Twelve months ago, Peru sat bottom of CONMEBOL qualifying. They’d picked up just one point from their first five matches, and a spot in Qatar seemed out of the question.
One year later, and, like Australia, they are one win away from taking their seat at the top table. For La Blanquirroja (the white and red), that would represent a second consecutive World Cup Finals appearance - something they haven’t achieved since the heady days of the 1970’s, when national icons Teofilo Cubillas and Hector Chumpitaz, twice helped take them all the way through to the knockout phase.
So, what changed? Tim Vickery, a football journalist who covers South American extensively for the likes of the BBC, ESPN and World Soccer magazine, takes up the story.
“It’s quite similar to the road to Russia where they also started poorly – both times there was a Copa America that came to their aid. For Russia, it was the Centenary one in 2016 – this time it was the controversial Copa in Brazil a year ago. It gave them a month together, and coaching makes a big difference” says Vickery.
“It’s an amazing story really Peru – they are not producing anything. They have hardly managed to feed anyone new into the team since Russia. The ones they have are naturalized foreigners. Peruvian domestic football is just an absolute farce – it’s probably the weakest league in South America at the moment. But, you get a reasonable group of players together with an excellent coach and give him time to work – and the whole is far greater than the sum of its parts” he adds.
That “excellent coach” is Ricardo Gareca. The 64 year-old Argentine who has been in the job since 2015, longer than any other currently-serving coach in South America.
“The Peruvian players need a father figure, they need confidence. There’s an important figure in Peruvian football – Juan Carlos Oblitas – he’s been national team coach, Technical Director. He always says Peruvians are scared of success. They need that personal touch. But you can’t organise a team on just being a good bloke. Gareca knows what he is doing, and you see this with the team in possession. Without doing anything exceptional, the ball moves fluidly. They will put together three short passes, then a diagonal switch – they draw the opposition in, and open up the field. It’s good basics, as a result of a prolonged time on the training ground with someone who knows what they want to do” says Vickery.
In terms of Gareca’s on-field personnel, there’s no Oblitas, Cubillas or Chumpitaz in this squad. Nor even (of a more recent vintage), Nolberto Solano or Claudio Pizarro. Paolo Guerrero, who scored against Australia in the 2018 World Cup, is now 38, and although technically still available, hasn’t been selected.
“Gianluca Lapadula is the interesting one – the naturalized Italian – he’s playing in the 2nd Division in Italy with Benevento. Renato Tapia is key for them in midfield, but he doesn’t get much game time at Celta Vigo. They have one player in Holland (Miguel Araujo), one in France (Miguel Trauco), and one in Sweden (Sergio Pena). They’ve got nothing really – but put them together as a unit, and they know what they are doing. Them finishing above Colombia doesn’t make the slightest bit of sense. But they’ve been doing this time and again under Gareca, and when it keeps happening, you know it isn’t just a coincidence” says Vickery.
Peru have had the luxury of being able to prepare for this game in Spain, while keeping an eye on the Socceroos Asian qualifier against the UAE. The team defeated New Zealand in a friendly in Barcelona thanks to a Gianluca Lapadula goal, while those that didn’t feature had a hit out against local Spanish club team, Sabadell, which Peru lost 1-0. It’s given Gareca plenty of time to formulate his tactics – and Vickery wonders whether he’s tempted to change things up, on the back of Australia’s performance against the Emirates.
“Gareca’s base formation is 4-2-3-1…in attack, ideally, he would have Andre Carillo wide right, Christian Cueva central as the playmaker, and the left-footed Edison Flores on the other side. But when Peru started so badly in qualifying, he went with something different because he wanted more solidity. Flores had lost a bit of form, so he went with more of a 4-3-3 – bringing in Sergio Pena to play as part of a midfield three alongside Tapia holding, the left-footed Yoshimar Yotun on the left, and Pena on the right” says Vickery.
“You then accommodate Cueva on the wide left cutting in. But after seeing the game against the UAE, there must be a temptation to bring Flores back to attack Australia with the left foot and move Cueva centrally. I suspect he won’t, given he didn’t do it against New Zealand – but that was before the Emirates game. I think that is the variation he will have in his mind, particularly with Australia looking vulnerable down that side” he adds.
There is also a word of warning for the centre of Australia’s defence.
“Australia defended with a high line against UAE – and Lapadula loves playing on the shoulder, so this will suit him. He’s a pain in the arse – he’s always in your face, giving it the verbals. He’ll be the man the Aussies love to hate on Monday. If Australia don’t put pressure on the midfield, then Peru have players who can slip Lapadula in behind” says Vickery.
Without the likes of Guerrero and the now retired Jefferson Farfan, Peru don’t score too many. Just nineteen goals in eighteen qualifiers, meaning Australia – even though starting as outsiders – will likely be in the game throughout, barring a catastrophe.
“Peru are worried about Australia’s staying power. The only time they looked really on top against the UAE was in the last twenty minutes. There is also a lot of expectation back home that they will qualify, and the emotional side of the game is something where I think Australia have a chance. The pressure is on because they beat Australia 2-0 last time, and nothing suggests Australia have improved since. There are also one or two hotheads in the team. Carlos Zambrano has a track record of losing his head. Luis Advincula can do it too, Yotun picks up cards. It could be one of those games won on a detail. It’s a game where the coach has a huge task not just tactically, but emotionally” says Vickery.
But Ricardo Gareca has proved many times over that he has the temperament to get the best out of his players on the big occasions. If he wins on Tuesday morning (Australian time), he’ll be the first coach to take the country to the World Cup twice, cementing his already legendary status in Peru.