Simon Hill discusses Peru with South American football expert Tim Vickery

Twelve months ago, Peru were bottom of CONMEBOL qualifiers. They had collected just one point from their first five matches, and a place in Qatar seemed out of the question.

A year later and, like Australia, they are one win away from taking their place at the top table. For La Blanquirroja (the white and red), it would represent a second consecutive World Cup final appearance – something they haven’t achieved since the heady days of the 1970s, when national icons Teofilo Cubillas and Hector Chumpitaz, twice helped take them all the way to the knockout stage.

So what has changed? Tim Vickery, a football journalist who covers South America extensively for the BBC, ESPN and World Soccer magazine, picks up the story.

“It’s quite similar to the road to Russia where they also started badly – ​​both times there was a Copa America that came to their aid. For Russia, it was the centenary in 2016 – this time it was the controversial Copa in Brazil a year ago. It gave them a month together, and the coaching makes a big difference,” Vickery says.

“It’s really an incredible story in Peru – they don’t produce anything. They barely managed to get anyone new into the squad from Russia. The ones they have are naturalized foreigners. Peruvian national football is an absolute joke – it’s probably the weakest league in South America right now. But, you get a reasonable group of players together with a great coach and give him time to work – and the whole is far greater than the sum of its parts,” he adds.

LIMA, PERU – FEBRUARY 01: Peru’s coach Ricardo Gareca gestures during a match between Peru and Ecuador in the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 Qualifiers at the National Stadium on 01 February 2022 in Lima, Peru. (Photo by Daniel Apuy/Getty Images)

This “excellent coach” is Ricardo Gareca. The 64-year-old Argentinian who has held the position since 2015, longer than any other coach currently serving in South America.

“Peruvian players need a father figure, they need confidence. There is an important figure in Peruvian football – Juan Carlos Oblitas – he was national team coach, technical director. He always says that Peruvians are afraid of success. They need that personal touch. But you can’t organize a team by just being a good guy. Gareca knows what he’s doing, and you see that with the team in possession. Without doing anything exceptional, the ball moves with fluidity. They will set up three short passes, then a diagonal switch – they will attract the opposition and open the field. It’s a good foundation, coming from an extended time on the training ground with someone who knows what he wants to do,” says Vickery.

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As for Gareca’s on-field staff, there are no Oblitas, Cubillas or Chumpitaz in this squad. Not even (from a more recent vintage), Nolberto Solano or Claudio Pizarro. Paolo Guerrero, who scored against Australia at the 2018 World Cup, is now 38 and, although technically still available, has not been capped.

BARCELONA, SPAIN – JUNE 05: Gianluca Lapadula of Peru celebrates after scoring his team’s first goal during the international friendly match between Peru and New Zealand at RCDE Stadium on June 05, 2022 in Barcelona, ​​Spain. (Photo by Alex Caparros/Getty Images)

“Gianluca Lapadula is the interesting one – the naturalized Italian – he plays in the 2n/a Division in Italy with Benevento. Renato Tapia is essential for them in midfield but he doesn’t get much playing time at Celta Vigo. They have a player in the Netherlands (Miguel Araujo), one in France (Miguel Trauco) and one in Sweden (Sergio Pena). They really don’t have anything – but put them together as a unit, and they know what they’re doing. Finishing them above Colombia makes no sense. But they’ve done it over and over again under Gareca, and when it continues you know it’s not just a coincidence,” says Vickery.

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Peru has offered itself the luxury of being able to prepare for this match in Spain, while keeping an eye on the Socceroos’ Asian qualification against the United Arab Emirates. The team beat New Zealand in a friendly in Barcelona thanks to a goal from Gianluca Lapadula, while those who did not feature had a hit against local Spanish club side Sabadell which the Peru lost 1-0. It has given Gareca plenty of time to formulate his tactics – and Vickery wonders if he is tempted to turn things around, following Australia’s performance against the Emirates.

“Gareca’s basic formation is 4-2-3-1… in attack, ideally he would have Andre Carillo on the right, Christian Cueva in the center as playmaker and left-hander Edison Flores on the other side. But when Peru started so badly in qualifying, they left with something different because they wanted more solidity. Flores had lost a bit of form, so he went with more of a 4-3-3 – bringing Sergio Pena to play as part of a three-man midfield alongside Tapia holding, left-footed Yoshimar Yotun on the left and Pena on the right,” says Vickery.

BUENOS AIRES, ARGENTINA – OCTOBER 14: Yoshimar Yotun of Peru and Rodrigo De Paul of Argentina battle for the ball during a match between Argentina and Peru in the South American Qualifiers for Qatar 2022 at the Estadio Monumental Antonio Vespucio Liberti on October 14, 2021 in Buenos Aires, Argentina. (Photo by Marcelo Endelli/Getty Images)

“You then welcome Cueva on the wide left by cutting. But after seeing the game against the United Arab Emirates, there must be a temptation to bring Flores back to attack Australia with a left foot and move Cueva through the middle. I suspect he won’t, given he didn’t against New Zealand – but that was before the Emirates game. I think that’s the variation he’ll have in mind, especially with Australia looking vulnerable on that side,” he added.

There is also a word of warning for the center of the Australian defence.

“Australia defended with a high line against the United Arab Emirates – and Lapadula likes to play off the shoulder, so that will suit him. He’s a pain in the ass – he’s always in front of you, giving him the words. He will be the man Aussies love to hate on Monday. If Australia don’t put the pressure on in midfield, then Peru have players who can slip Lapadula behind,” says Vickery.

Without the likes of Guerrero and Jefferson Farfan, now retired, Peru aren’t scoring too much. Just nineteen goals in eighteen qualifying rounds, which means Australia – even if they start as underdogs – are likely to be in the game throughout, barring disaster.

DOHA, QATAR – JUNE 07: Jackson Irvine of Australia celebrates after scoring his team’s first goal during the 2022 FIFA World Cup Qualifier match between United Arab Emirates and Australia at Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium on June 07, 2022 in Doha, Qatar. (Photo by Mohamed Farag/Getty Images)

“Peru are worried about Australia’s endurance. The only time they really looked on top against the United Arab Emirates was in the last twenty minutes. There is also a lot of expectation at home for them to qualify, and the emotional side of the game is something where I think Australia have a chance. The pressure is on as they beat Australia 2-0 last time out, and there is nothing to suggest Australia have improved since then. There are also a hothead or two in the team. Carlos Zambrano has a history of losing his mind. Luis Advincula can do it too, Yotun picks up the cards. It could be one of those games won on a detail. It’s a game where the coach has a huge task not only tactically, but emotionally,” says Vickery.

But Ricardo Gareca has proven time and time again that he has the temperament to get the most out of his players on big occasions. If he wins on Tuesday morning (Australian time), he will be the first manager to take the country to the World Cup twice, cementing his already legendary status in Peru.

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