DOHA: Only six minutes in here at the Khalifa International Stadium in the heart of Doha, Qatar’s hopes had sunk, their flickering flame at the World Cup they’re hosting all but extinguished as Dutchman Cody Gakpo’s shot rippled the netting of the Ecuador goal.
Just before this game kicked off on Friday evening, Qatar had been handed a second straight defeat. Senegal’s victory some 14 kilometres away at the Al Thumama Stadium meant the hosts were going out if the Netherlands were to beat Ecuador or if the game were to end in a draw. They needed an Ecuador win to stay alive, at least mathematically, till the last round of group games.
And now, Louis Van Gaal’s side had taken the lead. What a finish that was for the opening goal, though. Davy Klassen received the ball at the edge of the box and as he saw Gakpo run in his periphery, he teed it up for the exciting PSV Eindhoven prospect to pick up the ball and send a rifle of a left-foot shot past a despairing Hernan Galindez.
Qatar’s chances now rested on Ecuador.
The South Americans came back strongly after conceding and crafted a few chances, the best coming when Enner Valencia, the man whose two goals in the opening game of the tournament saw Ecuador overwhelm Qatar, cut inside from the left to unleash a shot that Andries Noppert dived to palm away.
Ecuador weren’t holding back. Though they had got their reward in additional time at the end of the first half and left-back Pervis Estupinan was wheeling away in celebration until the equaliser was chalked off for off-side because one of his team-mates was standing in Noppert’s line of sight when he tucked away the corner.
There was parity four minutes in the second half though. The Dutch needlessly lost possession and the ball was worked on the left to Estupinan. His shot was parried by Noppert and Valencia was on hand to gleefully bundle it in.
The momentum was now with Ecuador and buoyed up by the swathes of their fans behind the Dutch goal, they came at Van Gaal’s team from all angles. Just before the hour mark, Gonzalo Plata’s shot hit the upright.
In the stands, a sea of Ecuadorian yellow had blended into the Dutch orange under the bright lights but on the pitch, Ecuador were tearing into the Dutch.
But the goal they wanted, the one Qatar wanted, never came. The match finished 1-1.
Ecuador now face Senegal in what’s effectively a shootout for a last-16 berth from Group ‘A’, while the Dutch will take on Qatar knowing that a draw will take them through.
For them, unlike Qatar, the flame is still burning under Van Gaal, who’s looking to deliver a maiden World Cup title for the Dutch.
The 71-year-old, suffering from an aggressive prostate cancer, came out of retirement to revive a side that had failed to reach the last edition of the World Cup in Russia, four years after they had been semi-finalists in Brazil under him. Van Gaal has brought together a group of exciting youngsters, blended them in with the likes of Virgil Van Dijk and Daley Blind to mould this side which survived a stern examination of their credentials to keep their unbeaten run under him intact.
Qatar, meanwhile, only have pride to play for.
Published in Dawn, November 26th, 2022