By Rex Gowar
CUIABA, Brazil, June 22 (Reuters) - Ecuador have been blessed with the form of striker Enner Valencia since he took on the goal-scoring mantle from the late Christian Benitez last year, coach Reinaldo Rueda said on Sunday.
Valencia has scored all three of Ecuador's goals in two Group E matches at the World Cup in Brazil, his first in a 2-1 loss to Switzerland followed by two in their 2-1 victory over Honduras that revived their qualifying hopes.
"I think we have been blessed by God to have this player on a goalscoring run practically right after the misfortune of Christian," Rueda told Reuters in an exclusive interview.
"Chucho" Benitez died suddenly of heart failure aged 27 in July in Qatar where he was playing his club football.
"Enner showed it in the last six months with his club and the national team and let's hope he continues to improve and is increasingly better with his scoring contribution for Ecuador," said Rueda, speaking by phone from his squad's base camp in Porto Alegre.
The 25-year-old Valencia was the Mexican league's top scorer this year with 18 goals as he helped Pachuca reach the final of the Clausura championship in May.
Rueda said the younger of two unrelated Valencias in his squad, along with team captain Antonio, had a bright future and qualities to be a success in any of the major European leagues like his namesake who has renewed his contract with Manchester United.
"He has all the merits, attributes and characteristics of an elite player due to his discipline and game intelligence.
"He could adapt to the different footballing cultures in Europe and I'm sure that would be a growth experience for him and a great satisfaction for Ecuadorean football."
Valencia could one day join the growing number of players from the traditionally less strong teams in the Americas carving out careers in Europe and gaining experience that has helped the likes of Costa Rica to become a sensation in Brazil.
"(Costa Rica) have a good percentage of players who went to Europe young, broadening their experience and that tactical discipline (in wins over Uruguay and Italy) reflects that and the same goes for Mexico, Honduras, the United States," Rueda said.
"It's a very balanced, even World Cup with some teams with mentally saturated players who have played a lot (of matches this season) as in the case of Spain and others who arrived here with less rhythm of competition."
Rueda said the generally good performances of the teams from South America and the CONCACAF region was proof of their efforts to take advantage of a World Cup on their territory and make a mark.
"It confirms expectations of what South America set out to do, the committment in this World Cup in Brazil with Latin American teams fulfilling them and let's hope they reach important stages (in the tournament)."
With Chile, Colombia, Argentina and Costa Rica through to the last 16, Rueda pointed to tough a qualifying series as helping teams become big players at the World Cup.
"South America is a very, very competitive area and likewise CONCACAF Every round in the qualifiers there are very difficult matches with teams of a high standard like Chile, Uruguay, Argentina, Colombia who all had a good series and that naturally helps them reach an ideal rhythm," Rueda said.
"With the large volume of players coming (back to their national teams) from Spain, the (English) Premier League, Italy there is a very high level with the (mix of) South American talent and the culture these youngsters acquire in the competitive leagues in Europe."
Looking beyond the Brazil finals, Rueda said that the centenary Copa America tournament being organised in the United States in 2016 was a further step in the right direction.
"It will be the unification of the Americas the Copa America with the Gold Cup which has also been of a high standard in recent years. It will be very positive for the development and maturing of Latin America's players." (Editing by Justin Palmer)