- When they met in the group stage, Brazil steamrolled Peru 5-0. They'll meet again in the Copa America final, where Ricardo Gareca's side will need to drastically improve on its previous performance to challenge the host nation.
Sunday's Copa America final between Brazil and Peru is a contest replete with history, one that carries the weight of two veteran managers looking to turn their respective players into champions for the first time in their tenures. It's also a rematch of the most lopsided game in this year's competition.
While Brazil’s inclusion in the title game may not be that surprising (the host nation is undefeated and has yet to concede a goal), Peru’s most definitely is. Less than two weeks ago, it suffered a 5-0 destruction at the hands of the Seleçao and slipped into the knockout stage as a third-place finisher. Ricardo Gareca’s side found a way to rebound, though, and thanks to an impressive change of character, resilience against Uruguay in the quarterfinals and a resounding victory against Chile in the final four, it now finds itself in the Copa America final for the first time in 44 years.
Beating Brazil is a bigger mountain to climb, though. Even without Neymar, it's a squad filled with talent, experience and attacking pedigree, capable of breaking an opponent’s strategy in a heartbeat. Given what happened in their June 22 meeting, what reason is there to believe Sunday will be any different for Peru?
Let’s begin with the obvious sentiment. Brazil, the five-time World Cup and eight-time Copa America champion is the obvious favorite, and given the local support, it hopes to take advantage of a packed Macaranã (at full capacity it fills 87,000), where the majority will be Brazilian fans.
“Now I will truly become the coach of the national team,'' Tite joked after the Seleçao beat rival Argentina 2-0 in the semifinals. The 58-year-old manager has not coached at the stadium since taking over the role in 2016–after Peru's elimination of Brazil in the group stage of Copa America Centenario spelled the end for Dunga–and hopes this iconic ground serves as inspiration for this team.
"Players always say that you only become a footballer if you played at the Maracanã. It’s the same thing for the coach," Tite said.
Venue aside, this is a final Brazil, whose last Copa America title came in 2007, knows it has to win. Beating Argentina at the place where it was humiliated by Germany 7-1 in the 2014 World Cup semifinals soothed an existing wound but it didn’t fully heal it. A trophy on home soil is the only true medicine.
Aside from relying on key players such as Gabriel Jesus, Roberto Firmino, Philippe Coutinho and Arthur, Tite will also be hoping some more magic from captain Dani Alves, who, at 36, rolled back the years against Argentina and delivered his best performance of the competition. Alves, who took the captain's armband from Neymar prior to the start of Copa America, has seen it all during his career and is currently a free agent after recently leaving PSG. No male player in the history of the game has won more trophies (42 for club and country) than the right back, and he will be looking for one more on Sunday.
A key absence will be Willian, as a hamstring injury rules him out. The winger mainly served as a substitute during the tournament and scored the last dagger against Peru in the commanding victory. Even without Willian, Brazil has enough weapons to cause problems, and nobody knows this better than Gareca.
“I don’t know how to beat Brazil, I don’t have an answer for that right now, but I do know we have players who can find the answer.” Gareca said, speaking to the press after the 3-0 win over Chile, arguably his best win with Peru. “When you reach a final, you want to win it. That will be our mentality.”
Gareca is the definition of an old school manager, embodying the personalities of a respected, long-serving professor at an Ivy League university and a military sergeant. He never gets excited about a victory and is always realistic about an objective. Much like his compatriot Marcelo Bielsa, his press conferences tend to be long and didactic lessons but never with the intent to patronize. The key takeaway is that under his watch, Peru has not only improved in strategy, it has also learned how to rise from adversity.
Peru’s biggest enemy has always been Peru itself, as players often fall into mental traps, allowing their emotions to take over and their opponents, no matter the quality, to take advantage. It happened against El Salvador earlier this year and quite clearly, against Brazil in the group stage.
Right after the game against Brazil, Gareca took the blame for the loss, but the players knew that the humiliating defeat was on them, and almost immediately the squad changed its mindset. Training became a place to not just physically improve, but also mentally. Teammates became closer, worked harder and became more communicative. Mistakes were no longer down to an individual. This team, for better or worse, would rise or fall as one.
Goalkeeper Pedro Gallese’s confidence was severely dented after he conceded one of the worst goals in the tournament against Brazil, but ever since that game, he has become a different player. He has always been an athletic goalkeeper, but now he is a leader, overseeing his defenders and taking control of every dead-ball situation.
Against Uruguay, the entire team finally realized Gareca’s biggest lesson: possession is not as important as control. It took the competition's most successful side in history to penalties, and there, not one Peruvian missed. Gallese saved Luis Suarez’s spot kick, and La Blanquirroja made it to the last four.
Against Chile, the team’s biggest foe and the competition's two-time reigning champion, Peru allowed its opponent to keep the ball and be physical, allowing pace and quick one-two counterattacking to take over the game. Goals from Edison Flores, Yoshimar Yotun and Paolo Guerrero–the latter of which finished off a brilliant team move–sealed the win and historic return to the final.
Nevertheless, Brazil remains the favorite and seeing as it has its own demons to exorcise, Tite’s side will be extremely motivated, hoping to celebrate in front of its own people and reclaim its place atop South America’s hierarchy.
If Peru has any chance of spoiling that narrative, it has to implement everything it learned from the 5-0 loss, introduce itself as a brand new opponent and not allow the magnitude of the moment to take over.