CURITIBA, Brazil — A little under a year after the sudden death of star striker Christian Benitez, Ecuador has unearthed a new goal-scoring dynamo.
Enner Valencia’s two calmly-taken goals that secured a 2-1 comeback win over Honduras on Friday took his tournament tally to three and put the team in second spot in a group that is likely to be won by France.
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Valencia, who plays for Mexican club Pachuca, only consolidated his position in the Ecuador starting lineup after Benitez died from a heart problem last July.
"He hasn’t even celebrated a year with us, I think he’s grown a lot, improved a lot," Ecuador’s coach Reinaldo Rueda said of his new star forward.
Valencia, who is no relation to his captain Antonio Valencia, hopes the "joy" that the win has generated will help inspire the team in its crucial final Group E match against France, which has tallied eight goals and conceded two in a pair of dominating wins.
Ecuador has three competition points, level with Switzerland but ahead on goal difference after the Swiss lost 5-2 to France earlier Friday.
Honduras, which has never won a World Cup match, isn’t completely out of contention despite its two losses but it faces an uphill battle ahead of its last group game against Switzerland.
"We still have that possibility, though it is remote and we will fight for it," Honduras coach Luis Fernando Suarez said.
Rueda praised the Honduras team for its tenacity and expressed the hope that his former charges could do Ecuador a favour by beating the Swiss. Rueda steered Honduras at the last World Cup in South Africa.
Should Honduras beat Switzerland, Ecuador would only need a draw against France to progress to the knockout rounds of the World Cup for only the second time.
The first time Ecuador qualified for the second round was in 2006 and, coincidentally, the team was then was managed by current Honduras coach Suarez.
Rueda conceded it was difficult to meet his former team in such a crucial match.
"For me, it’s a mix of emotions, professional and personal," he said.
Honduras took the lead in the 31st minute with its first World Cup goal in 32 years when Carlo Costly latched onto a long ball following a misjudgment from Ecuador defender Jorge Guagua. The goal ended a 511-minute drought that stretched back to the 1982 World Cup.
Valencia equalized three minutes later, tapping in with his left foot from close range after sloppy Honduran defending failed to stop a cross in from the right.
Honduras applied more of the pressure leading up to halftime and nearly took the lead. A fierce free kick in injury time from Victor Bernardez forced a good save from Ecuador goalkeeper Alexander Dominguez.
Honduras got the ball in the Ecuador net seconds before the break when a Costly header rebounded off the post into the path of Jerry Bengtson, but it was disallowed — apparently for a hand ball.
The second half was far less frenzied than the opening 45 minutes and Valencia’s winner came in the 65th minute when he out-jumped the Honduras defence to head home a left-sided free kick from Walter Ayovi.
"These are goals in the World Cup, this is something you dream of when you are a young kid and thank God that this dream is becoming a reality," said Valencia.
Honduras: Noel Valladares, Brayan Beckeles, Maynor Figueroa, Victor Bernardez, Emilio Izaguirre (Juan Carlos Garcia: 46), Luis Garrido (Mario Martinez: 71), Jorge Claros, Carlo Costly, Roger Espinoza, Jerry Bengtson, Oscar Boniek Garcia (Marvin Chavez: 83)
Ecuador: Alexander Dominguez, Juan Paredes, Walter Ayovi, Jorge Guagua, Frickson Erazo, Antonio Valencia, Christian Noboa, Jefferson Montero (Gabriel Achilier: 90), Felipe Caicedo (Edison Mendez: 82), Enner Valencia, Oswaldo Minda (Carlos Gruezo: 83).