- Associated Press - Saturday, May 31, 2014

QUITO, Ecuador (AP) - Ecuador’s achievement of reaching its third World Cup was overshadowed by the death of striker Christian Benitez midway through qualifying, and filling the void he left will be the team’s biggest challenge in Brazil.

The 27-year-old Benitez died of heart failure in Qatar on July 29, only three weeks after joining local team El Jaish. He was Ecuador’s star forward with 24 goals in 58 appearances.

“He’s practically irreplaceable,” Ecuador coach Reinaldo Rueda has said.

Benitez was a contender for the “best young player” award at the World Cup in 2006 when Ecuador reached the round of 16 in its best-ever World Cup performance. Without him, Pachuca forward Enner Valencia played up front in qualifying, but he is a more withdrawn player and more of a poacher than Benitez.

There is also extra responsibility on Manchester United winger Antonio Valencia, who tattooed Benitez’s face on his upper arm shortly after his friend died.

Left-winger Jefferson Montero is another attacking player who could shine for Ecuador and has been the subject of frequent rumors linking him with clubs in Europe, but the primary goal-scoring responsibility will fall to 25-year-old striker Felipe Caicedo.

Caicedo had a spell at Premier League club Manchester City and currently plays for Al-Jazira in the United Arab Emirates. He scored seven goals in nine matches in qualifying.

Ecuador isn’t one of South America’s traditional footballing giants and it would be a surprise if the team makes it into the knockout round in Brazil with two Group E opponents ahead of it in FIFA’s world rankings.

But it’s an exciting team that likes to go forward and can score.

Ecuador starts its World Cup campaign in Brasilia against Switzerland on June 15 and then faces Honduras in Curitiba on June 20 before a daunting encounter in Rio de Janeiro against France on June 25. Picking up points in the first two games looks like a key to advancing.

Edison Mendez, Walter Ayovi, Valencia, Segundo Castillo and Jorge Guagua are the only players with World Cup experience in a relatively young and untried squad.

Rueda, one of three Colombian coaches guiding teams in Brazil, does have World Cup experience and led group rival Honduras to its first World Cup in 28 years in South Africa. But the Central American team fell out in the group stage with only one point.

The qualification campaign for 2014 was marked by a strong home record in Quito - which is almost 2,800 meters (9,300 feet) above sea level. However, the team failed to win even once outside Ecuador.

Ecuador couldn’t get out of the group stage in 2002, but improved in 2006 when a free kick from England captain David Beckham ended its hopes of reaching the quarterfinals.

Making the World Cup in Brazil was a strong tribute to Benitez, and to the talent in a country of only 15 million.

Getting out the group stage would be a bonus.

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