Can Peru become improbable Copa America champions?
Background image: Sachin Daluja, CC BY-SA 2.0
An eventful Copa America has seen the usual disappointment and surprises that come with every tournament. While Luis Suarez's Uruguay and Lionel Messi's Argentina have experienced the former, Peru has been the shock package. Lacking any world-class talent doing major things in Europe, or any top league for that matter, the Peruvians have been a classic example of football being more about team play than individual effort.
Organisation, resilience and taking chances at crucial times have been the hallmark of Ricardo Gareca's men as far as the current edition of the competition is concerned. And that has produced tremendous success. That's the case for the two-time Copa champions because getting to the final has been a surprise for a side that has long been an also-ran both on the continent and at the world stage.
After making it to the World Cup last summer, an early exit from the group stage was the best the team could muster. The same may have been expected by some at the 2019 Copa America. Grouped alongside tournament hosts and favourites Brazil, in-form Venezuela and Bolivia, the chance of progressing was slim. With the Selecao and Venezuela in pole position to finish first and second, it was a straight battle with Bolivia for a victory that could open the backdoor to sneak into the next round as one of the third best-placed teams.
Fortunately, things worked out perfectly for La Blanquirroja as a point against Venezuela and a 3-1 win over the Bolivians helped seal passage. Losing 5-0 to Brazil in the other group match counted for nothing at this stage. But a date with Uruguay in the semis appeared to be the end of the road, at least on paper.
Yet, despite being second-best all game, the wasteful Uruguayans chose the wrong day to have a bad outing on the pitch. A goalless draw after full time led to penalties. Luis Suarez's miss proved to be the decider, handing Peru a semi-final ticket.
A 3-0 whitewash of Chile remains the biggest shock of the tournament so far as the defending champions bowed out unceremoniously. The Peruvians now find themselves in the final. Problem is they face top dog Brazil. Having received a thorough beating in the group stage yet bounced back to reach the final can the unthinkable happen?
The home team may have been rid of star man Neymar, but the array of talent still on display can overwhelm any side on their day. Manchester City's Gabriel Jesus and Liverpool's Roberto Firmino have been instrumental to the side and got the needed goals against Argentina in the semi-final. A midfield anchored by Real Madrid's Casemiro and Barcelona's Arthur can be expected to dictate play. Paris Saint-Germain's back line has kept Alisson Becker almost on holiday for the better part of the games.
But experienced captain Paolo Guerrero and midfielder Jefferson Farfan who have helped marshall the team, and youngster Edison Flores who scored in both wins against Bolivia and Chile as did the 35-year-old captain, the Peruvians can pull another surprise.
Unfortunately, the hosts have enough quality to keep them quiet. Tite's men will most likely carry the day. But that doesn't mean the match will see a repeat of the group stage result. Having grown steadily in the competition, Peru will give a good fight this time around.