This was a bump in the road on Louis van Gaal’s farewell tour. The 71-year-old’s retirement should still be postponed for a week or two but, when the Netherlands had the chance to become the first team to book their place in the knockout stages, they encountered resistance in an unheralded but excellent Ecuador side. The Dutch lost a lead and their way, were outshot by a huge margin – 14-2 – and could count themselves fortunate they were not outscored. After the recent love-in for Van Gaal, this was a reminder he can oversee some ponderous, tedious football and Ecuador were the more enterprising and energetic team.
The scourges of Qatar have been one of the tournament’s welcome surprises. Ecuador rub shoulders with the Netherlands at the top of the group and are on course to equal their best ever performance in the World Cup. Avoid defeat against Senegal and they will make the last 16 for just the second time. The blight on them involved their history maker. After Enner Valencia joined Eusebio, Paolo Rossi and Oleg Salenko in a select band to score six successive goals for their country on this stage, he was stretchered off. After an explosive start to his World Cup, it threatens to be a cruel and premature end.
Van Gaal should yet extend his own participation. The Netherlands, who face a date with Qatar, should still qualify but an ideal start gave way to an underwhelming performance. Cody Gakpo’s terrific early goal was their lone shot in the first 65 minutes. It highlighted a lack of creativity: while Davy Klaassen got the assist for the opener, he otherwise fashioned nothing as the No. 10, while Steven Bergwijn was utterly ineffectual before being hooked at half-time. Van Gaal’s 3-5-2 formation is a safety-first system but the Netherlands still flirted with a first defeat of his third spell in charge. Gonzalo Plata rattled the bar with a ferocious shot and, had it been a few inches later, justice might have been done as Ecuador produced a blend of power and purpose.
They were comfortably in front for much of the match against Qatar but displayed the resolve to respond when trailing to the Dutch. The dynamic left wing-back Pervis Estupinan impressed, as he had against Qatar and the marauding Moises Caicedo again exerted an influence.
Yet their talisman is their captain and record scorer. Valencia’s menace was apparent before the break, when he drew a sharp save from Andries Noppert at his near post. His goal came four minutes after the interval. Van Gaal had brought Jurrien Timber back in for Matthijs de Ligt but the Ajax defender was dispossessed in midfield, Estupinan drilled in a shot and when Noppert parried, Valencia was on hand to hook in the rebound. The scorer of the tournament’s opening goal is now the first man to three and continuing his unlikely challenge for the Golden Boot and, at 33, looks in the form of his life.
Ecuador must hope he is seen again in this tournament but they had already proved they can channel their disappointment. They celebrated an equaliser on the stroke of half-time, with Estupinan reacting sharply to turn in Angelo Preciado’s shot. Yet Jackson Porozo was offside on the line and interfering with Noppert’s vision, a view which Ecuador countered as they surrounded the referee.
The Netherlands should have made more of their reprieve. They had started with a role reversal: after scoring late against Senegal, the goal came early this time. It was testament to the brilliance of Gakpo, who underlined his potential to be the tournament’s breakout star.
It was demonstrated in a blur of ruthlessness, a whipped shot struck so cleanly it bounced back out of the net. A man as immodest as Van Gaal may believe he merits some credit, too: after using Gakpo as the No. 10 against Senegal, he shifted him into attack.
Klaassen was his provider, winning the ball back for the first goal Ecuador had conceded in 701 minutes. Yet if it seemed a sign of Gakpo’s precocity that he drew level with Patrick Kluivert on two World Cup goals, and from two shots to 20, Holland’s inability to forge any more opportunities looked the more pertinent statistic and more damning as the game drifted away from them.
Van Gaal summoned Memphis Depay at half-time, as he continues his return to fitness, and the prospect of the prolific Barcelona player starting could give them more incision. Yet while Van Gaal had declared bullishly last week that his side had the quality to win the World Cup, it was scarcely in evidence here, Gakpo’s goal apart. There was little to indicate he will have a perfect goodbye.