Méndez guides Ecuador to knockout stage

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Ecuador smoothly powered their way 3-0 into the knockout stages in Hamburg on Thursday, proving far too strong for a Costa Rican side who will join Poland on the journey home after their play-off for last place in the group next Tuesday.

The South Americans are thus the first team to qualify for the last 16 alongside hosts Germany, whom they meet in Berlin next week at the same time as the Costa Rica v Poland wake. This match will be of far more than academic interest to England coach Sven-Goran Eriksson, whose team is set to play one of them for a place in the quarter-finals.

It runs counter to the received wisdom, but in the Swede’s place I would be tempted to hope for Germany - and not just because of England’s well-documented aversion to playing against teams in yellow shirts.

This is a well-drilled and immensely strong Ecuador team, unrecognisable from the side that sleepwalked its way to an early exit, in spite of beating Croatia, four years ago. It reminds me of Cameroon circa 1990. England had enough trouble putting Roger Milla and his chums in their place then and it could be a similar story with Luis Fernando Suarez’s men this time around, especially if the heatwave continues, even if their unbreached defence has yet to be put under real pressure.

Key player Edison Mendez is the unheralded Steven Gerrard of the Ecuador team. He was more subdued, perhaps partly to avoid a second yellow card, yet still managed to lay on two of the goals with buccaneering runs.

Carlos Tenorio and the rejuvenated Agustin Delgado, with two goals apiece so far, provide brawn and no little guile up front, while Ivan Kaviedes, who donned a yellow spiderman mask after his icing-on-the-cake goal yesterday, toils unstintingly in the engine-room. Delgado had struck the second soon after half-time. The much-capped Ivan Hurtado is a calm defensive marshal.

Suarez, who apparently sees his coaching career as a way of making up for a mediocre time as a player, looks to be out of the Jose Mourinho school of moody management. And then some. Owner of one of the sport’s more intense glares, he clearly was not going to celebrate Tenorio’s eighth-minute opener if it killed him.

That goal was laid on a plate for the big man by Luis Antonio Valencia, whose zestful presence on the right flank means Ulises de la Cruz can focus more on his defensive duties.

And how could you fail to have a soft spot for a team whose goalkeeper, Cristian Mora, plays with the national colours painted on his cheeks like a fan?

This run is already the most important thing to happen in Ecuador since Texaco discovered oil there in 1967. Don’t bank on their best now being behind them.

As Suarez said afterwards: “We haven’t come to the World Cup just for the ride.”

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