judging just what they might be able to achieve in Brazil this summer.
Ecuador are led by head coach Reinaldo Rueda, and here is how they got through qualifying and how they will approach the task that lies ahead for them.
The fourth-placed team in the CONMEBOL qualification system, Ecuador gained direct passage to the finals at the end of the lengthy league system in South America. The top four automatically go through in this nine-nation group, with fifth place winning a play-off spot.
Ecuador's qualifying campaign can be very clearly split in two: an unbeaten home record, and an away record without a single win.
Early home wins over Venezuela and Peru were straight-forward affairs, though defeat to Paraguay in between those results gave a sign of what was to come—Paraguay went on to finish bottom of the group.
A heavy loss in Argentina was followed up by two hugely important 1-0 wins over Colombia and Bolivia. Their first away points came in what turned out to be a pivotal 1-1 draw in Uruguay. That sparked the most consistent run of results in qualifying, as Chile were dispatched at home before a draw in Venezuela was also achieved, along with a 4-1 home thumping of Paraguay.
The telling third goal in that match was scored by striker Christian "Chucho" Benitez, in what would be his 24th and final international goal before tragically passing away in July 2013, aged 27.
Needless to say, it threw Ecuador's team into a sporting and psychological conundrum, with the experienced forward being one of the key components of the side and a big presence in the dressing room and especially close to national team hero and captain Antonio Valencia.
Anybody who doesn't know the story: Valencia's Ecuador team-mate Chucho Benitez died in July. Valencia has a tattoo in his memory.— Jonathan Wilson (@jonawils) September 17, 2013
Ecuador scraped across the finish line, somewhat understandably, following a defeat to Peru, a draw at home to Argentina, a loss in Colombia and a draw in Bolivia. Needing a positive result in their penultimate qualifier at home to direct rivals for fourth place, Uruguay, Jefferson Montero scored the big goal in a 1-0 win, meaning the 2-1 loss in Chile mattered little.
Ecuador finished fourth, ahead of Uruguay on goal difference, with 25 points from 16 games.
Formation and Style
Ecuador tend to look to attack with pace and width, countering whenever possible to make use of their flair-filled wide players.
In Jefferson Montero on the left and Antonio Valencia on the right, they possess two players who, in differing ways, are capable of running directly at defenders and causing problems to open up spaces for the central attackers.
Valencia has also played centrally at times, but looks more likely to play from the wing.
Benitez's passing left more than just a gap in the team, of course, but in terms of Ecuador's World Cup hopes, losing their third-highest all-time scorer is a significant problem to overcome. The current highest scorer in the team is now veteran midfielder Edison Mendez, who has 18 goals in over 100 appearances.
Striker Felipe Caicedo, now with Al-Jazira, is the likely leader of the attack, having netted a number of goals—though a handful from the penalty spot—in qualifying.
Enner Valencia is another option to play just off the front man and give more support to the attack without compromising on midfield solidity, having previously played as a wide man and being used to tracking back.
Reasons for Hope
Starting with Group E, Ecuador will feel they must at least have a fighting chance of progression.
France will be favourites to go through, but Switzerland and Honduras are not necessarily that much better than the South American nation that second place is out of the question.
There is plenty of experience within the squad, with seven players past or within touching distance of a half-century of caps. That will be important in keeping composure and faith with the game plan if, or when, they fall behind in matches, particularly in their opening fixtures.
Mentality is always vital in tournament games, and Ecuador perhaps showed that they have the fighting spirit to cope with adversity, albeit in a very different setting, when they came from 3-0 down to win 4-3 against Australia in a recent international friendly.
They also drew 2-2 with World Cup opponents Honduras last year, coming from behind to steal a draw late in the game.
Finally, a very strong defensive record in qualifying will be a positive point for Ecuador to cling to; they conceded just 16 goals in 16 games—the third-best tally in the group behind the top two qualifiers, Argentina and Colombia.
Reasons for Concern
It will be said that most South American teams will benefit by the World Cup being on "home soil," but Ecuador's qualifying record outside of their own country doesn't exactly scream of confidence in that regard.
Naturally, the loss and lingering mental impact of Benitez's absence—his shirt was retired by the national federation—will be an unenviable challenge to overcome for the players, though they could also use that as an inspiration to reach greater heights than expected.
Ecuador will have to use the number 11 shirt in the World Cup, Fifa have confirmed. It has been vacant since the death of Chucho Benitez.— Adam Brandon (@caniggiascores) March 7, 2014
A fast start will be needed, though, with defeat to Switzerland in the opening game an unthinkable possibility if they want to progress.
An ageing back-line is also potentially a problem for Ecuador. Left-back and former captain Walter Ayovi is 34, while Jorge Guagua, who started centrally in the Australia game, is 32.
Conclusions and Prediction
Ecuador's set-up and game plan is relatively consistent; they know their limitations and Rueda has certainly laid out the best way to get the most of the attacking talents at their disposal.
Will that be enough to see off the challenge of Switzerland? It will be close, but that game, even as early as it comes, could be the one which dictates who goes through to the knock-out stages.
With France being their final opponents, Ecuador cannot afford a slow start to their World Cup. It's almost certainly all got to go right for them in the opening two games, and that's an awful lot to ask with their relatively limited options.
Prediction: Exit at the Group Stage, third in Group E.
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