Ecuador can be far happier with this draw because after conceding early, Gustavo Alfaro’s team played front-foot football that went close to administering a fatal blow to the Netherlands.
They did not but the result means that Qatar are eliminated from their own World Cup and become the first nation out at the group stage while Ecuador and the Netherlands each have four points and Senegal three. As Louis van Gaal’s side face the pointless hosts in their final match, the meeting of the South Americans and Africans appears a straight shootout to see who progresses to the last 16. Ecuador are favourites as they only require a draw and after seriously rattling Dutch confidence should surge, particularly regarding how they responded to Cody Gakpo’s opener, turning in a display of muscular attacking and pressing that sucked energy and composure from their opponents.
Enner Valencia was their star man, registering a third goal of the competition, and so him being carried off near the end is a concern and the sole duff note for the Ecuadorians.
On Thursday Van Gaal had stated that Gakpo could be a breakout star of the tournament and the 22-year-old needed only five minutes to show why. Here, Steven Bergwijn, the PSV man’s strike partner, lost Nathan Aké’s pass but the ball arrived at Davy Klassen’s feet via Moisés Caicedo’s loose distribution, the No 10 fashioned a cute backheel, and with swift decisiveness he took over, skilfully curling a 20-yard left-footed finish past Hernán Galíndez, Ecuador’s goalkeeper, leaving clutch of defenders as observers.
Two in two games for Gakpo to stun Ecuador and give those in orange early control that did not last as those in navy blue were to more or less dominate, for the contest’s remainder.
Cody Gakpo gives the Netherlands the lead. Photograph: Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images
First, Pervis Estupiñán, Caicedo and Valencia showed poise in tapping the ball about to steady their team though this phase was shortlived and Netherlands took over again briefly. Frenkie de Jong and Teun Koopmeiners in the engine room had Van Gaal’s men purring forward at their desired pace which was a touch above a stroll.
A Gonzalo Plata dart down the right signalled Ecuador were to serially disrupt this. In a flurry of action his cross came to Caicedo whose shot was blocked before, seconds later, the Brighton man was cutting in from the left and firing the ball in, Virgil van Dijk having to clear. From the throw Estupiñán was fed and, once more, Van Dijk was in rescue mode heading the wing-back’s delivery away.
Ecuador were enjoying themselves down their left and when Valencia cut inside from there and let fly Andries Noppert’s save low, to his right, had to be sharp.
Out of possession Ecuador were accomplished too, harrying De Jong, Koopmeiners and Bergwijn to eventually spill the ball and indicative of a determination to draw level. This nearly occurred when, with a swish, Jackson Porozo, one of Alfaro’s three centre-backs, moved forward and bounced the ball into the marauding Angelo Preciado but he failed to capitalise.
Just before the break Estupiñán saw his deflected finish ruled out because Porozo stood offside: he was, yet Noppert had already dived right, the opposite direction to where he was beaten. Unsurprisingly, Ecuador’s complaints did not change the mind of Mustapha Ghorbal, the referee.
For the second half Van Gaal gave Memphis Depay the 45 minutes he had promised, Bergwijn being replaced but the returning No 10 had scant impact.
Ecuador struck when Estupiñán skated into space and blazed at Noppert’s goal, he palmed out, and Valencia could not miss. The goal had derived from a catalogue of errors that featured a poor Noppert clearance, an even poorer Daley Blind header, De Jong being involved in a midfield mix-up, and Ecuador able to take advantage for the captain’s sixth goal in five World Cup outings.
The Dutch were close to disarray, any type of attacking patterns a distant memory, so when Depay surged through the centre and claimed a free-kick it felt a small shock though zero threat came from the set piece.
Plata was far more convincing when crashing a shot off Noppert’s crossbar and it seemed only one team might win it. Ecuador had reduced Netherlands to a raggedness that surely infuriated Van Gaal, a coach who drills his charges to operate in defined zones and pass and move with trigonometric precision.
Until the whistle Ecuador were a menace, often scattering the Dutch before them by pinging the ball about masterfully, though now came the injury to Valencia that forced him off. But his team held on for a point that could go a long way to helping them reach the knockout stage.