Though statistics can sometimes be misleading, when they are indicative of a discernable trend, then they are usually worth considering. Ecuador's impressive home form against the continent's top sides in FIFA World Cup™ qualifiers is a case in point. With Paraguay and Brazil, currently first and second in the standings, due in Quito this month for a double header that could make or break La Tricolor's South African dreams, coach Sixto Vizuete will be hoping that proud record continues.
In the case of Brazil, the five-time world champions have contested three FIFA World Cup qualifiers on Ecuadorian soil and garnered just a solitary point for their efforts. To make matters worse, they failed to score on each occasion. Paraguay's record makes for even grimmer reading, with the Guaraní having lost all five of their qualifiers there despite scoring in four of those games.
So what is the secret to this supremacy? "When Ecuador play at home, they go at their opponents and really go for the jugular," Tricolor captain Ivan Hurtado told FIFA.com. "It's an attitude that has paid dividends and something we must never lose. It's because of it that teams respect us here and, above all, why we accrue those home points that are so vital for a World Cup qualification. Against Brazil and Paraguay we're hoping for all six points to keep the dream alive."
Voice of experience
Hurtado is better qualified than anyone to speak about the national team, having represented it an incredible 157 times since his debut in 1992 - a feat that is unsurpassed in South America and has only been bettered by six players in the history of the game. The veteran defender has witnessed at close hand the progress of Ecuadorian football over the last decade, including the historic qualifications for Korea/Japan 2002 and Germany 2006.
But it is not just memories that are driving the 34-year-old; there is the small matter of the qualifying tournament for South Africa 2010. This is Hurtado's fifth consecutive South American qualifying campaign, a sequence that has brought him 26 victories, 11 draws and 24 defeats in his 61 games. However, it is his record in home qualifiers that truly impresses: in the 33 matches he has contested, La Tricolor have won 22, drawn six and lost just four.
When Ecuador play at home, they go at their opponents and really go for the jugular,
The most recent of these, a 1-0 reverse in October 2007 on the opening matchday of the current campaign, still rankles with the skipper. "We wanted to get off to a good start in these qualifiers, but we had that slip-up against Venezuela, which we're still lamenting. If we'd got the three points there, we'd be in a more favourable position now in terms of qualifying," he admits.
Ecuador are presently sixth in the ten-team group on 12 points, one behind Uruguay, who currently occupy the play-off berth, and four behind Chile, holders for now of the fourth and final direct qualifying slot. Hurtado knows therefore that there is little margin for error on the homeward stretch when, as well as Brazil and Paraguay, his side will also host Argentina and Uruguay.
He said: "We've got home games to come against the region's strongest four sides, and we have to beat them if we're to achieve our goal. Only 12 points from 12 would allow us to dream of South Africa with real confidence. Of course, if we could get five or six points on the road as well we'd be looking at direct qualification. Failing that, we'd always have a chance of the play-off berth, but the objective has to be to finish in the top four."
Past and present
Of their two qualifying victories over the Seleção, Hurtado singles out their meeting on 28 March 2001. "It was a crucial game for us as we'd been causing some of the big teams problems and knew that if we were going to make it to our first World Cup finals, that we'd have to beat the big sides. That day we played what was practically the perfect game, winning 1-0. Moreover, by beating a team like Brazil, we knew we could go toe-to-toe with anyone."
For Hurtado, the key during the forthcoming fixtures will be the same as ever: shutting out the opposition. "The important thing is to be practical, smart and stop them scoring, because if you give them openings, they can make you look ridiculous. If we can do that, then we have men up front who can turn a game and know how to take their chances."
As for previous showdowns with Paraguay, Bam Bam, as the player is known, has fond memories of the events of 27 March 2005. "With just 15 minutes gone we were already two down, but such was the conviction in the side that we were back level by the break. In the second half we put another three past them for a 5-2 win that put firmly on the road to Germany." Turning to the present Guaraní side, the central defender has nothing but respect for the tournament leaders: "They're a solid side with great scoring capacity. It'll be another game that calls for cool heads and complete concentration, both in attack and defence."
As the conversation comes to a close, Hurtado confirms that this will be his last Sudamericano. "South Africa 2010 would be the perfect way to crown my career. There are a crop of talented and personable youngsters coming through now, and they deserve to have their chance like I had mine. But that's still some way off. We still have many qualifying games to play and things are still in our hands. We have what it takes, so rest assured we'll be fighting till the very end."