Peru are a team transformed, and ageing Chile have no answer in Copa America semifinal
In March, after Peru beat Paraguay and lost to El Salvador, coach Ricardo Gareca mused that his team "are capable of playing anyone on equal terms. But any other team can do the same to us and can beat us." The Copa America has provided plenty of evidence that he was correct.
In its first four games, Peru found the target in only one. Moreover, in its previous two matches, it did not remotely threaten to score a goal. Did such a team have any right to be taking part in a semifinal? Straight out of the blocks on Wednesday in Porto Alegre, Brazil -- against two-time champions Chile, no less -- Peru showed that it did.
This was not the Peru that folded so easily in the group game against Brazil, losing 5-0, nor was it the Peru that held on grimly against Uruguay in the quarterfinal, defending so deep that centre-forward Paolo Guerrero might as well have been on a different continent.
On a cold night in Porto Alegre, Peru wasted no time in showing its other face. It pressed high and aggressively, this time giving plenty of support to Guerrero. Within two minutes, he set up a chance that Cristian Cueva hit wide.
The opening goal, on 21 minutes, had everything to do with the proactive Peruvian approach. It might not have happened had Arturo Vidal not landed badly after jumping for a cross, but he was already outnumbered down Chile's left flank.
Key to the move were the numbers with which Peru attacked. Holding midfielder Renato Tapia competed with Vidal in the area, and the ball broke to Cueva. His cross was nodded on by right-winger Andre Carrillo in the centre-forward position, and left-sided midfielder Edison Flores volleyed home at the far post.
Chile had to chase the game, at which point its age -- eight outfield starters were 29 or older -- became a problem. Back in October, when Reinaldo Rueda was trying to bring young players through, Chile lost 3-0 to Peru in a Miami friendly. Under pressure for results, the coach concluded that he had to recall the old guard, only four of whom played that day.
Rueda has marshaled the resources at his disposal with wisdom, but there is no definitive answer to the effects of time. Chile's style is dependent on throwing full-backs forward, and there were signs that potency remains in attack.
Chile nearly took the lead when left-back Jean Beausejour overlapped and pulled back for Charles Aranguiz to shoot just wide, and after Flores' goal, Chile went close to an equaliser when right-back Mauricio Isla put in a ball across the face of goal.
But how to defend the space left behind? The veterans no longer have the lung power to get up and back, and the buildup to Peru's second goal was symbolic.
A long ball was played into space behind Beausejour. In Chile's glory days of winning back-to-back Copa America titles, keeper Claudio Bravo would have come out of his area and dealt with the problem. He is gone, though, and replacement Gabriel Arias is a safe keeper, but he lacks the same ability as a footballer.
He charged out of his area without competence or conviction, Carrillo drew him and crossed from the right, and Yoshimar Yotun chested down to score with a neat left-foot finish from the edge of the penalty area.
Could the reigning champions react? At halftime, Rueda brought on Arturo Sagal -- a mixture of right winger and centre-forward -- which allowed Alexis Sanchez to drop deeper and set up play. Eduardo Vargas glanced a header against the post, then later latched on to a defensive error, raced away and earned a penalty shot, but he saw his attempt blocked by goalkeeper Pedro Gallese.
Struggling to find the sharpness of old, Sanchez also forced a superb save, with Gallese plunging to his right to keep out a shot that seemed destined to bring Chile back into the game.
Peru's keeper is a symbol of his side's unpredictable nature. A pitiful figure in the 5-0 drubbing against Brazil, he was immense when his side needed him most in the second half Wednesday, and he even managed to rub salt into the wound when the outcome was no longer in doubt.
Guerrero had scored a clever third when, with almost the last kick of the game, Chile had the chance of a consolation from the penalty spot. Vargas went for the Panenka, but Gallese reacted quickly to stand tall and make the save. Peru will surely need its keeper in similar form in Sunday's final against Brazil.
For Chile, meanwhile, an era surely ends. There can be no alternative to rebuilding the side, and the media and public must be prepared for a lean period while new players are blooded. The most glorious phase in team history will come to a close in Saturday's third-place playoff against Argentina, a melancholic repeat of the past two Copa finals, each of which ended with Chilean joy.