QUITO Ecuador's lack of recent World Cup experience after missing the 2010 finals is a gap coach Reinaldo Rueda has managed to bridge with his players' discipline and commitment.
But the void left by striker Cristian Benitez's sudden death at 27 last year will be almost impossible to fill on the threshold of this year's tournament in Brazil, Rueda told Reuters.
"A player of Cristian's characteristics, both for his human qualities and footballing skills is practically irreplaceable," the Colombian said. "You don't find that round the corner.
"There will be another player because there must be eleven... In this short time of four months (to the finals) you can't replace a player groomed over several years," the 57-year-old told Reuters in an interview this week.
Ecuador, who reached the finals for the first time in Asia in 2002, face Switzerland, France and Honduras looking to improve on or at least equal their second round place in Germany in 2006 where they lost to England.
"We don't have (recent) World Cup experience but we do have a great squad with lots of motivation and we'll have to make up for that lack of experience with order, obedience and great tactical discipline," said Rueda.
Ecuador's three opponents in Group E played at the previous finals in South Africa with poor results, including Honduras under Colombian Rueda, and many of their players will be going to a second consecutive tournament.
The only Ecuadorean players with World Cup finals experience likely to go to Brazil are midfielder Alejandro Castillo of Saudi side Al-Hilal and Manchester United winger Antonio Valencia.
Rueda, who likes to study his rivals in minute detail, will stick to the same tactical plan against all three group opponents that served Ecuador well in the South American qualifiers since he took charge in 2011.
The Ecuador team have set themselves the goal of leaving a mark in Brazil in name of Benitez, who died last August from heart failure in Qatar where he was playing club football. He had contributed four goals in the qualifiers.
"The happiness is gone, the goals have gone and we've all put in the effort (to make light of his absence), it's not been easy," said Rueda, who will name his World Cup squad on May 26.
Valencia is a key player for Ecuador as a "a man of the (football) elite" although team work is Ecuador's outstanding feature, he added.
"This team has great virtues, players with great talent, very committed, with good discipline, they're a team with great harmony," Rueda said.
Ecuador will play warm-up matches against Australia in London on March 5, the Netherlands in Amsterdam on May 17, Mexico in Texas on May 31 and England in Miami on June 4 before travelling to Brazil.
(Writing by Rex Gowar in London; Editing by Justin Palmer)