By Sportswriter Pan Yi
RIO DE JANEIRO, June 25 (Xinhua) -- A tight but goalless draw ensured France the winners of World Cup Group E, but sent 10-man Ecuador home here on Wednesday.
Ecuador became the first team to be eliminated despite earning at least four points and the only South American country to be eliminated during the group stage, with Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia and Uruguay all successfully navigating into the round of 16.
The straight red card for Ecuador playmaker and Manchester United midfielder Antonio Valencia only five minutes into the second half was the turning point of the close duel.
Valencia went in for a challenge with French defender Lucas Digne and the left-back came off worse and the French medical team rushed in. Referee Noumandiez Doue dismissed Valencia without any hesitation.
Ecuador coach Reinaldo Rueda said, "It's unfortunate. I'm very respectful of the referees, and these are issues that are water under the bridge. There's nothing we can do about it. We suffered from this and the game ended as it did. It's unfortunate that some decisions did not favor us."
Ecuador "had to be at a better level" in order to advance, Rueda noted.
Before the game, France had crushed Honduras 3-0, Switzerland 5-2, topping the group with six points and six-goal advantage. Ecuador lost 2-1 to Switzerland but beat Honduras 2-1, sharing three points with Switzerland but standing second with goal advantage.
Ecuador must effectively match Switzerland's result this evening to survive the group. But bad news came as Switzerland beat Honduras 3-0 in Manaus and advanced to the Round of 16.
France made seven changes to their starting line-up after their 5-2 win over Switzerland. Just Hugo Lloris, Mamadou Sakho, Karim Benzema and Blaise Matuidi remained. Ecuador made just one change from their victory over Honduras: Michael Arroyo replaced Felipe Caicedo.
France coach Didier Deschamps said after the match that he had brought 23 players here, it would be a "good balance" to field more players and it was good for him to manage the team.
"Today, Ecuador defended very well in the first half. After they lost an important man, we controlled the game," he said.
In the 16th minute, the ball was lofted into the Ecuador box and defender Jorge Guagua sliced the ball away. It dropped to French midfielder Moussa Sissoko, who shot a volley towards goal. Ecuador keeper Alexander Dominguez comfortably collected.
One minute later, Ecuador forward Enner Valencia went down after a coming-together with French defender Mamadou Sakho, and Valencia, who's scored seven goals in his last six international games, hobbled off the pitch. But he seemed OK to continue.
On 22 minutes, Valencia outpaced Sakho following a long ball from the Ecuador defense. The pass had just a little too much pace on it and Valencia sliced his shot on the run.
After the red card, France almost laid siege to Ecuadoran box, but keeper Dominguez showed his best form with countless incredible stretches, blocks and saves.
Dominguez, who was elected as the Man of the Match, said, "We could have moved to the next round. But one of our players was expelled. The match and the whole tournament are very difficult."
"Playing against a team like France motivated me more," he noted.
In the 73rd minute, a corner was taken short to Sissoko who chipped a ball to the back post from the French right. Juventus midfielder Paul Pogba was completely unmarked, but his header went just past Dominguez's left-hand post.
The 10-man Ecuador did not give up, staging flash counterattacks with personal skill and quick pace. But their shots were always off target.
France enjoyed 60 percent of the ball possession and 20 shots, 13 on target, but failed to score a single goal.
Deschamps said, "We produced many chances today but unfortunately did not collect a goal. But we are satisfied to advance and will focus on the next opponents Nigeria in the Round of 16."