Peru remain in World Cup contention thanks to Ricardo Gareca’s excellence

Italy might not be going to the World Cup, but an Italian is doing his best to help Peru make it to Qatar.

Gianluca Lapadula played up front for Italy early in his career, but only in friendlies. So he was still free to represent the land of his mother’s birth of him. He had never even been to Peru before he gave up on Italy and switched footballing nationalities.

The 32-year-old surely he has no regrets over his choice, and the Peruvian public are more than happy to have him, especially after he scored the vital early goal that put his team on the way to a 2-0 win at home to Paraguay on Tuesday. The victory ensures that Peru finish fifth in South America’s World Cup qualification table and will head to Qatar in June for a playoff against either Australia or the United Arab Emirates.

Colombia and Chile took the field for the last round hoping that Peru would slip up. Chile went down to a melancholic 2-0 home defeat against Uruguay, surely bringing an end to the era of the country’s golden generation. And, with a James Rodriguez penalty, Colombia did their bit by winning away to Venezuela. Colombia would have claimed the playoff spot if Peru failed to win. But by the time they scored, Peru were already two goals up and Lima was in party mode.

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The first goal was vital. The longer the game remained goalless, the more nerves would be rattled. So taking the lead in the fifth minute was even better than Peru could have hoped for.

There were reasons for Peru to be nervous. Their main attacking talent, winger Andre Carrillo, was out injured — others had to step up. They did. Playmaker Christian Cueva, the unpredictable enfant terrible of Peruvian football, curled a wonderful pass from the left, taking out defender Omar Alderete — and Lapadula, so astute on the shoulder of the last defender, coaxed a first time volley off the post and over the line.

But was it too soon? The crowd let out a gasp when Sergio Pena hit a loose back pass. Paraguay striker Carlos Ferreira latched on, ran towards goal and fired a shot that clipped the bar on the way over. It was, perhaps, just the scare that Peru needed to stay focused and keep doing the simple things.

And it is this — doing the simple things well — that has served Peru so well and given them a chance of making it to their second consecutive World Cup. The achievement of Argentine coach Ricardo Gareca is nothing short of remarkable. In the 2010 and 2014 qualifiers — the two campaigns before Gareca took over — Peru’s away record was straight from the chamber of horrors: No wins, one draw, 16 defeats, with 11 goals scored and 46 conceded.

The current crop of players are not noticeably better. Domestic Peruvian football is in crisis, and is producing little in the way of quality. Lapadula is one of the very few players to have emerged since the last World Cup. And yet Gareca has wielded the team into a competitive unit, a whole that adds up to much more than the sum of its parts.

It is rare to see a Peruvian player in isolation. He usually has options for a quick pass. They play tight little triangles and switch the play to the opposite flank. They attack and defend together, and good results have formed a much tougher mentality. The vital game of the entire campaign was the visit to Colombia two months ago. Peru were battered for almost the entire game. Before Gareca they would inevitably have collapsed. Now they held on, and won the game in a rare late breakaway — and it was that result that ensured that Peru went into the final round with their fate in their own hands.

Once again, Gareca used a Copa America to regroup and rebuild. They made a poor start to the 2014 qualifiers, and used the 2016 Copa America Centenario as a new starting point on the way to Russia 2018. After last year’s Copa America they languished on the bottom of the qualification table and, once again, have rebounded with such force that they find themselves in the playoff slot.

Only runaway leaders Brazil and Argentina picked up more points than Peru in the rounds since the Copa America. And now they hope to carry this momentum into the playoff, where they will meet either the UAE or Australia, a side they beat 2-0 four years ago in Russia.

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