When Peru meet Australia in Doha on Monday for a place in the 2022 World Cup final, the South Americans are likely to be the favorites – which, from the perspective of just a few years ago, seems like a credible sentence.
Fast forward to 2006. Australia qualified for the World Cup for the first time in 32 years and there was euphoria for the present and the future. The team performed well in Germany, coming out of Group F against Japan and Croatia, and only falling to eventual champions Italy after a slight stoppage time penalty in the Round of 16. The A-League was up and running, a generation of children in a sports-mad country would surely be inspired and the move from FIFA’s Oceania confederation to Asia would mean more competitive games and a rise in standards.
But 2006 was a high point. Australia have participated in all subsequent World Cups, but the results have worsened. Their last victory dates back to 2010. The last game, four years ago, was a 2-0 defeat against Peru. And the evidence seems to suggest that Australia has since retreated.
In 2006, Peru was far from qualifying for the World Cup. They finished ninth out of 10 teams in the World Cup qualifiers in South America. In 2010, they did less well: 10th out of 10. And in 2014 only slightly better: seventh out of nine.
But here they are 90 minutes from a second consecutive participation in the World Cup. Has there been a clear resurgence in the quality of Peruvian football? Absolutely not.
In 2002, for the ninth consecutive campaign, no Peruvian team reached the round of 16 of the Copa Libertadores. In fact, this year has been particularly disastrous. Including the qualifying rounds, the country’s four representatives have played 16 matches. There was not a single victory; all but three matches ended in defeat. Peru may now have the weakest domestic league on the continent and there is not a single truly top Peruvian player in top European football. Still, Peru finished ahead of Colombia (a team that features Luis Diaz, Rafael Santos Borre, Radamel Falcao and many more.)
There is an obvious conclusion: coaches make the difference. For the past few years, Peru have been coached by Ricardo Gareca, a lanky Argentinian who, as a centre-forward during his playing days, did his part to prevent Peru from making it to the Cup World Cup 1986. He inherited a side which in the previous two qualifying campaigns had lost 16 of their 17 away matches and drawn with the other.
The players he has at his disposal are not significantly better, but as a team, as a collective unit, the improvement is out of scale. After winning the World Cup four years ago, some of the French players said their 1-0 win over Peru was one of the toughest games of the campaign. Now France and Denmark, Peru’s other 2018 opponents in Group C, await the winner of Monday’s clash to complete Group D alongside Tunisia.
Gareca will trust the organization of his team; an organization that has brought conviction, which leads to trust. Peru’s previous sides would crumble as soon as they concede the first goal, but this one is made of stronger stuff. They trust each other in possession; they can hold the ball and change pace with diagonal switches; movements that start on the right end on the left, and vice versa.
The role of the coach in this area is easy to demonstrate. In the 2018 and 2022 campaigns, Peru benefited immensely from the time spent on the training ground – a good that is usually so scarce for national team coaches. Peru got off to a bad start on the road to Russia but regrouped in the month they spent together for the 2016 Copa Centenario. They got off to a disastrous start on the road to Qatar – they were in bottom of the table a year ago – but then came the Copa America in Brazil and another chance to restart. With just one point to show in the first five rounds, they have won seven of their last 13.
Peru is therefore the in-form side. They aren’t great goalscorers – managing just 19 in their 18 qualifying games – but they can create flashes that will worry Australia. The main threat is 32-year-old centre-forward Gianluca Lapadula. Born and based in Italy (for Serie B club Benevento), he has played for the country of his birth, but only in friendlies, making him free to play for his mother’s country of birth, a choice he made once it became clear he had no future with Italy.
Lapadula had never been to Peru before his first call-up, but he was quickly accepted as he brings to the attack: more cunning and competitive spirit than pure talent, as he works dangerously on the shoulder of the last defender.
Former Premier League winger Andre Carrillo, now apparently recovered from injury, will run powerfully to the defense down the right; on the other flank, Christian Cueva could be the key man. Sometimes frustrating but eternally interesting, Cueva will look to cut from the left – the side where Australia’s defense looked particularly vulnerable in Tuesday’s 2-1 win over the United Arab Emirates.
Monday’s game will likely be just as close. Peru noted that while Australia may not be great, they are certainly in good shape. Tuesday’s match was well-balanced, with the United Arab Emirates shadowing the first hour, but in the final 20 minutes Australia looked full of the run as their opponents crumbled.
Australia had some extra acclimatization time as Peru opted to prepare in Spain, where they beat New Zealand 1-0 in a warm-up on Sunday. But if the Arab Emirates have pushed Australia hard, Peru will be expecting to do even more and turn their favoritism into a victory that will allow them to contest a second consecutive World Cup.