- Peru will be missing its all-time leading scorer and captain, but it has the pieces to handle New Zealand and qualify for its first World Cup in over three decades.
After decades of disappointment, player indiscipline and managerial incompetence, Peru is now two matches away from reaching the World Cup for the first time since 1982. All that stands in the way of La Blanquirroja ending the drought is an intercontinental playoff, which begins on Saturday at New Zealand (Friday evening in the USA) at Westpac Stadium in Wellington, the nation’s capital.
After nearly a day-long travel journey from Lima, the majority of Peru’s squad arrived on Monday–with European-based players such as Feyenoord’s Renato Tapia and Watford’s André Carrillo arriving a day later–and they were met with a warm reception as hundreds of Peruvian fans greeted the team as they landed in Auckland.
For the All Whites and U.S.-born English manager Anthony Hudson, things are going as planned. Their two most important players, Burnley’s Chris Wood and West Ham’s Winston Reid, are fully fit after injury scares, providing the 36-year-old coach with a healthy squad.
As for the visitors, any Peruvian fan will tell you that nothing ever comes without controversy (there is actually a Wikipedia page dedicated to Peruvian player scandals), and Peru enters this playoff without its captain and the all-time leading scorer, Paolo Guerrero. The Flamengo striker, who was handed a 30-day provisional ban due to failing a doping test, arrived in Lima this past Sunday with a business partner and biochemist in order to prove his innocence, and was given a hero's welcome at the airport. The Guerrero story is massive news in Peru, and according to recent reports, his defense team is arguing that what was found in his system was a flu remedy that possibly included a banned substance and was taken prior to his match against Argentina. Regardless, he's out for the playoff, and that provides a vital selection and tactical decision that manager Ricardo Gareca must confront.
From a technical and coaching standpoint, Guerrero’s absence is monumental, because not only is he a commanding striker with an aggressive eye for goal, but his rare combination of speed and strength makes life difficult for opposing center backs. He is also responsible for dead-ball situations–his free-kick that led to the equalizer against Colombia in the CONMEBOL World Cup qualifying finale put Peru into fifth place and the playoff round–as well as providing support to the wings and the attacking midfielders.
A striker whose main quality is hold-up play normally relies on power, not speed, in order to maintain pressure and bring faster players into the attack. But the versatile Guerrero possesses both of those qualities. In addition to all of that, his influence as a leader will sorely be missed, especially to a squad with so many young players inexperienced on the big international stage.
So how can Peru play without him and still qualify for the World Cup? For starters, it's worth understanding that while Guerrero’s absence is big, it is not as catastrophic as some may be boasting.
No one is denying Guerrero's value and how his absence affects the team’s approach, but Peru’s biggest weapon is not Guerrero. It is Gareca.
The Argentine manager is a chameleon, able to adapt to whatever the opposition offers, and it’s a major reason why Peru is in this position in the first place. Back in August, against Bolivia, Gareca’s team had to play without Guerrero due to his suspension for yellow card accumulation, and the strategy was simple: overload the midfield, exploit the width.
Gareca replaced Guerrero with Raúl Ruidíaz (he won the Mexican Federation's Balón de Oro as the best player for 2016-17, and has eight goals in 15 games for Morelia in the current season), but the key was behind him, where Edison Flores, Christian Cueva (arguably Peru’s most talented player), Jefferson Farfán and Carrillo overwhelmed Bolivia’s defense and won 2-1.
It wouldn’t be surprising to see a similar approach against the Kiwis.
In preparing for New Zealand, Gareca has been reportedly testing lineups during the first days of training with his preferred 4-2-3-1 formation: the back four-Aldo Corzo, Alberto Rodriguez, Christian Ramos, Miguel Trauco-and keeper Pedro Gallese remained the same. Barring any setbacks, that’s what it will be in the first leg. The same should be with Tapia and Orlando City’s Yoshimar Yotún filling the midfield, with Cueva just in front of them while Carrillo and Flores cover the wings. The area in question, where Gareca has been experimenting, is between Ruidíaz and Farfán as the No. 9 spot.
While Ruidíaz offers a more classic approach to the role of striker, Farfán–naturally a winger-has been achieving tremendous amount of success as a center forward with his club, Lokomotiv Moscow, accumulating three goals in his last three matches.
When New Zealand faced México in the Confederations Cup this past summer, one of the biggest issues for the All Whites was dealing with pace. If Carrillo, Peru’s fastest player, finds the opportunity, he can make it a long day for Hudson’s defensive unit. Flores may not be as fast, but what he lacks in pace, he makes up in skill, and his goals against Bolivia and Ecuador prove that if you give him any space, he can hurt you.
In the end, it’s all about how Cueva can provide the link between midfield and front line. The 25 year old has a tendency to overdo things and hold the ball for longer than necessary, but his vision and ability to change direction in the blink of an eye provides a major threat. If Cueva plays to his potential, then the entire team can benefit from his creativity.
Gareca’s biggest priority will be simplicity and to make sure his squad returns to Peru with a satisfactory first-leg result that puts it in position to finish the job at home. He knows that next Wednesday, Estadio Nacional will be waiting for an inspiring performance, and as long as his team avoids a catastrophic result in Wellington, regardless of Guerrero's availability, the dream can become a reality.