Jubilant Peru ready for Brazil test while Argentina need Colombia reprieve
Peru had not won an away World Cup qualifier since June 2004. And then, two weeks ago, their nightmare run came to an end in bizarre circumstances. Back in September, they had lost 2-0 to Bolivia. But their opponents fielded an ineligible player, and so FIFA punished them by awarding the game to Peru by a 3-0 margin. And winning on the road has suddenly become a habit. Last Thursday, 1-0 down to Paraguay at the interval, they turned things around to claim an astonishing 4-1 victory.
"This was the type of performance we have been seeking all along," said coach Ricardo Gareca.
Thursday truly was a great night for Peru. In addition to their triumph, the five teams above them in the qualification table all failed to win. So, with three points handed to them and three more won, Peru are suddenly back in the hunt to make it to their first World Cup since 1982. At present they lie just four points behind third-placed Colombia. If Gareca's men can maintain their form, they can play themselves into contention -- which means Peru must now put an end to Brazil's swaggering, stylish start under coach Tite.
Five wins out of five, the latest victory, a thoroughly comprehensive 3-0 drubbing of old rivals Argentina, have taken Brazil to the top of the table and on the verge of qualification. A total of 28 points has always been sufficient for direct qualification in the past. With seven games to go Brazil already have 24.
Can Peru test their mettle? Can their Brazil-based pair of centre-forward Paolo Guerrero and playmaker Cristian Cueva do some serious damage against Tite's defence? Perhaps the problems might come at the other end. The hosts will surely miss the suspended pair of defensive midfielder Reinaldo Talia and left-back Miguel Trauco. A likely replacement in midfield is Pedro Aquino, enthusiastic and promising, but worryingly hot headed for what has become a crunch game for his side.
It is worth recalling that Peru emerged triumphant from the last meeting between the two teams. A 1-0 win in Boston sent Brazil crashing out of the Copa Centenario and brought the curtain down on the reign of coach Dunga.
Under Tite, though, Brazil are a different proposition. Although the coach will welcome a tough game, he is concerned that things have almost gone too well in his first months in charge. He is well aware that overcoming difficulties is crucial to the maturity of a team. Tite may even relish seeing how his team react to going a goal behind in what promises to be an intense atmosphere in Lima.
Argentina, meanwhile, cannot afford to think along such lines. Down in sixth place in the table, they already have more than enough difficulties of their own -- and Tuesday's opponents Colombia have the potential to make their situation even more desperate.
Colombia have become a team that is highly proficient on the counter attack. Two months ago, they gave Brazil a shock in Manaus before going down 2-1 to a moment of Neymar genius. In the absence of a coherent team, Argentina will heap pressure on Lionel Messi to come up with something similar on Tuesday -- a night when he will have to evade the attentions of Carlos Sanchez, Colombia's specialist man marker. Just over five years ago in the Copa America, held in Argentina, Sanchez produced a superb marking job on Messi in a goalless draw. Their rematch will be the key duel of Tuesday's game.
Argentina can take heart from the absence of both Colombia's first choice centre-backs; Oscar Murillo is suspended and Yerry Mina injured. Jeison Murillo is a highly proficient replacement, but it remains to be seen who will pay alongside him. Coach Jose Pekerman can call on young Davinson Sanchez of Ajax Amsterdam, or the eternally promising Eder Alvarez Balanta, who knows Argentine football well after making his name with River Plate.
And Colombia, meanwhile, would have seen the deficiencies of Argentina's defensive unit, so cruelly exposed by Brazil on Thursday. With the hosts forced to seek a victory, there will surely be space for the Colombians to launch those dangerous counter attacks.
The game takes place in San Juan, one of Argentina's major wine producing regions. Come the final whistle the hosts will either be in the mood for a celebratory drink, or in urgent need of drowning their sorrows.
Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.