By Jamie Gardner, PA Chief Sports Reporter, Al Rayyan
Enner Valencia ensured Ecuador got the very least they deserved as they battled back from a goal down to draw 1-1 with the Netherlands in their World Cup Group A match at the Khalifa Stadium.
The Oranje led early thanks to a stunning strike from highly-rated PSV Eindhoven forward Cody Gakpo but did precious little else all game.
Ecuador, in contrast, had a goal from Brighton wing-back Pervis Estupinan disallowed on the stroke of half-time and also hit the bar close to the hour mark through Gonzalo Plata in a barnstorming display against a disjointed Dutch side.
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Valencia’s equaliser came early in the second half, though his exit on a stretcher late on will be a major concern to Ecuador coach Gustavo Alfaro.
The result ensured Qatar’s elimination from the tournament with a game to spare, joining South Africa in 2010 as the only hosts to fail to make it past the first round.
Group A will conclude with a three-way tussle for the last-16 places next Tuesday.
The Netherlands could not have wished for a better start. Ecuador dispossessed Steven Bergwijn but immediately gave the ball away to Davy Klaassen, who left the ball to Gakpo running in the opposite direction.
It was a wise move from Klaassen, as the 23-year-old star unleashed a bullet of a left-foot shot from the edge of the area which gave Hernan Galindez in the Ecuador goal no chance.
The South Americans tried to rouse themselves after a quiet spell and Oranje captain Virgil van Dijk twice made key interventions, first cutting out Moises Caicedo’s cut-back intended for Plata, and then heading clear Estupinan’s left-wing cross with Michael Estrada lurking behind him.
Netherlands goalkeeper Andries Noppert faced his first test when Valencia cut inside on to his right foot and struck powerfully, but the Heerenveen man did enough to parry it away.
The Netherlands offered very little in attack after the Gakpo goal and Ecuador had a goal disallowed in the final seconds of the half.
A powerful low strike by right-back Angelo Preciado was diverted into the net by Estupinan, but it was ruled out because defender Jackson Porozo was offside and deemed to be interfering with play by blocking Noppert’s view.
Barcelona forward Memphis Depay was introduced at half-time to offer the Dutch more X-factor up front, with Bergwijn the player substituted.
But the move failed to lift the Dutch and Ecuador got the goal their first-half efforts deserved in the 49th minute. The Netherlands, as they had shown against Senegal, are prepared to live dangerously close to their own goal and Jurrien Timber was caught in possession.
Plata spread the ball to Estupinan racing into the left side of the box, Noppert parried his shot but Valencia was there to gobble up the rebound.
They were inches away from going ahead just before the hour mark when Preciado shimmied into space for a cross, Valencia’s effort was blocked and the ball broke to Plata, whose powerful left foot shot had Noppert beaten but smacked off the crossbar.
As regular time ticked down Valencia had to be carried off on a stretcher, a worrying development for Ecuador with the crucial game against Senegal to come.