The FIFA World Cup got off to a record-breaking start as Qatar became the first hosts to lose their opening game of the tournament, falling 2-0 to Ecuador at the Al Bayt Stadium.
A brace from Enner Valencia was enough to start the South Americans’ campaign perfectly, as they ran out comfortable winners in a dominant display.
Despite the partisan atmosphere, the Ecuadorians were calmness personified in possession, dictating the tempo under next-to-no pressure from the Qataris.
Brighton and Hove Albion duo Moises Caicedo and Pervis Estupinan offered thrust and guile in the engine room and down the left respectively as Gustavo Alfaro’s side threatened to rack up a cricket score, but they kept the scoring down as they eased down to preserve themselves for tougher fixtures ahead.
For Felix Sanchez’s Qatar, it is – and they got off to – the worst possible start. Valencia thought he had opened the tournament’s scoring inside three minutes, nodding in from close range after a penalty box melee from an Estupinan free-kick, but VAR mysteriously disallowed the strike on the grounds of a very dubious offside.
On 16 minutes, however, the Ecuadorians got justice, as nervy home goalkeeper Saad Al-Sheeb felled the onrushing Valencia, conceding a penalty.
The former West Ham and Everton striker converted confidently, and he doubled his side’s lead just after the half-hour, as he glanced a header into the far corner from an Angelo Preciado cross to put the game beyond the hosts.
Almoez Ali came closest for the home side as he fluffed Hassan Al Haydos’ cross from close range on the stroke of half time.
Romario Ibarra forced Al-Sheeb into a fair save with a curler just shy of the hour in a rare match highlight.
The ideal start for Ecuador, but they mustn’t get complacent. Valencia hobbled off with a knee problem that could change their fortunes, and they’ll be keen to wrap him in cotton wool ahead of their next game against the Netherlands. For Qatar, it’s back to the drawing board – and fast.
TALKING POINT – TOO CAUTIOUS?
This was predicted as – and was simply – a walk in the park for Ecuador.
However, there were more goals in this game, and they know it. Could they have been more ruthless and gone to a more offensive 4-2-4 to really gun for the hosts?
An extra few goals could prove really useful in this group should they need them.
Instead, they calmly sat in their 4-4-2, controlling the game, happy with what they had.
Qatar didn’t trouble them, but sterner tests are to come.
PLAYER OF THE MATCH – ENNER VALENCIA, ECUADOR
Bringing his hot streak of form to the international stage, the Fenerbahce’s two finishes helped the South Americans to a crucial opening day win.
Yes, it was easy, but you have to be in the right places to make the run that he did to win the penalty, and it was his intelligence of movement that enabled him to head home a second unmarked at the far post.
He displayed his experience and quality, leading by example.
His coach and team-mates will be concerned at his fitness levels after a knock to his knee looked nasty.
A crucial figure for Ecuadorian hopes.
Qatar: Al Sheeb 3, Bassam 4, Khouki 5, Abdelkarim 5, Ro-Ro 6, Boudiaf 5, Abdulaziz 5, Homam 5, Al Haydos 4, Almoez 5, Afif 5. Subs: Waad 5, Muntari 5.
Ecuador: Galindez 6, Preciado 7, Torres 6, Hincapie 7, Estupinan 7, Plata 6, Mendez 6, Caicedo 7, Ibarra 6, Valencia 8, Estrada 6. Subs: Sarmiento 6, Cifuentes 6, Rodriguez 6, Franco 6.
3′: GOAL! There’s the first goal, and it’s Enner Valencia! A melee from the initial free kick ensues as Al Sheeb comes and doesn’t claim, and the ball is clipped to the far post, where Valencia nods in from close range. Too easy. // NO GOAL! The goal has been ruled out! VAR disallows it for… an offside? Where was the infringement there?
15′: PENALTY! Saeed Al-Sheeb fells Enner Valencia as the captain bears down on goal. He clips the striker, and is booked in the process. // GOAL! This one will count! Valencia gets the first goal of the tournament, and he strokes home confidently to silence the home crowd.
31′: GOAL! It’s two, and the Ecuadorians are threatening to run riot on the opening day. They work it nicely forwards from front to back, and force the error from the Qatar throw. Estrada wins it in midfield, and Caicedo drives forward. Preciado crosses, and Valencia stoops low to guide it home for 2-0.
45+5′: CLOSE! Ro-Ro does well down the right as the cross comes in, and it’s in for Ali! Who makes a real mess of the header from close range!
56′: GOOD SAVE! Ibarra drives infield with menace and lets off a venomous curler, but Al-Sheeb is equal to it, denying him with a big hand.