DOHA, Qatar (AP) — Enner Valencia has scored Ecuador's last six World Cup goals, so there's no understating how worried his country is after he was carried off the field on a stretcher against the Netherlands.
Ecuador hopes that the 33-year-old striker's troublesome knees are OK for a decisive final group match against Senegal on Tuesday. He hurt his right knee against the Netherlands after spraining his left knee in the first game against Qatar.
He was up and walking a little while after that stretcher ride with an ice pack strapped to his right leg and coach Gustavo Alfaro said Monday that Valencia might be ready to start against Senegal, although he could have to come off the bench.
“He has a big heart and he wants to be in every battle with our national team,” Alfaro said. “He wants to be there. He’s an extraordinary player and we'll try and get him ready.”
Ecuador's captain has three goals in two games in Qatar and is clearly key to its chances of reaching the knockout stage for only the second time. He scored three in three games in Ecuador's last World Cup appearance in 2014, but that wasn't enough to advance in Brazil.
La Tri have a slight advantage this time by needing a win or a draw to be certain of going through. Senegal has to win to be sure of advancing.
A victory by host Qatar over the Netherlands would make other permutations possible in Group A but that result is seen as unlikely given the Qataris' struggles. They have already been eliminated.
A prolonged stay at the World Cup would put more strain on Valencia's knees and an ongoing ankle problem but he'd take the pain for some World Cup joy after 10 years of service to the national team.
The young Ecuador team beat Qatar 2-0 in the tournament's opening game and then stretched the favored Netherlands in a 1-1 draw. The performances were both impressive but may be forgotten if Ecuador doesn't follow them up by sealing qualification.
“There’s such a thin line between qualifying and not,” Alfaro said. “If we don’t qualify people will say we haven’t done our job and if we do, people will be euphoric. Hopefully we will go through because we deserve it.”
While Ecuador holds out hope for Valencia's fitness, Senegal is already two games into life without its best player.
Sadio Mane's injury just two weeks before the World Cup forced the African champions to reconfigure their forward line and their entire game plan.
It was still a work in progress in an opening 2-0 loss to Netherlands but Senegal came closer to fully adjusting to Mane's absence when forwards Boulaye Dia, Famara Diedhiou and Bamba Dieng all scored in a 3-1 win over Qatar to revive Senegal's chances.
Senegal, ranked No. 18 in the world and fresh from winning the African Cup of Nations title in February, would normally be the clear favorite over the inexperienced No. 44 Ecuador, even with Valencia's extraordinary run of scoring in four of his country's last five World Cup games.
Senegal has the added pressure of the last World Cup in 2018. Then, the team missed out on a place in the last 16 after losing to Colombia, another South American team, in the final set of group games when a draw would have been enough. Senegal finished level on points with Japan but was eliminated because it had more yellow cards.
“We’re dealing with the pressure and the stress. For me, it’s a good stress,” Senegal coach Aliou Cisse said. “We are not going to overthink it. There are no two ways about it, we have to win the game to advance.”
AP World Cup coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/world-cup and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports