AL RAYYAN, Qatar (AP) — The young Ecuador squad followed their captain Enner Valencia to the corner of the field after he scored yet another goal for them at the World Cup.
One of the true leaders in Qatar, Valencia had leveled the score at 1-1 against the favored Netherlands to extend his streak of scoring all six of Ecuador’s goals at World Cup tournaments since 2014.
The 33-year-old talisman was surrounded by teammates who joined him in a joyous circle of celebration. All were soon kneeling on the turf, some with arms around shoulders, some pointing to the night sky at Khalifa International Stadium.
It sent a powerful image of unity home to a nation which “is used to suffer and struggling,” coach Gustavo Alfaro said in translated comments after a game his young team deserved to win.
Valencia was among the last to rise from the turf as teammates gave the new top scorer at this World Cup a last pat on his head and shoulder.
“He’s a top-level player when he wears the Ecuador jersey. Sometimes he is criticized unfairly,” Alfaro said, reminding that Valencia is the only holdover from the 2014 squad which didn’t advance from the group despite his three goals.
In Qatar, Valencia’s goals in a 2-0 win over the host nation and a third to earn a point against the group-leading Dutch mean a draw against Senegal on Tuesday will be enough to enter the round of 16.
This result also eliminated host nation Qatar just five days after the start of its home World Cup that cost about $200 billion to prepare.
The Netherlands and Ecuador moved up to four points in Group A. It left Qatar with zero points after losing 3-1 to Senegal hours earlier.
Netherlands coach Louis van Gaal said he was satisfied with a point rather the performance against “a much better opponent.”
“We were poor in terms of ball possession. We lost every challenge, every duel, every second ball,” Van Gaal said, who shared a smile — and was that another hug? — with Alfaro as their paths crossed at the post-game news conferences.
“He is the best,” Alfaro said in English of Van Gaal though his team had limited the Dutch to two shots on goal and had 14 of their own.
The Dutch were passive after Cody Gakpo fired them into a sixth-minute lead with a rising shot from the edge of the penalty area. It was the fastest goal scored so far in Qatar.
Ecuador leveled when Valencia passed the ball into an empty net after Pervis Estupiñán’s shot was pushed away by goalkeeper Andries Noppert. It capitalized on ragged play throughout the Netherlands defense, after Noppert was almost caught in possession by the hard-charging Valencia and cleared the ball weakly.
A deserved winning goal almost followed minutes later when the Netherlands crossbar was rattled by a rising left-foot shot from Gonzalo Plata.
“To me the result was not the most important thing today, it was their attitude,” Alfaro said. “We are talking about 20-, 21-year-old players with a great future ahead of them.”
Their next test is against Senegal with Valencia likely restored after being stretchered off the field in the 90th minute. He was able to get up and walk the bench, where a bag of ice was taped to his right leg.
Until Gakpo’s goal, Ecuador hadn’t conceded a goal in more than 11 hours’ play, including seven clean sheets, since March when Argentina scored in a World Cup qualifying game that ended 1-1.
Netherlands had its seven-game win streak in group-stage play at World Cups ended. The Dutch through the first three games in 2010 and 2014, and then opened in Qatar by beating Senegal 2-0.
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