Ricardo Gareca Is Breathing Life Into Unfancied Peru
By Nick Dorrington (@chewingthecoca)
At the turn of the year, Peru looked unlikely candidates to make the last eight of the Copa América. Without a coach and having lost six of their previous eight matches against South American opposition, a difficult group-stage draw seemed to condemn them to an early exit. It does, then, say a lot for the superb work of Ricardo Gareca and his staff that following their 0-0 draw with Colombia on Sunday, the quarter-finals now await.
If that feat in of itself seemed improbable, the fact that two of the team’s best performers have been a pair of attacking midfielders whose last call-ups came back in 2012 makes it even more remarkable. Christian Cueva and Joel Sánchez both have checkered pasts but have both been excellent in Chile, and they were again key on Sunday.
Starting in the wide midfield positions in a 4-4-2 (or 4-2-2-2), they regularly drifted infield into the half-spaces in behind Colombia’s central midfielders to help link together their side’s attacks, while also tracking back diligently with their opposing full-backs out of possession. Sánchez had two good attempts on goal during the second half, the second of which came after Cueva had cut in dangerously from the left to set him up.
Cueva’s talent has always been clear, but he has struggled to produce regular displays worthy of it. He has established an unwanted reputation as a flimsy and inconsistent performer, whose spells outside of his homeland yielded little return. He impressed only sporadically during a brief spell in Chile with Unión Española and played under 40 minutes of football in season-long loan at Rayo Vallecano in Spain.
The 23-year-old began the 2015 Peruvian league season with two red cards in three matches for Alianza Lima. There were suggestions that this combustible streak would see him left out of the final Copa América squad, and there were many who criticised his eventual selection. Gareca, though, saw a rough diamond – a player who with close attention and coaching could be a difference-maker during his early days as national team coach.
His faith was repaid almost immediately as Cueva pounced on a defensive error to fire Peru into an early lead against Brazil in their opening match of the tournament. The Trujillo-native followed that with two more bright and disciplined performances against Venezuela and Colombia that played an important role in seeing Peru through to the last eight.
It is Bolivia, another surprise performer, who await Gareca’s side in Thursday’s quarter-final in a fixture that will provide their other attacking midfielder with an opportunity to extinguish old demons.
In October 2012, Sánchez tested positive for the stimulant methylhexaneamine following Peru’s World Cup qualifying draw away in La Paz. He was banned for two years and spent the time squirrelled away at the training facilities of San Martín, determined to retain his fitness. Gareca called him up on the back of impressive form since his return to action at the turn of the year and has been rewarded with a series of busy and productive displays.
The two attacking midfielders have not been the only surprise performers of Peru’s campaign. Carlos Ascues has been unexpectedly assured in an unfamiliar centre-back role, while Pedro Gallese has made some vital stops in between the posts. But they are the most symbolic of the excellent job Gareca has done in his short time with the squad. Confident in their use of possession yet hard-working out of it, they embody the values he has instilled.