New Zealand and Peru left to ponder tactics for World Cup playoff return
As they took the field in Wellington for the first leg of their World Cup playoff, Peru's players were greeted with a Maori challenge. They looked on with studied indifference. But how would they deal with the test that New Zealand would provide?
The experience was on the New Zealanders side -- a Confederations Cup appearance in June, a World Cup playoff against Mexico four years ago and even the 2010 World Cup, where they went out in the group stage without suffering a single defeat. Peru, meanwhile, are striving to reach the World Cup for the first time since 1982 -- and it's 20 years since they have come this close.
New Zealand stated their intentions. Straight from the kickoff they launched long into the Peruvian penalty area. But their aerial threat was severely diminished. Because this match was a tale of two missing centre-forwards.
Peru, of course, were without their captain and star man, Paolo Guerrero, who failed a drug test and has been handed a provisional 30-day suspension.
But the bad news for New Zealand was that their target man, Burnley's Chris Wood, was suffering from a muscular problem and was not fit to start the game. He lurked on the bench, and the Kiwis languished without him. They had no like-for-like replacement. Attacking midfielder Marco Rojas was pushed forward, with Kosta Barbarouses operating behind them -- an attack without the physical presence to give the team an attacking platform.
Peru did better with their replacement. The veteran Jefferson Farfan, who normally attacks from wide spaces, was sent up front -- and proved to be the most dangerous player of the first half. His pace gave Peru the option to play long; he chased one punt upfield, and as keeper Stefan Marinovic and centre-back Winston Reid dithered, Farfan stuck out a boot and sent the ball goal-bound. Marinovic had to scamper back to stop it trickling over the line.
Farfan then won a header, nodding the ball down for playmaker Christian Cueva, who wastefully shot over the bar when he could have sent a return pass to slip Farfan clean through.
Peru, then, settled as the better side -- though, as so often, a thin line separated relative success from potential disaster. Midfielder Yoshimar Yotun was fortunate to receive just a yellow card for a vicious elbow pounded in to an opponent's back. There could have been no complaints had he been sent off. Peru would have faced a sterner test and the headlines might have been dominated with the observation that coach Ricardo Gareca's young side had buckled under the pressure of the occasion.
Gareca's opposite number, Anthony Hudson, tried to change the game after the break, sending midfielders Clayton Lewis and Ryan Thomas further forward in support of the front two. But the best chance was for Peru -- Aldo Corzo meeting a corner from the right with a header that forced a sharp save from Marinovic.
The real game changer was the entrance of Wood after 73 minutes. He immediately announced his arrival, firing a free kick over the wall and forcing Pedro Gallese to tip round the post. The whistle had already gone for an off the ball incident, but the point had been made. New Zealand would now be a more potent force -- providing they could get players up and around their striker.
Twice they can close to breaking the deadlock. Alberto Rodriguez cleared unconvincingly from Wood, and Barbarouses appeared to shoot wide when well placed. And a cross from the right was headed out and fell for a Thomas shot that shaved the post.
Peru were rocking. They sent on combative midfielder Pedro Aquino to steady the ship, forcing New Zealand back -- and the last chance of the match fell to Aquino, who fired wide.
And so it finished level, with no away goal for Peru -- something both teams will be pondering as they make their marathon journey to Lima.
Peru will go into Wednesday's return game as favourites -- but they may well be wondering whether Wood will be fit enough to make a more meaningful contribution in the decisive second leg.
Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.