Predicting Each of Ecuador's World Cup Group Stage Matches

Alex Gruber@agruber6Featured ColumnistJune 10, 2014

Predicting Each of Ecuador's World Cup Group Stage Matches

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    23 men, one goal: Ecuador's national team.
    23 men, one goal: Ecuador's national—Official site of the Ecuadorian Football Federation

    Ecuador enter just their third-ever World Cup journey, hopeful of duplicating 2006's group-stage success. While that run ended in the Round of 16 against England, it was a solid step forward for a national side far less decorated than some of its continental neighbors.

    They failed to return to the world stage in 2010, finishing sixth in the CONMEBOL qualification table. But with no Brazil to worry about this time around, Ecuador surged back to fourth to ensure automatic entry into the final 32.

    At the World Cup draw last December, Ecuador were placed into Group E alongside 1998 winners France, their European neighbors Switzerland and Central America's Honduras. This could shape up to be a relatively even group, and Ecuador will be hopeful of qualifying.

    La Tri have prepared for the tournament with three friendlies over the last month. They held the Netherlands to a 1-1 draw in Amsterdam before falling 3-1 to Mexico in Dallas. A hearty 2-2 draw with England in Miami last week finished off a solid stint before shipping off to Brazil.

    The matches against the European opposition saw somewhat weaker-than-normal teams fielded against Ecuador, with the likes of Wesley Sneijder, Arjen Robben, Steven Gerrard and Daniel Sturridge not playing. Expect no such thing to occur in Brazil.

    As such, how will Ecuador fare in their World Cup adventure? Read on for a forecast of La Tri's Group E play.

Switzerland (15 June)

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    Switzerland winger Xherdan Shaqiri in action for Bayern Munich.
    Switzerland winger Xherdan Shaqiri in action for Bayern Munich.Matthias Schrader/Associated Press

    First on the docket for Ecuador is a matchup with Switzerland in Brasilia. Switzerland, who were unbeaten in their 10-match qualifying group, have risen to sixth in FIFA's latest world rankings. Ecuador, for comparison's sake, currently sit 26th.

    In a way, this match is probably the toughest to predict.

    Switzerland's high ranking and superb qualifying record might point to a one-sided match against the supposed fifth-best team—fourth in qualifying plus Brazil—in South America. But it's never that simple, is it?

    First of all, that qualifying group was probably the weakest of the nine UEFA groups. Their opponents were Iceland, Slovenia, Norway, Albania and Cyprus. Not exactly a powerhouse lineup there.

    It's no wonder Switzerland didn't lose a game. They suffered just three draws, but two came at home, including a 4-4 stunner with Iceland that might've been a good wake-up call. Plus, they only managed to spread a disappointing 17 total goals over the 10 games, though they conceded just six.

    Heck, their leading scorer in qualification? Not one of their dynamic young attackers like Xherdan Shaqiri or Valentin Stocker, but central defender Fabian Schar with a whopping three goals—scored over just two games.

    So it's clear to see where Switzerland's strengths lie: not in attack.

    Their strong defensive unit and powerful midfield is what will get them through most games. Their full-backs are both top-level talents in the experienced Stephan Lichtsteiner and the up-and-coming Ricardo Rodriguez, flanking the likes of Schar and Steve von Bergen.

    The midfield is certainly where the battles will be won or lost in this match. Here we find Swiss captain Gokhan Inler and his Napoli teammate Valon Behrami bossing the show, shutting down opposing attacks and setting up Shaqiri and Stocker for counters.

    In front of this duo lies another youngster in Granit Xhaka, with the Borussia Monchengladbach player likely to aid in manager Ottmar Hitzfeld's heavy pressing scheme. As B/R's Sam Tighe notes, this might cause issues by leaving Lichtsteiner and Rodriguez exposed if the ball can't be won.

    This is where Ecuador can make their strengths pay.

    As we saw during the England friendly, much of Reinaldo Rueda's attacking play will start with Jefferson Montero and Antonio Valencia on the flanks. If given the space to push forward, they'll cause the defense problem after problem.

    The one big similarity we'll find for both sides is the lack of a true world-beater up top, though both teams may have found someone to rely on in this regard.

    For Switzerland, that man looks to be Nurnberg's Josip Drmic. He enjoyed a solid Bundesliga campaign and seems the best choice right now for Hitzfeld's side. Ecuador will turn to Enner Valencia for the big goal numbers, with Felipe Caicedo leading the line partnering the Pachuca player.

    Overall, the teams share some similarities in their strong wing play and lack of true goalscoring prowess. This one will be won and lost in the midfield and, in the end, it might not be won or lost at all.

    Ecuador 1-1 Switzerland

Honduras (20 June)

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    Honduras' Jerry Palacios battles with England's Phil Jagielka.
    Honduras' Jerry Palacios battles with England's Phil Jagielka.J Pat Carter/Associated Press

    In what will be Ecuador's easiest matchup on paper, their second Group E match pits them against Honduras in Curitiba. Honduras gained automatic qualification by finishing third in the final round of CONCACAF qualifying behind the United States and Costa Rica—and ahead of Mexico.

    Interestingly enough, Honduras were placed in a group with Switzerland for the second straight World Cup, managing a scoreless draw in 2010.

    This one might prove to be interesting more for the touchline connection rather than the action between the lines: Honduras' manager when they made just their second-ever World Cup appearance in South Africa was none other than the man seeking to defeat them now, Reinaldo Rueda.

    Honduras' slate of pre-tournament friendlies saw them face three UEFA teams in Turkey, Israel and England. All three were played in the USA, and the first two resulted in losses by the score of 2-0 and 4-2, respectively.

    This past weekend, though, they took to Miami to face England and duplicated Ecuador's result by holding the Three Lions to a scoreless draw. An encouraging sign for the relative minnows, especially considering they played a man down for the last 25 or so minutes.

    Even so, they enter the tournament as the clear outsiders of the group.

    Much of Honduras' talent lies in the back parts of the field, with names like Celtic's Emilio Izaguirre, Hull's Maynor Figueroa and Wigan Athletic's Roger Espinoza standing out. Figueroa is currently his side's second-most capped player with 105, behind goalkeeper Noel Valladares' 122.

    Not only is he experienced internationally, but he has featured prominently in England in recent years with his sides featuring in the last two FA Cup finals: Wigan's win in 2013—alongside Espinoza—and Hull's loss to Arsenal. Izaguirre, of course, has racked up numerous club and individual honors in his time at Parkhead and will push fellow left-back Espinoza further forward in the formation.

    Another name that'll be recognizable for English fans is Wilson Palacios, currently with Stoke City. Palacios, who has also turned out for Wigan and Tottenham Hotspur in his stay in England, will certainly be a key cog in manager Luis Suarez's midfield that also contains Houston Dynamo standout Oscar Boniek Garcia.

    It is in midfield that we find Honduras' one game-breaking talent in Andy Najar. The 21-year-old former DC United dynamo, now with Anderlecht, might best be remembered for his petulance in an MLS playoff game in 2012. But he has showcased some great skills and looks to have a bright European future ahead of him.

    Najar should be the main source of creativity to help supply the likes of Jerry Bengtson and Carlo Costly up top. Both are solid scorers, with a combined 50 international goals, so expect this trio to be the key focus for Rueda.

    In the end, it looks as the on-paper advantage ought to play out that way for Ecuador. They've just got enough of an advantage in a number of key areas and seem better suited for the grind.

    Ecuador 2-0 Honduras

France (25 June)

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    France's Antoine Griezmann celebrates scoring against Paraguay.
    France's Antoine Griezmann celebrates scoring against Paraguay.Claude Paris/Associated Press

    With four points in hand, Ecuador take to Rio and the Maracana where they'll face off against France. Les Bleus recently lost star-man Franck Ribery to a back injury but still managed to put eight past Jamaica in a recent friendly. Braces from Karim Benzema, Blaise Matuidi and Antoine Griezmann showcased strong depth without the Ballon d'Or finalist.

    The Jamaica win came just a few days after a 1-1 draw with Paraguay, in which Griezmann scored his first international goal, while an earlier pre-Cup friendly yielded a simple 4-0 win over Norway. Despite losing one of their key figures to injury, France enter the tournament in strong form.

    It almost seems like a different era when, just last November, France were two goals down to Ukraine at the midway point of their two-legged qualification playoff. A 3-0 reverse at the Stade de France salvaged the tie, though, in a far less controversial fashion than the escape against Republic of Ireland in 2009.

    They were consigned to the playoff after finishing second in their qualifying group, with their one loss in eight games coming at the hands of Spain.

    Top to bottom, even without the likes of Ribery and Samir Nasri, France boast one of the most talented squads in this tournament. From the back with goalkeeper and captain Hugo Lloris to the frontline and Benzema, it's hard to pick out a true weak spot.

    B/R's Jonathan Johnson claims that the four men defending Lloris might prove to be such a weakness, and it's certainly a valid claim. There's a lot of talent to choose from in the middle—think Laurent Koscielny, Mamadou Sakho, Raphael Varane and Eliaquim Mangala—but all have things working against them as well.

    Sakho played the hero in the 3-0 win over Ukraine, netting twice in the salvo, but had a tough first season in England. Koscielny might get the nod alongside the Liverpool man, given his experience and strong domestic season, but his shaky performance contributed to the 2-0 Ukraine loss that has to stick in Didier Deschamps' mind.

    Varane, regarded as one of the top youngsters at his position, will surely be ready to jump at an opportunity should it come to him, as he's shown already at Real Madrid when fit. The full-backs seem well entrenched, though, with Patrice Evra and Mathieu Debuchy the favorites, and Bacary Sagna available as cover.

    It's the midfield, as Johnson noted, that will propel France as far as they can go in Brazil, much like Zidane did in 2006. While Zizou won't be taking the field, the trio of Matuidi, Yohan Cabaye and Paul Pogba rivals any the legend played with—far outstripping the Tim Sherwood-led Blackburn midfield for which he supposedly wasn't good enough.

    Matuidi brings a tough-tackling mentality, powerful motor and nifty right foot, while Cabaye brings vision, passing and an eye for flair that made him a hero at Newcastle. Pogba brings the best of both and, still just 21, it's still puzzling how Manchester United just let him go.

    Up top, Benzema has been scoring goals at a high rate recently. He endured a goal drought of more than 20 hours worth of game time through much of 2012 and 2013 but is back in form and raring to go. He'll be supported by Mathieu Valbuena and Griezmann, whose stock must surely be surging with his international breakout.

    France were always going to be the toughest test for Ecuador, and they'll prove to be just that in this match. Rueda's side just doesn't have an answer to most of these guys and, barring either some forced defensive errors or a South Africa-esque implosion from France, La Tri's run will end here.

    Ecuador 1-3 France

    Feel free to chime in with your own predictions in the comment section below, and hit me up on Twitter.