Given that France and Ecuador have only met once – in any category – in a friendly, their upcoming clash could hardly be described as a classic encounter of world football. However, of the Round of 16 fixtures scheduled at the FIFA U-20 World Cup this week, it is certainly one of the most difficult to predict. The 2010 European champions are slight favourites on paper, but their performances on the pitch at Colombia 2011 have so far not lived up to pre-tournament expectations.
La Tricolor, meanwhile, looked more solid than spectacular during their three group matches. The Ecuadorians have never reached the quarter-final of a FIFA competition at any level, but the probable backing of local fans in Cartagena should provide them with some additional motivation to pull off a win.
France-Ecuador, Cartagena, Wednesday 10 August, 20.00 (local time)
2011 marked a return to the FIFA U-20 World Cup for both France and Ecuador after a ten-year absence. Les Bleuets have performed well in South America before, reaching the quarter-finals in Argentina in 2001, where they were eliminated 3-1 by the host nation. That year also saw Ecuador’s only other appearance at the event, but they lost out to eventual runners-up Ghana in the Round of 16.
The Europeans’ form has improved since their disastrous 4-1 opening-match defeat by Colombia, but coach Francis Smerecki remains dissatisfied by their displays, which he views as inferior to their showings at the 2010 UEFA European Championship. The ambitious French side have targeted a semi-final place, but for this last-16 duel they will need to do without the services of the suspended Kalidou Koulibaly, one of the cornerstones of their defence.
Ecuador also suffered some disappointing moments during the group phase, but they steadied the ship with a resounding 3-0 victory over Costa Rica. That result would doubtless have pleased coach Sixto Vizuete, who has stated that his team have “got big dreams and will keep on dreaming”.
2 – The number of FIFA U-20 World Cup Round-of-16 wins secured by France, who remain undefeated at this stage of the competition (1997 versus Mexico and 2001 against Germany). On the flip side, 2 also represents the number of times that the French have lost in the knockout stage. Both defeats came at the hands of South American teams: Uruguay in 1997 and Argentina in 2001.
“We saw their match against Costa Rica yesterday and we also watched them during the South American qualifiers. They’re a good team, but in qualifying and here at the tournament proper, they’ve struggled to impose their game. They’re a well-balanced, strong and skilful side, with four quality players in the final third. Their weakest area is probably at the back,” France coach Francis Smerecki.
“There are still lots of things we need to improve. We’re going to keep working at the same rate; the team will be ready from Monday onwards. We need to sort out a few small things, and then we’ll aim to offer the Ecuadorian people another reason to celebrate. So far we’ve shown all of our opponents great respect, and the France match will be no exception,” Ecuador coach Sixto Vizuete.