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Ecuador urged to ‘stay strong’ as rare World Cup qualification nears


Montevideo (AFP) – Minnows Ecuador’s coach Gustavo Alfaro told his team to “stay strong” as they travel to Peru on Tuesday knowing victory would book their ticket to the World Cup for just the fourth time in their history.

A controversial and eventful 1-1 draw at home to Brazil on Thursday has left Ecuador in an enviable position with just three games left to play in the single South American qualifying group.

Brazil and Argentina have already qualified and Ecuador will join them if they claim victory in Lima.

“It’s not easy for Ecuador to play at the World Cup,” said Argentine Alfaro. “I need the team to keep going, to stay strong.”

Against Peru, they will have to do without suspended pair Enner Valencia, the captain, and goalkeeper Alexander Dominguez.

The latter was sent off after just 15 minutes against Brazil when a rash dash from his box saw him catch forward Matheus Cunha in the neck with his studs after trying to hack clear a bouncing ball.

Forward Valencia is suspended due an accumulation of yellow cards and Ecuador will miss the leadership and predatory instincts of a man that has scored 34 goals in 68 internationals.

Only Brazil have scored more qualifying goals than Ecuador, who also have the third best defense.

But back in June they were stunned 2-1 at home to Peru who boosted their qualification hopes with a smash-and-grab last-gasp 1-0 win in Colombia on Friday.

Dominated throughout, Peru defended doggedly before hitting Colombia on the break five minutes from time through Edison Flores — although the hosts’ goalkeeper David Ospina did not cover himself in glory as he was beaten at his near post from a tight angle.

Three matches ago, Peru were second bottom of the qualifying table but a maximum nine points out of nine since, including two away wins, has propelled the Andean nation into the last of four automatic qualification spots.

Having guided Peru to a first World Cup finals appearance in 36 years in Russia 2018, Argentine coach Ricardo Gareca — who also took the team to the 2019 Copa America final — is homing in on a remarkable turnaround.

“We all know the reality of the tale, but we’re a group with a lot of faith and a lot of confidence. We will keep fighting,” he said.

– Uruguay eye ‘wonderful’ finish –

Another team that was in danger of missing out were two-time former world champions Uruguay, who host rock-bottom Venezuela on Tuesday.

Four successive defeats in which they conceded 11 goals and scored just one saw iconic veteran coach Oscar Tabarez given his marching orders in November after a record-breaking 15 years at the helm.

New boss Diego Alonso got off to a winning start as Luis Suarez struck on Thursday to hand Uruguay a 1-0 win away to Paraguay.

That result virtually ended Paraguay’s hopes of reaching Qatar while lifting Uruguay into fifth — which qualifies for an inter-continental play-off — just one point behind Peru, who must travel to Montevideo in March.

“What is ahead of us is going to be wonderful as long as we keep our heads in order,” said Alonso.

They will have to be mindful of Venezuela forward Salomon Rondon, brimming with confidence following his hat-trick in Friday’s 4-1 victory over Bolivia.

Venezuela coach Jose Pekerman’s attentions have already turned towards qualification for the 2026 World Cup and he was encouraged by what he saw in Barinas.

“Everyone complemented each other and showed what we can do in the future,” said the coach.

– Colombia desperate for a goal –

In La Paz, eighth-placed Bolivia and seventh-placed Chile face off in a must-win encounter.

Chile’s loss at home to Argentina left them with a mountain to climb with two away matches in their three remaining games.

“We’ve made things a bit more complicated in the qualification but we’re not dead,” insisted Gary Medel, one of three veterans in the squad with more than 140 caps.

Another team staring into the abyss is sixth-placed Colombia, who haven’t scored in six matches ahead of their trip to Argentina.

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