Unlucky 13? Not quite on the opening night!

-Atreyo Mukhopadhyay

Unlucky 13? Yes, if you were Enner Valencia in the third minute of the opening match of a football World Cup. A goal disallowed under highly contentious circumstances, going by the VAR system. Then, you turn lucky? Well, you did if you were wearing jersey No 13 for Ecuador against Qatar at Al Bayt Stadium on a fanatic Sunday night.

Picture by Abhijit Deshmukh

The captain of Ecuador dictated terms in the opening half dominated almost completely by the South American team. Scored two goals after possibly being robbed of one and made sure that his team was on top almost throughout. Yes, a knock on the right knee forced him out in the second half, but the 33-year-old who represents Turkey’s Fenerbahce SK in club football was very much the fulcrum of the side which subjected Qatar to the ignominy of losing the first match of a World Cup as a host nation. Truth to be told, Qatar never stood a chance after the opening onslaught by Ecuador.

It would most possibly have been the most dramatic start in the recent history of World Cup football. A goal in the third minute! By all understandable accounts, it was fair and square. But VAR, that often suspected yet powerful entity, deemed otherwise. So Valencia had to go back and reboot. Their team kept pressing and pressing, giving Qatar not even a glimpse of a chance. The gulf between South American and Asian teams was demonstrated in no uncertain terms. Until the first 40 minutes, the host nation was behind the ball all the time. Trying to get a feel of it and being unable to. They hardly touched the ball in any effective manner for almost the full of the first half.

Of course, Valencia was not the only one. The entire Ecuador team displayed a lot of cohesion to keep Qatar on the back foot. Keeping possession of the ball, playing enough passes to sustain that and finding the right people in the right position, they did it all. The first official goal was a result of the kind of pressure they created. The Qatari goalkeeper was forced into a mistake that fetched Ecuador the penalty. The second one, a header, was a work of art. It is difficult to pack that kind of power and placement while leaping so high. Valencia did that. The angle and direction he created is not easy in a pressure situation, like the inaugural match of a World Cup is.

Not that Qatar caved in. They did start playing confidently and had a lot more of the ball from the closing stages of the first 45 minutes. In the second half of the match, they managed a lot of possession. But effectively, that counted for very little. Qatar hardly had a touch inside the Ecuadorian penalty box. Goalkeeper Hernan Galindez barely had to save a shot. It was Ecuador’s 4-4-2 formation against Qatar’s 5-3-2 where the former almost completely outplayed the latter. It exposed the huge difference between the teams of the two continents. Being a former Asian champion, Qatar stood no chance against a side that has never come close to continental glory in South America.

This game also set a tone for how things might pan out from this group. One expects the Netherlands to emerge the top side from a pool involving Ecuador, Senegal and Qatar. The question is which one becomes the second team to qualify from this group. Sadio Mane out with injury, Senegal will be demoralised and at less strength. Qatar, by all estimates and going by what was on show on the first day, will not make the cut. In that case, Ecuador might have made a decisive start. For that, they have one No 13 to thank for. Enner Valencia, it was your night. Hope you recover from that jerk on the knee.

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