They call Ricardo Gareca, the coach of the Peruvian national team, “The Tiger”.
He was nicknamed as a fearless and tireless striker for Argentina’s teams Boca Juniors, River Plate, Velez Sarsfield and Independiente, and then America de Cali in the Colombia League, where Gareca won two league titles and came second in three Copa Libertadores. Gareca played 20 internationals for Argentina and scored five goals, including one against Peru, putting them out of the 1986. were eliminated World Cup and sent them into a 36-year drought between tournaments.
When Gareca joined Peru as a coach in 2015, he looked calm. “You always have to think,” the 64-year-old tells his players today, pointing to his head. From that foundation of mental strength, unity and discipline, Gareca has built a Peruvian team that, after 40 years, could repeat the feat of their 1978 and 1982 teams in qualifying for successive World Cups if they beat Australia on Monday.
With a revamped squad that includes current stars Edison Flores and Miguel Trauco, Gareca told reporters in 2016 that he had “found the team I was so looking for.” Peru recovered in the second part of the 2018 Russia qualifiers, finishing fifth in South America. In the intercontinental play-off against New Zealand, Peru was tied 0-0 in Wellington, but won 2-0 in Lima to return to the World Cup final. Monuments to Gareca and his players stood through the streets and parks of Peru. ‘Los Incas’ were again the pride of the nation after many years.
At that 2018 World Cup in Russia, Peru’s best moment was a 2-0 win against Australia, their rival in the 2022 play-off on Monday night. From the team that played against the Socceroos in Sochi, between eight and seven players could join the Peruvian starting squad to take on Graeme Arnold’s side.
Although the recent game between Australia and the United Arab Emirates was played on a Tuesday, thousands of Peruvians were as attentive as if it were a weekend game. They saw an Australian team that respects the essence of vertical football and players in very good physical condition with clear strengths in free kicks and corners.
But Peruvians also know that the Socceroos are going through a period of renewal. Key players from 2018 Russia such as Mile Jedinak and Tim Cahill have retired and Australia is no longer that 2006 team with international figures like Mark Viduka, Harry Kewell or Cahill beating Uruguay in the play-offs. Yet it is still possible to identify coach Graeme Arnold’s tactical discipline and see that he has grown players such as Ajdin Hrustic, a champion of the Europa League with Frankfurt.
Path to Playoffs
Peru’s journey to the Qatar play-offs in 2022 was much the same as it was four years ago: a poor start to qualifying, a comeback in the final and a play-off against a team from Oceania (although Australia is now part of the Asian confederation).
To reach Monday night’s play-off against Australia, Peru made an epic comeback, finishing fifth in the South American qualifying rounds. Until June 2021, the Peruvian team was last in the standings with just one point from five games. But with an away win against Ecuador and a solid performance in the 2021 Copa América (where Peru finished fourth), the red and white recovery began.
Since September 2021, Peru has not lost at home and added two more away wins against Venezuela and Colombia to finish in fifth place with 24 points and give Peruvians enough hope to dream of another World Cup.
How Peru plays
Ricardo Gareca usually uses a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 scheme. The main characteristic of this Peruvian team is their excellent handling of the ball. They play with a lot of possession and look for attacking options against every rival. After six years together, Gareca’s team is playing almost by heart.
Players to watch
Peru’s 90-game goalkeeper, Pedro Gallese, is a Peruvian legend and a veteran of the 2018 campaign; Christian Cueva is the most skilled in the team with the ball; André Carrillo is a world-class right winger; and Gianluca Lapadula, a striker born in Italy to a Peruvian mother, has played for Peru since 2020.
One of Peru’s main strengths is that it has kept its core group for the past six years. This team knows each other well, and that will give them a high level of optimism as they face this sudden-death clash.
Gareca has a strong and solid team, but the problems start when one of the 11 starters has problems with a suspension or an injury. Lack of depth is where Peru suffers the most. Gareca has struggled to find key replacements for the past two years. Senior strikers Paolo Guerrero and Jefferson Farfán are both missing for Monday’s game, meaning Lapadula had to appear from distant Turin to cover the ‘9’ place. But outside of ‘El Bambino’ there are not many other names that inspire confidence in the Peruvian attack.
Aside from fears of a second play-off in five years, Peruvians have great faith in their team. The Peruvian government is currently evaluating whether to declare Monday a national holiday. Despite some negative results, especially in 2020, the Peruvian fans have reconciled with their football team this year. It’s a romance that is now at its peak.
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