The opening round of South America's World Cup qualifiers at the end of last week belonged to the veterans, with Lionel Messi and Neymar the standout performers. But, in Tuesday's second round, there was space for youth to steal the stage.
Just 16, and bound for Chelsea when he turns 18, Kendry Paez is the latest quality product of the remarkable production line at Independiente del Valle, a little club from the outskirts of Quito that has developed the likes of Moisés Caicedo and many of the Ecuador squad. Paez has been enjoying quite a year -- scoring in his first game in senior football, when he was still 15 and appearing in the World Cups at Under-17 and Under-20 levels -- and now thrown into the cauldron of senior World Cup qualification.
He was a surprise choice to line up at home to Uruguay. Paez had been part of the Ecuador squad since the FIFA friendlies in June, but he had never played before and, going into this match, the consensus was that a few minutes off the bench would be the best he could hope for. Instead, coach Felix Sanchez started the teenage prodigy and come the end of a 2-1 win, was very pleased with his decision.
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Paez operated on the right of a midfield trio. Left-footed but able to go either way, there was a swagger and a style about his football, a casual ease of accepting responsibility to set up the play, that was a joy to watch. He did not last the entire game -- that would have been too much to expect -- but by the time he left the match, with some 20 minutes to go, he had laid on the winning goal.
Against the run of play Uruguay had taken a first half lead, Maxi Araujo working hard down the left to set up an opportunity for Agustín Canobbio. But at the altitude of Quito, Ecuador were always favourites and took the points despite watching all-time top scorer Enner Valencia shoot wide from a penalty.
It was a set-piece that turned the game -- a corner struck from the left by Caicedo. Just before the interval one of Caicedo's right-footed crosses was met by a towering header from centre-back Félix Torres. And then, in the second half, Caicedo started to vary the repertoire. He worked some short corners, and from one of them he slipped Paez, his future Chelsea teammate, to the bye-line. Paez played in a low cross and there was Torres once more, this time stretching out a leg to win the game.
Ecuador's first three points sees them move in the table to ... no points. They entered the campaign carrying a three-point penalty for administrative errors in the Qatar qualifiers, and so this win merely serves to cancel out their punishment. The expanded World Cup mean that six South American teams qualify automatically for 2026, with a seventh going into a playoff, so Ecuador are entitled to dream of Paez helping them to more wins on the way to World Cup 2026, and for many years beyond.
Ecuador now finds themselves six points behind the joint leaders, Brazil and Argentina; the only teams to have won both their opening matches. They went about the second win in contrasting styles. Argentina's 3-0 triumph away to Bolívia was highly impressive. The extreme altitude of La Paz is notoriously tough for unacclimatised opponents, and the world champions decided not to risk Messi. Without their talisman the young midfield performed with great maturity, dictating the tempo of the game and passing their way through the Bolivian defence.
Brazil, meanwhile, were much less eye-catching in their 1-0 win away to Peru. They were never in real defensive danger, but their passing had little of the fluency of Friday's big win over Bolivia. Neymar could not produce the fine form he showed that night, and amid a succession of passing errors the game appeared to be drifting towards a goalless draw, which was a little hard on Richarlison, Brazil's out of form centre-forward, who thought he had headed Brazil into a first half lead only to have it chalked off for offside after an agonising seven minute wait for a VAR decision. In the end, though, it was aerial power that carried the day, Marquinhos stealing the points with a clever run in front of the near post to glance home a Neymar corner.
Behind Brazil and Argentina in the early table are Colombia, who moved up to four points with a hard fought 0-0 draw away to Chile. And then, joining Uruguay on three points, are Venezuela who opened their account with a 1-0 win at home to Paraguay.
If the night belonged to Ecuador's 16-year-old Kendry Paez, then he has to share some of the glory with Salomon Rondon, Venezuela's 33-year-old centre-forward. The tragedy of Venezuela's previous campaign was that they were seldom able to call up their key target man striker, who was either in China or England and was ruled out by COVID restrictions. Now, he may be a little past his best. But when Venezuela were awarded a late penalty, he did not flinch. Paez can dream of many World Cups to come but big Rondon has one chance left and he kept those hopes alive with a high-pressure goal.