As Felipe Caicedo looks forward to a first-ever appearance at a World Cup finals, he does so with mixed emotions.
The Al Jazira newboy was instrumental in Ecuador’s qualification campaign, notching seven goals as La Tri finished ahead of Uruguay in the fourth and final automatic spot in South America, on goal-difference alone. He feels they have a good chance to make it out of Group E too.
The 25-year-old is not scared by the prospect of facing Switzerland, Honduras and France in Brazil, reasoning that “all the teams are on the same level”.
But Caicedo knows that his country’s third finals appearance will not be an easy one, mainly because they will make the trip without their talismanic captain, and his close friend, Christian Benitez.
The pair had played together for Ecuador for the best part of eight years before Benitez’s sudden and tragic death last July. The former Birmingham City striker, who was just 27, died hours after making his debut for Qatari club El Jaish.
In the wake of his passing, Ecuador won only one of their final four qualifiers.
“It’s going to be difficult because Benitez was one of the best strikers in Ecuador and our captain as well,” Caicedo tells Sport360°.
“It’s going to be hard because he is not here anymore. We have to continue and we have to keep going on this line to do the best for him because he used to be with us but now he isn’t.”
The powerful 25-year-old’s voice trails off as he completes that sentence, before adding: “He was one of my best friends, one of the best players. Of course it will affect us but we have to keep going.”
To their credit that is exactly what Ecuador did last October, sealing a vital 1-0 win over Uruguay in Quito that rendered a 2-1 defeat to Chile irrelevant four days later.
Coach Reinaldo Rueda dedicated qualification to Benitez, while the crowds who greeted the team on their return from Santiago chanted his nickname “Chucho”.
And Caicedo believes the tragic event can help spur La Tri onto great things this summer.
“100 per cent, we qualified for him and now we want to do our best in the World Cup for him,” he says.
The Jazira striker also thinks that Ecuador have an advantage as the tournament will be played so close to home, meaning they will not only be used to the climate and conditions but they should have decent support.
He said: “The World Cup is not easy. It is the World Cup and the best teams are there, the best players. So it’s going to be difficult. But maybe for us it’s going to be, not more easy, but more comfortable because we will play in South America, near our own country. So it’s going to be good because our families are going to be there.”
Ensuring that he was ready to play in Brazil was crucial to Caicedo’s decision to join Jazira from Lokomotiv Moscow last month.
It was a transfer that raised a few eyebrows, not because he was enjoying himself in Russia but because he had the opportunity to sign for Valencia. It is not every day a player in his prime shuns La Liga for life in the Arabian Gulf League, but Caicedo explains that Jazira offered him something he would not have been guaranteed at Valencia – security.
“They did their best to make me come here,” the former Levante striker says, inferring that their Spanish counterparts did not.
It was hoped Caicedo could fire Jazira’s title challenge in the second-half of the season, but having arrived without a competitive start since mid-November, the Ecuadorian is yet to find the net in four outings for the Pride of Abu Dhabi.
He has the chance to put that right against Dubai tonight (Thursday 20 February) but insists he is not fazed by his lack of goals and does not feel he has to live up to the feats of the man he replaced at Jazira, Ricardo Oliveira. Brazil striker Oliveira scored more than 100 goals for the capital club before joining Al Wasl last month, firing them to a first-ever league title as well as a League Cup and two President’s Cup triumphs.
Caicedo said: “I feel pressure from myself because I want to do my best, I want to do well. Of course Oliveira was one of the best players at Al Jazira in the last four or five years so of course there is pressure. But I feel pressure from myself because I want to do my best and I want to do well for the team. When a big player leaves and another player comes in, it’s normal that there is pressure.”
In truth it should come as no surprise that Caicedo is adept at handling expectation; he has had to deal with it since he was a teenager.
The Ecuadorian was just 19 when Manchester City paid €7 million (Dh35.4m) for his services in January 2008. But bar a run of games in the 2008-09 season in which he scored eight times in 13 starts, he was unable to force his way into the City first-team, eventually leaving in 2011 having been loaned out three times.
“It is quite normal when you are one of the younger players on the team,” Caicedo says of his lack action at the Etihad.
“I went to Manchester City when I was 19, of course it’s going to be difficult because in front of me there were some very good players. There was [Emmanuel] Adebayor, [Carlos] Tevez, Robinho.”
But it is clear the Ecuadorian holds no grudges, and instead looks back on his time at his first Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan- owned club with fondness and pride.
“I feel happy because now I see that Manchester City is one of the biggest teams in the world,” Caicedo adds.
“I can see a few friends who were with me before and are now playing at a good level. So that makes me feel happy because they are my team in England, I will always support Manchester City.”
Born: September 5, 1988
Country: Ecuador (46 caps, 15 goals)
Career history: 2006-08: Basel (45 games, 11 goals), 2008-11: Man City (35, 8), 2009-10: Sporting (loan – 10, 0), 2010: Malaga (loan – 18, 4), 2010-11: Levante (loan – 29, 14), 2011-13: Lokomotiv Moscow (52, 11), 2014-: A l Jazira (4, 0)
Favourite sport other than football: Boxing
Do you ever box? Yes, sometimes in my free time.
Would you ever switch sports? (laughs) No, that’s not possible.
Favourite fighter: Manny Pacquiao, he is amazing.
Al Nasr star Habib Fardan is hoping victory against Al Ain on Friday will push the Blue Wave to their rightful position in the league table.
The Dubai side face a tough task at home against the two-time league champions as they head into a difficult stretch of games that include fixtures with Al Jazira, Sharjah and Al Shabab.
Three defeats in their last five games has left the Blue Wave well off the pace for AFC Champions League qualification, sitting six points behind fourth place Sharjah.
“We have to put responsibility on ourselves,” UAE international Fardan said. “We beat Bani Yas in the last game but before that we lost some important points.
“This is a real chance for us to get back onto the right path and I think our team, the players and staff, we deserve much better this season and we deserve a better position and we will fight to get it back.”
Nasr aren’t the only big club in the doldrums at the moment. Their opponents have endured a torrid season that has seen their hunt for a third successive title fall apart.
With one win in their last five league games, Al Ain are as far adrift as Nasr in the race for AFC qualification.
The Boss did, though, claim a place in the final of the President’s Cup with a 2-1 extra-time defeat of the Blue Wave three weeks ago – their second victory over the Dubai club this season.
Al Ain benefitted from late strikes in both games and Nasr boss Ivan Jovanovic is hoping his side will enjoy a little more luck on Friday.
“I believe it is an interesting game coming up,” said the Serb. “It’s two good teams playing against each other.
“Both teams haven’t had good results recently, but we know what to expect from Al Ain. I believe it will be an interesting game, both teams really want the points.
“We played two games against them, both games were ended with late goals, now it’s our turn for luck to turn in our favour and I think we’ll win the game.”
Indeed, Al Ain coach Quique Sanchez Flores does not think his side start as favourites just because they won the previous two games.
“Yes, we have achieved two wins against Nasr but we recognise that each match has its own conditions,” he said. “It does not mean that because you have overcome a team on two occasions that you will gain the third.”
Sanchez Flores will be eager to pick up a win at the Al Maktoum Stadium in order to give his side some much-needed confidence ahead of their AFC Champions League opener against Lekhwiya next Wednesday.
Defeat would leave the Spaniard on the brink at Al Ain, but while he insisted his players would not be distracted by their upcoming Asian commitments, he again took responsibility for the club’s poor league form.
“I have great confidence too in the fans of Al Ain,” he said. “I repeat to them that I take responsibility. The public is well aware of how important their presence behind the team is in lifting the morale of the players.”
Sanchez Flores added: “Everyone is determined to achieve the aspirations of the fans, in order to restore the club to its natural place as one of the stronger Asian clubs.”
Al Shabab coach Marcos Paqueta is hoping his side can benefit from the fixture congestion that is about to envelop rival teams with continental action on the horizon.
Last season, the Brazilian suffered from having to rotate his squad constantly as fixtures came thick and fast in the final months of the season.
The Eagles competed on four fronts with the league, the AFC Champions League, League Cup and President’s Cup games all taking their toll on a thin squad, contributing to a disappointing fifthplace finish in the league.
This time, however, it is title rivals Al Ahli and Al Jazira who will be trekking across Asia while Al Shabab can afford to rest players.
“Its true that we find ourselves in a situation that is different this year,” said the Brazilian.
“We are in the Gulf Cup but it is not in the same league as the AFC Champions League, there isn’t the same amount of travel and the strength of the teams isn’t as high.
“We can of course use this and use it to our advantage.”
Al Shabab are flying under the radar at the moment with no big name or big money signings coming into the club grabbing headlines and the team are seemingly happy to go about their business unnoticed.