Captain Kalidou Koulibaly sealed the African champion’s progression to the knockout phase with a dramatic 70th-minute winner on Tuesday at Khalifa International Stadium just moments after Moises Caicedo had drawn Ecuador level.
The end-to-end drama came after Ismaila Sarr’s confident penalty had put Senegal ahead just before half-time. The point was just reward for their domination of the opening period against an opponent happy to sit back and try to soak up the pressure.
The final result meant Senegal finished second in Group A with six points from their three matches, two ahead of Ecuador, whose tournament held much promise but ultimately ended in bitter disappointment.
Meanwhile, the Netherlands beat Qatar 2-0 in Tuesday’s other Group A fixture to finish top and cap a miserable end to the tournament for the hosts, who were rooted in last place, having failed to win a single point from their three games.
Senegal last advanced from the group stage at the 2002 World Cup and reached the quarter-finals in their tournament debut.
Their success this time around has come despite the absence of star forward Sadio Mane, who saw his World Cup dream crash down on the eve of the competition as a knee injury ruled him out of a trip to Qatar.
Coach Aliou Cisse promised before the game that his experienced side “would not overthink” the occasion, and it was his charges who opened the game furiously with Everton’s Idrissa Gana Gueye lashing the ball just wide of the goal after only three minutes.
Less than a minute later, Ecuador goalkeeper Hernan Galindez needed to bail out his side’s high backline, sliding in to stifle a counter well outside his box.
On the 10-minute mark, Senegal’s Boulaye Dia found himself one-on-one with Galindez, but he cut the ball just wide of the post.
Ecuador seemed sparked into life by Senegal’s fierce opening. They pushed forward and won a free kick 30 metres (33 yards) from goal with the South Americans taking the opportunity for a rare breather before captain Enner Valencia slammed the ball into the wall.
After the furious opening exchanges, both sides began to settle before Ecuador defender Piero Hincapie clattered into Sarr, giving referee Clement Turpin no choice but to point to the spot. Sarr stepped up and coolly dispatched a fine spot kick past Galindez, maintaining eye contact with the keeper as the ball went in.
Here's how things stand in Group A!
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From a free kick, defender Felix Torres rose high to head the ball on to Caicedo, who was waiting at the far post and slammed the ball home.
Senegal struck back immediately and in almost identical fashion with Koulibaly lurking unmarked at the far post following a free kick that was deflected into his path by Hincapie.
Coming into the match on a yellow card, Gueye picked up a second-half booking and will miss Senegal’s last-16 game against the winners of Group B, which is currently topped by England.
Iran, the USA and Wales currently occupy the group’s second, third and fourth places, respectively.