Here we go again. For the second year in a row in World Cup qualifiers, Peru’s fate will be determined by the repechaje (play-off) and once again they are familiar opponents. Australia with its beautiful outback scenery, indigenous culture, schooners, Kylie Minogue and Miles Jedinak. Here ends my praise to you. At least until Tuesday.
Peru meet Australia for the penultimate spot (Costa Rica and New Zealand finish bottom the following day) and a chance to join France, Denmark and Tunisia in Qatar. As in 2018, three of the four nations will compete together in a group at the World Cup. The two met as La Blanquirroja on the final day of the group stage said goodbye and scored their first World Cup win since 1978 with a 2-0 win over the Socceroos. So it’s a bit more recent history, when these two sides meet again four years later and the stereotypical banter already has precedent. Peruvians think every Aussie eats Vegemite, and Australians think mocking Paddington Bear will hurt Peruvians (for the record, both are untrue. Paddington especially. I love him, but not a single Peruvian says he’s one of ours , since you know it was created by Michael Bond Although I love Marmalade, I immigrated to England and I’m Peruvian so I guess I’m Paddington rather than Paddington).
Ar-Rayyan, just west of Doha, is the venue for this match, which in itself is proving to be a questionable decision as the real reason for moving the competition to November was that the June heat in Qatar was too much, to deal with it and July. Unfortunately it is local time in the evening so the temperature should be more appropriate and both teams would have had enough time to acclimatise. If we’re being honest, the tournament raises enough questions anyway and there’s little doubt that every fan of conscience faces conflicting feelings about this World Cup, so playing those games in Doha in June is the bare minimum.
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Nonetheless, Peru’s unique relationship with the World Cup is writing another page and this time in the Middle East. Destiny awaits Ricardo Gareca and his high-flying side, and a whole nation awaits them. As I write this, there is talk of a national holiday in Peru for everyone to see. But let’s face it, you don’t have to tell a Peruvian to take the day off to see this repechaye. They do it anyway. Peru’s ambassador to Qatar expects thousands of Peruvians to attend. For Qataris, they will likely feel like millions.
Let us begin.
Before I get to the team review, let me be very clear and unbiased. This playoff game heavily favors Peru on paper, which sits at -140 according to Caesars Sportsbook. The South Americans have the stronger squad, play in a more competitive qualifying region, have international experience (at international tournaments and a World Cup) and have a more experienced manager who knows how to deal with in-game management better than almost any other coach in Latin America. I would even argue globally. There is a collective understanding between Gareca and his side as they have been together for almost 100 games now. So if Peru don’t win it will be at their own peril and Australia could be counting on that. It’s a game. That’s all that counts. So interrupt Peru’s dominance on paper and change the script. Ultimately, this is not an easy task.
Is this Peru team stronger than 2018? Maybe. Maybe not. It’s a good question depending on your take on it. The likes of Renato Tapia, Andre Carrillo, Yoshimar Yotun, Luis Advincula, Pedro Gallese and Christian Cueva, for example, all played against Australia in 2018. If they’re not the better players these days, they’re definitely smarter. They are scheduled to start again on Monday. In contrast, Australia’s team is very different from Russia’s. Their Captain Matt Ryan remains their leader and guiding compass. Then there’s Aaron Mooy, who is just getting fit again after not playing competitively this season and refusing to return to his Chinese Super League side Shanghai Port FC, opting to remain in the national team. Melbourne FC’s Mathew Leckie also played in Russia. There are some members from both cycles, but overall it’s a different site. And that doesn’t mean there isn’t talent. It’s just mostly untested against other nations outside of their AFC region. However, moving there helped them in terms of competition as they finished third in their third round behind Saudi Arabia and Japan, which is why they are in this crucial game. Mainly absent is Tom Rogic, ex-Celtic, who left the squad as a creative spark in midfield for personal reasons. This prompted an immediate return from Mooy, who looked decent against UAE but tired towards the end. Rogic is a huge loss as manager Graham Arnold will have to use all his experience to complement his absence. Other players to watch out for include Scottish-born Australian Martin Boyle, who plays for Saudi Arabian club Al-Faisaly. His cunning on the right wing and his familiarity with the region are important for this side.
Australia are dangerous in the air and in counterattack situations they focus heavily on the wings, especially the right flank. But it’s their ability to slow down dead-ball play that will take center stage. Fortunately for Peru, New Zealand proved to be a great dress rehearsal earlier this month. They are not as strong as Australia but present similar challenges. Gareca, who was there when Australia beat the United Arab Emirates, knows that.
For Peru, it should be about control. I expect possession dominance and quick movements with Christian Cueva pulling the strings. On his day he is unplayable. He’s a master of his own dribbling domain and I expect the foul count will be high for him. Gianluca Lapadula, the Italian-born Tacu Tacu Rigatoni king, will capitalize on any defensive error, while Yoshimar Yotun could also prove crucial. He’s the kind of player who takes minutes for any club to feel useful. Since joining Sporting Cristal as a free agent he’s looking fresher and more dynamic – it’s incredible to think that no European sporting director is looking at him. I know he’s 32, but he still has a lot to offer. On the other hand, the same could be said of almost all Peruvian players. Underrated by everyone but appreciated by Gareca. This especially falls behind as NYCFC’s Alex Callens and Boca Juniors’ Carlos Zamabrano formed the Peruvian version of the Bash brothers of the Mighty Ducks. They work very well together and their physical dominance will be very important against Australia.
The last thing on your mind is this sentiment about Peruvian football and our adoration for the World Cup. It comes from struggle, not success, and that’s why – in my mind – this will always be the largest fan base in the world. Because it’s born of pain. In the words of Nolberto Solano, who continued to address me ¡Qué Golazo! a few months ago: “For us, we’ve always had to do it the hard way. We’ve had to suffer and even now, until the last time, we will always suffer,” he said. When you hear the Peruvian team sing the national anthem, it’s a literal cry of joy and reflection. It’s a call to unity, both on and off the pitch.
Viktor Frankl once said: “Whatever is supposed to give light must burn”, and that could also be an Inca proverb. Nothing comes easy to Peru. Nothing.
Monday’s venue may be Qatar, but as mentioned, there’s little doubt you’ll see and hear plenty of red and white inside and outside the stadium. These chants are historical reminders of heroic achievements from the past that hopefully can bring Peru to present glory.
Oh, and it’s my birthday on Monday too. Hopefully the celebrations are twofold. In any case, I drink Pisco Sours.
Ariba, Peru. Siempre contigo.
Table of Contents
- Game: World Cup Qualification – Intercontinental Playoffs
- Date: Monday 13 June | Time: 2 p.m. ET
- Location: Al-Rayyan Stadium – Ar-Rayyan, Qatar
- TV: FS1 and Telemundo | Live broadcast: fuboTV (Access now)
- Opportunities: OFF +350; DRAW +210; PER-140 (via Caesars Sportsbook)