QUITO, June 6 (Reuters) - A quick look at Ecuador's World Cup qualifying campaign would lead to the conclusion that their biggest strength was playing home matches at high altitude in Quito.
Generally regarded as the weakest of South America's six representatives, Ecuador won seven games and drew one at the Atahualpa, their mountain fortress at 2,800 metres above sea level, while on the road they managed only three draws and five defeats.
Coach Reinaldo Rueda, however, is having none of it, saying there is much more to his team than just a piece of geographical fortune.
"Ecuador qualified because we have good players working well, not because of altitude," he said.
The Andean nation had never played at the World Cup until making their debut in 2002, yet have now qualified for three of the last four tournaments.
On all three occasions they have been led by coaches from neighbouring Colombia, firstly Hernan Dario Gomez, then Luis Fernando Suarez and now Rueda.
This time, they overcame tragedy on the way when striker Christian Benitez, who scored in three qualifiers, died of a heart attack in Qatar where he was playing his club football.
The 27-year-old passed away in July last year, little more than one month after playing in the qualifier away to Peru which turned out to be his final game.
"Christian will always be in our hearts and our minds, wherever we go," said captain Antonio Valencia after they clinched their place in Brazil.
Ecuador's greatest strength is on the wings with Manchester United's Valencia marauding down the right and the electric Jefferson Montero on the left.
Montero's speed, trickery and deadly finishing make him an instant crowd pleaser and he can be unplayable on his day. In his best performance of the qualifiers, he single-handedly shredded the Paraguay defence, scoring two goals and brilliantly setting up a third in a 4-1 win.
"He's the kind of player spectators love to watch because he plays like a kid in the street, daring, throwing opponents off balance," Rueda told Reuters in a recent interview.
"If he improves some small things (in his game) he's going to be a great player."
Cristian Noboa keeps the two wingers supplied with excellent distribution from the heart of the midfield while the hard-tackling Segundo Castillo provides protection for the defence.
Castillo's role could prove crucial as Ecuador have been shown to have a soft centre and Rueda will be hoping that he recovers in time from a knee injury he suffered during a friendly against Mexico on May 31.
On their last two World Cup appearances, Ecuador were able to build their team around the impregnable central defensive pairing of Ivan Hurtado and Giovanny Espinoza, who were approaching nearly 200 caps between them.
They are no longer around and Ecuador have failed to replenish the talent pool. The situation has got worse since Frickson Erazo, one of their first choices, moved to Brazilian club Flamengo where he is now struggling to get a game.
Their vulnerabilities were exposed in a friendly by a second-string German side last year when Ecuador shipped four goals in the opening 25 minutes, although they hit back with two of their own later on.
They were again caught napping by Australia in March when they conceded three early goals in a friendly in London before recovering superbly to win 4-3. There may be no way back, however, if they suffer a similar collapse during the World Cup. (Reporting By Brian Homewood in Berne, editing by Justin Palmer and Mike Collett)