Along with his national team, Ecuador front man Felipe Caicedo has been the sensation of the South American preliminaries for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™. The leading scorer in the ongoing CONMEBOL qualifying competition with four goals, the 28-year-old Espanyol striker has had a big hand in his side’s rise to the top of the table, with La Tricolor winning their four games to date and boasting the only 100 per cent record in the regional qualifiers.

A veteran of seven different leagues around the world and now showcasing his considerable talent on both the domestic and international stage, Caicedo spoke exclusively to about the secret behind Ecuador’s success, admitting that he and his team-mates have been a little taken aback by it all. What do you put Ecuador’s recent run of form down to?
Felipe Caicedo: To be honest, we didn’t expect things to work out so well for us. The qualifiers are very tough and very competitive and we absolutely didn’t think we’d go and win four games in a row. Ecuador have always been strong at home, so we were counting on that, but this has been so much better. We’re really pleased and we hope to keep it going.

Why are those away wins starting to come now?
It’s all to do with the mindset. Our coach El Profe Gustavo Quinteros has come with new ideas, clear concepts and an attack-minded approach. The things he’s trying fit in with the type of players that Ecuador have, which make us feel more comfortable about everything. He wants us to go out and win games, regardless of whether we’re at home or not, and that’s helped us get into the great position we’re in. It’s also been down to the players too, though. We’ve been together for a very long time. We’ve played in one World Cup and the qualifiers for South Africa 2010, so we know each other like we’re family, which helps.

When did you realise that Ecuador might be able to achieve something big in the qualifiers?
When we beat Argentina, no question. That was amazing and historic because we’d never won there before. I can’t describe how it all felt; before, during and after the game. It’s the best game I’ve ever played in with the national team.

How did the fans react to that win?
Obviously they were delighted, but they had a hand to play in it too. The fans supported us right from the off by travelling all the way to Argentina. Almost a third of the stadium belonged to Ecuador! That helped us to impose our authority against one of the best sides in the world. Starting the qualifiers off like that gave us a massive boost.

Do you think you can keep on winning? Can you picture going the whole competition undefeated?
We’ve got two tough games coming up: Paraguay at home and Colombia in Barranquilla, and we have to be realistic. We’re aiming to stay strong at home. We managed to qualify for two World Cups by winning all our home games and scraping together a few points away from home. What we’ve achieved so far will help us, but the home games will be key.

Beating Colombia away would be another first...
Colombia are very tough opponents and they’ve got some fantastic players. They had a great World Cup and we know that taking them on in their backyard is a huge challenge. We’ll be going for the win, though, which is what we’ve been doing for the whole competition. I hope we can do it, but we shouldn’t be underestimating Paraguay either. That’s the first game in this double header, and a win at home would give us the push we need for the second game away from home.

You’re the top scorer in the competition with four goals in as many competitions. Why do you think you’ve you come into such good form?
It’s a combination of things. For starters, the team’s made its contribution. We’re more mature and experienced and we know each other really well, which has helped my team-mates anticipate the movements I make. And I try to repay them for that by taking my chances. I feel this is Ecuador’s time and that it’s my time too. I’ve scored in all the games and I hope to keep it going by staying calm and maintaining my focus on the pitch.

Getting some confidence back after failing to score at Brazil 2014 must be important. Do you feel like you have some unfinished business in that respect?
Yes, of course, and it’s not just me. There are a few of us who feel like that. We had high hopes going into the competition but we couldn’t back that up with results. In my case I didn’t come from a very competitive league (Caicedo was playing for Al-Jazira in the United Arab Emirates at the time) and that had a part to play in me not being on top of my game in Brazil. I don’t want to use that as an excuse. Not at all. I still want to set the record straight, though. Not reaching the last 16 was very hard to take because Ecuador had managed it before. I’ll just have to settle that score at Russia 2018.

You played in Russia with Lokomotiv Moscow. Are you excited at the possibility of going back there with your Ecuador team-mates?
I’d love to go back. Russia loves its football. The people are very passionate and the stadiums are always full. It’s going to be a fantastic World Cup and if we’re lucky enough to qualify, it’ll be very exciting. Russia opened the doors to Europe for me and I’ve got some good friends there. I hope we can do it.