Peru's poor away record the first piece of business for new boss Gareca
There are now six Argentine coaches in charge of the ten South American nations --- and there would seem to be little doubt that the last one to be announced faces the most difficult task.
Ricardo Gareca was unveiled on Monday as the new coach of Peru, the team which has not qualified for the World Cup since 1982 and seems to have gone backwards while others on the continent have made progress.
An illustration of the size of the challenge he is facing comes from recent results in the Copa Libertadores, South America's version of the Champions League. Back in 1997 Sporting Cristal were only narrowly defeated in the final, with a fine team including Nolberto Solano and several of the members of a national side who only failed to qualify for France '98 on goal difference. Since then, however, the scenario could hardly be more dismal. Peruvian clubs have rarely qualified from the group stage of the competition. Only once did a side get as far as the quarterfinals -- in 2013, when the newly founded Real Garcilaso, making their debut in the competition, mounted a surprise challenge.
Garcilaso were backed by the advantage of playing their home games at the altitude of Cuzco. Last year, in their second campaign, they won their opening match at home to Cruzeiro of Brazil. It was the last time a Peruvian team won a match in the competition. Both Garcilaso and league champions Universitario were bundled out of the competition without a trace. This year traditional giants Alianza Lima were embarrassingly beaten 4-0 at home by little Huracan of Argentina in the qualifying round.
Sporting Cristal have thrown away leads in both their matches -- drawing 2-2 away to Guarani of Paraguay after opening up a two-goal margin, and then contriving to snatch a draw from the jaws of victory at home to Deportivo Tachira of Venezuela; Cristal were a goal up inside the last three minutes. They gave away an equaliser, and then managed to miss a last minute penalty. The country's other representative are Juan Auruch, the 'northern cyclone' from Chiclayo, who were reduced to a harmless breeze in their opening 3-0 defeat away to Tigres of Mexico. In all, Peruvian sides have now gone 15 games without a win in the Libertadores.
Thursday, though, would seem to offer the perfect opportunity to bring that run to a close. Aurich are at home to San Jose of Bolivia -- on paper the weakest team in the group. And the Peruvians may also be favoured by the truly dreadful artificial pitch in their home stadium. Installed for the Under-17 World Cup a decade ago, the synthetic surface usually turns the game into a dismal spectacle. No one enjoys playing on it, but at least the Aurich team are accustomed to its eccentric bounce. The sad truth, then, is that any wins that the club manage at home to San Jose, or other group opponents River Plate and Tigres, are automatically devalued by the state of the playing surface. Perhaps much the same is true of Real Garcilaso's wins at altitude -- which robs the unacclimatised visitor of a significant part of his athletic capacity. The away team at altitude usually find themselves gulping for oxygen in the thin mountain air.
There has been some discussion inside Peru on whether the national side should play its home matches at the altitude of Cuzco, rather than at the usual base, the sea level capital of Lima. Gareca, in his opening press conference, refused to rule out this course of action.
And yet it would surely be a mistake. Firstly because the vast majority of Peru's best players are lowlanders, who would not necessarily derive any advantage from playing at altitude. But also because it is a move which fails to address the problem -- Peru have failed to qualify for recent World Cups not through any deficiencies in front of their own fans, but as a result of an appalling away record.
Since narrowly missing out on France '98, Peru have played 35 away games in World Cup qualification. The record: Two wins, six draws, 27 defeats, with 22 goals scored and 78 conceded. Their last 21 trips have yielded a grand total of one point.
This, then, is the problem that Gareca needs to address. Perhaps he can take some inspiration from that surprise Real Garcilaso run to the last eight of the Libertadores two years ago. As well as winning at altitude, they also ground out some away wins with a combination of organisation and gritty resilience -- the second of which has been almost entirely absent from the away displays of the national team. If Gareca is going to get Peru back on the right track, he has to improve their record on the road.
Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.