Chile must see off Peru attack to win first Copa America trophy on home soil
In their 3-1 quarterfinal win over Bolivia, the Peruvian attack was an impressive sight. Hat-trick hero Paolo Guerrero is an imperious centre-forward, Jefferson Farfan on the right is strong and skillful Claudio Pizarro adds physical presence and touches of class.
These three are 31, 30 and 36, respectively, which leads to a question: how can a generation with these attacking resources have gotten nowhere near qualifying for a World Cup?
Peru last made it through in 1982. Four years later, they came very close to qualifying at the expense of eventual champions Argentina -- current Peru boss Ricardo Gareca, representing the land of his birth, had a hand in the Peruvians' failure. In 1998, only goal difference deprived them of a trip to France (they finished even on points with Chile). But since then, there has been nothing. Peru have not even come close.
Part of the explanation lies in their record on the road. Since that 1998 near-miss, they have played 35 World Cup qualifiers away from home. The sad statistics are as follows: two wins, six draws, 27 defeats, with 22 goals scored and 78 conceded. The last away win was an excellent 3-1 triumph against Uruguay on June 1, 2004, when Pizarro and Farfan were both on the score sheet. Since then they have drawn 2two and lost the other 22 away games they have played.
There would seem to be a considerable mental aspect to this remarkably awful record. Playing away in South America is not easy. There are long journeys, climatic differences and intimidating atmospheres. But other teams less gifted in attacking resources have done much better. It seems that, time and time again, the Peruvians have collapsed in a hostile environment when things start to go against them.
All of this is now relevant because standing between Peru and a place in the final of the 2015 Copa America is a genuine away game. So far they have lost to Brazil, beaten Venezuela, drawn with Colombia and beaten Bolivia -- all on neutral ground. Now they have to go into the Estadio Nacional in Santiago and face a Chilean team backed by a capacity crowd; a Chilean team only two games away from making history by winning the Copa for the first time.
This, then, will be a test of the Peruvians' mettle. So far the defensive unit has looked solid. Athletic keeper Pedro Gallese is having an excellent tournament, as is the strong and composed centre-back Carlos Ascues, but the bar has now been raised. They now face a nation.
Chile, of course, will be without defender Gonzalo Jara, awarded a three-game suspension after confusing the functions of proctologist and centre-back in the quarterfinal against Uruguay. His quick, unfussy play will be missed.
So who will coach Jorge Sampaoli choose to put the finger in the dyke of his defensive line? There are a few options. Jorge Rojas would probably be the most natural choice to slot into the middle of a back four, because he is a genuine centre-back. Miiko Albornoz, a left-back by trade, and Francisco Silva, a midfielder, have also been used in Chile's defensive line.
But whomever replaces Jara, the priority will be on marking tightly down the flanks to stop the supply of crosses to Guerrero and Pizarro at its source -- something Bolivia failed to do in the quarterfinal. Sampaoli is concerned about Peru's double acts on the wings; full-back Luis Advincula and Farfan on the right, and Juan Manuel Vargas and the tricky Christian Cueva, a revelation in this tournament, down the other side. Chile will aim to get tight on them, strangle the strikers' suppliers and impose themselves on the game.
Peru will welcome back from suspension the central midfield pairing of Josepmir Ballon and Carlos Lobaton, who will have key roles attempting to stem the Chilean tide. Can they get a grip on playmaker Jorge Valdivia?
So far in the tournament, the twinkle-toed, mischievous Valdivia has fully justified the faith that Sampaoli has shown in him. Around Valdivia there is a whirl of movement -- the powerful surges of Arturo Vidal, the artful dodging of Alexis Sanchez, Mauricio Isla powering down the right or Charles Aranguiz through the middle. Valdivia makes sense of it all with the timing and imagination of his passing. Never a natural athlete, in the past he has had problems sustaining his level of performance throughout a tournament.
But this is his moment. And if he rises to the occasion, it should be Chile's, too.
Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.