Two late goals helped Argentina to a 3-0 victory over Ecuador in the quarter-finals of the last Copa América, but the result did not change the outcome of the match.

Physically strong, fast and with a lot of talent, Ecuador gave Argentina an uncomfortable 90 minutes, as the winning coach was quick to acknowledge. After the match, Argentine manager Lionel Scaloni paid tribute to the promise of the new Ecuadorian generation.

In three years, Scaloni will be reluctant to meet them again in the quarterfinals. Argentina are in the easiest half of the draw by far. The team that most threatens their path to the final is the team they meet in Houston on Thursday — as long as Ecuador can improve their game.

Ecuador’s group stage in this Copa del Rey is best forgotten. They were beaten 2-1 by Venezuela, played a scrappy second half and made hard work of a 3-1 win over Jamaica, but the goal they scored in the 90th minute proved vital. It gave them a goal difference advantage over Mexico. A draw would have been enough to secure their place in the last eight. And grim and joyless, Ecuador set about keeping the game goalless.

The strategy flirted with disaster when the Mexicans were awarded a penalty in the final minute of injury time, but VAR reviewed it and rightly overturned the decision. Ecuador survived to fight another day and now have a chance against the reigning world champions.

Why was their group stage so disappointing?

They had to pull themselves out of a slump after captain and all-time top scorer Enner Valencia was shown a red card early in the match against Venezuela. Playing with ten men for more than 70 minutes in the midday heat of Santa Clara proved too much, and the campaign began with a loss. Such things can happen in tournaments. But there are deeper problems.

One of them is the atmosphere in which the team plays. After the World Cup, Ecuador appointed Felix Sanchez as their new coach. There was some logic in the choice. Sanchez is Spanish, with a background in the youth system at Barcelona and then spent time at Qatar’s Aspire academy, where the methodology is very similar to that of Independiente del Valle, the extraordinary little club from the outskirts of Quito that produces so many players for the Ecuadorian national team.

His time as Qatar’s national coach was no flop — he won the Asian Championship. But the World Cup was not a success. The hosts’ campaign began with a defeat by Ecuador. And why, many Ecuadorians wondered, are we appointing a loser to lead our team?

Ecuador can be a very demanding environment. And while the team’s start to the 2026 World Cup qualifiers has been solid – 3 wins, 2 draws and 1 loss – the quality of play has not been deemed good enough. Many want Sanchez out. Some openly hoped for a Copa failure, forcing the Ecuadorian Football Federation to make a change. That pressure has not gone away.

Those six rounds of World Cup qualifying have yielded just five goals. Here Sanchez can make an excuse. He has a number of good and promising players at his disposal, most of whom are products of Independiente del Valle. The group of young central defenders is impressive — William Pacho has had an excellent Copa so far. But there is a lack of resources up front.

Ecuador are reliant on Valencia for goals. The former Premier League striker has always played hot and cold and he has also been outplayed in 2022-23, with a fine league campaign in Turkey either side of a good World Cup, and then straight into the crowded calendar of Brazilian football. At 34, it is hardly surprising that this has taken its toll.

And the other strikers are willing runners, but they are far from top quality. For this tournament there is the added blow of the absence through injury of Brighton’s Pervis Estupiñán, a key player with his powerful runs as a full-back and his incandescent left foot.

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Why Argentina are still favorites, even without Messi

Ale Moreno and Herc Gomez discuss Argentina’s style of play without Lionel Messi and why they are still favourites to win the Copa América.

Sanchez has hardly helped himself in this competition. His team selections have certainly been called into question. The job of a coach is to build a collective structure that gets the best out of the team’s individual talents, and he has failed to do that so far. The key man, the engine of the team, is Chelsea’s Moisés Caicedo. He has done his utmost to make the team work, but he still has a lot of ground to make up.

Caicedo operates as part of a central midfield duo, when three are needed to get the best out of him. With extra protection behind him, Caicedo can use his lung power to make forward runs, creating problems for the opposition defence and keeping the side together.

The basic formation Sanchez has used is 4-2-3-1, which gives him a line behind a winger on the right, plus his two young playmakers, Jeremy Sarmiento on the left and 17-year-old wonderkid Kendry Páez in the middle. It hasn’t worked, although both players have had moments. Sarmiento, however, hasn’t been quick enough to link up with his team-mates, and Paez has been squeezed into an area of ​​the pitch where the marking is tightest. As a result, Ecuador as a whole has become less than the sum of its parts.

There seems to be a solution though. At half-time of their game against Mexico, Venezuela switched from an ineffective 4-2-3-1 to an extra man in midfield. They started to take control and won the game. Strangely, Ecuador didn’t follow suit.

Instead, Sanchez dropped a winger against the Mexicans, brought in an extra striker and pushed Sarmiento and Paez out to the wings — where they were too far apart to combine, and with everything stretched, Caicedo was unable to put the pieces together. But Ecuador — and Sanchez — are still alive in the competition to get another chance to find the right mix. The logical step would be to play three players in central midfield — competing with Argentina where they are strongest — field one speedy winger and leave one of Paez and Sarmiento on the bench.

Another way to pack the midfield would be with a three-man defense — a formation Sanchez likes, and which he used less than a month ago in a friendly against Argentina in Chicago. The problem was the lack of strikers. Paez and Sarmiento formed the forward line. Without a physical presence next to them, they couldn’t hold the ball up, and Ecuador couldn’t get out of their own half. On this occasion, Argentina’s victory was far more convincing than the meager 1-0 scoreline.

But after an hour Valencia came off the bench and the team switched to a 4-3-2-1. Suddenly it was a different game. Ecuador was allowed onto the field and Valencia’s incoming runs worried the Argentine defense.

If Ecuador can repeat something like that, the chances of an upset are slim and Argentina may not be able to defend their Copa América title.