- Associated Press - Saturday, May 31, 2014

QUITO, Ecuador (AP) - Reinaldo Rueda couldn’t control the tears when Ecuador striker Christian Benitez died suddenly from a heart problem last July.

At the time, Rueda said Benitez was “irreplaceable” and dedicated World Cup qualification to him.

But while Rueda lamented the loss, the Colombian coach has come to believe that Ecuador can go to the latter stages of the World Cup, even without Benitez. And he is preparing to do just that.

“Like I always tell the players, I want to play seven games,” Rueda said. “That is what I want at the World Cup.”

Seven games, of course, would mean that Ecuador at least reaches the semifinals.

Rueda has experience at the World Cup after steering Honduras to its first tournament in 28 years in 2010. For that feat he received honorary citizenship from the Central American nation, despite the fact that Honduras did not win a match four years ago in South Africa.

Rueda restructured Honduran football at the grassroots level during his time in charge between 2007 and 2010. Some of the fruits were seen when Honduras reached the quarterfinals of the 2012 Olympics in London.

The Colombian bid a tearful farewell to Honduras in July 2010, indicating that the atmosphere surrounding the national team wasn’t right for him to continue. He then took over Ecuador and guided the national team to its third World Cup, mainly due to winning 22 of a possible 24 points at home, with the matches played at high altitude in Quito.

The achievement won Rueda the praise of Ecuadorean president Rafael Correa, who said the coach was “one more Ecuadorean” and praised the team’s “unity, solidarity and delivery” in South American qualifying.

Rueda tends to play a 4-4-2 formation and his team is exciting to watch going forward, although he does have some defensive concerns.

A win for Ecuador over Rueda’s former team Honduras on June 20 is a must with its opening game against Switzerland on June 15 and the last Group E game against France on June 25.

Ecuador seems to have a favorable draw, though Rueda tries to talk that down.

“They are national teams of a high standard,” Rueda said. “They (Honduras) have the base that was at the last World Cup and that makes them a very difficult rival.”

Before becoming Honduras coach, Rueda had a stint with Colombia’s national team, taking over midway through the qualifying campaign for the 2006 World Cup and leaving when the team was eliminated.

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