Brazil's massive talent gap leaves Peru needing another superhuman effort in Copa America final
Brazil and Peru will do battle on Sunday to be crowned kings of South America, as they meet in the Copa America final (stream it at 4 p.m. ET on ESPN+). Ahead of their contest, Gabriele Marcotti looks at how the pair got this far and how they'll match up at the Maracana.
Brazil went into the Copa America as heavy favourites, despite the loss of Neymar to injury before the tournament, and that hasn't really changed. Coach Tite has restored pride and enthusiasm to the Green and Gold following the fallow years under Luiz Felipe Scolari and Dunga and remains very popular. His brand of football is very team-oriented, and in some ways, Neymar's absence has been a blessing in disguise in that regard.
Peru reached the semifinal of the Copa Centenario in 2016 and qualified for their first World Cup in 36 years in 2018. Buoyed by tremendous fan support everywhere they go, the Incas hoped to be dark horses in this Copa America.
Road to the Maracana
Brazil knew they'd be facing packed defenses and opponents looking to counter, and that's pretty much what happened. They overcame Bolivia with three second-half goals in the group-stage opener, were held by Venezuela in a scoreless draw and trounced Peru 5-0. It was one-way traffic against Paraguay as well, though their opponents hung in there to take them to penalties. The biggest test -- in a mental as well as footballing sense -- came against Argentina and Lionel Messi, but they advanced 2-0, despite some VAR controversy and the opposition hitting the crossbar twice.
Peru were also held by Venezuela and had to come from behind to get past Bolivia 3-1. The heavy loss to Brazil needs to be seen in context (Peru knew they had qualified), but it might still be a harbinger for the final. They were hammered again by Uruguay in the quarterfinal -- the opposition had three goals disallowed, and Peru failed to record a single shot on target -- but hung in there to advance on penalty kicks. Underdogs against Chile, they finally clicked into gear, beating the defending Copa America champions 3-0, and turned in their best performance of the tournament. This is their first final since they won the competition way back in 1975.
Missing in Brazil: Neymar
Brazil's third all-time leading goal scorer (behind Pele and the original Ronaldo) was ruled out of the tournament with a ligament injury a month ago. It was his third major injury in the past two seasons. He has had legal issues and is embroiled in speculation linking him to a move away from Paris Saint-Germain. Given all that, the absence of the world's most expensive player might have been a case of addition by subtraction, as Brazil have looked more cohesive and dynamic without him.
Missing in Peru: Jefferson Farfan
The veteran forward hurt his knee in the defeat against Brazil, and while he brings plenty of experience and technical ability, he's also 34 years old, and the legs aren't what they once were. Peru coach Ricardo Gareca seized the opportunity to redesign his flanks by inserting Andre Carrillo and Edison Flores, both of whom were very effective against Chile.
Brazil's Golden Oldie: Dani Alves
By his count, he has lifted 39 major trophies in his illustrious career, and he was part of the last Brazil side to win the Copa America back in 2007. He has the right combination of edginess, quality and experience, and he was a huge part of the win over Argentina.
Peru's Golden Oldie: Paolo Guerrero
He turned 35 on New Year's Day, and though the acceleration of old is gone, he has a knack for sniffing out opportunities. Already Peru's all-time leading scorer, he's also the fifth-leading scorer in the history of the Copa America.
Brazil's X factor: Alisson
If everything goes according to plan, he'll have a quiet afternoon, barking instructions at his defenders and occasionally participating in buildup play. If not, his saves and presence could make all the difference for Brazil. Arguably the best keeper the Selecao have had in years -- maybe ever -- he last conceded on international duty way back in March and was the least-beaten keeper in the Premier League last season.
Peru's X factor: Luis Advincula
Supposedly, he's officially the world's fastest player, which is why he gets compared to Usain Bolt. Speed kills, and his runs from right-back, if not properly tracked, can wreak havoc on the Brazilian back line.
Brazil will win because ...
Top to bottom, they are far more talented. They haven't conceded a goal in this competition; credit to Alisson in goal but also to a defence that is three-fourths composed of PSG players (yes, the link goes well beyond Neymar). They have creativity and brains in the middle (Roberto Firmino as a false nine and Philippe Coutinho slipping into the hole) and flat-out burners out wide (Gabriel Jesus and Everton). They're also at home and have a whole range of tactical options off the bench: more forwards such as Willian, Richarlison and David Neres, more creative midfielders such as Lucas Paqueta, and more reliable defenders such as Eder Militao and Joao Miranda.
Peru will win because ...
They probably won't, but if they do, the noisy contingent of Peruvian fans at the Maracana will give them a lift. Renato Tapia and Yoshimar Yotun were exceptional against Chile and can disrupt Brazil's possession, while goalkeeper Pedro Gallese, not exactly the epitome of consistency, is capable of huge performances. Brazil have rarely been attacked with gusto in this competition -- save for a spell by Argentina, which rattled them -- and Gareca is a naturally front-foot type of coach. Plus, there's a romantic element to it and maybe a bit of history: The last team to lose by five goals in a major tournament and still advance to the final (West Germany in the 1954 World Cup were beaten 8-3 by Hungary) went on to win it.
Brazil 2-0 Peru: Factor in the home crowd, the talent gap and the 5-0 result in the group stage, and this looks to be a decidedly one-sided affair. It would take a stellar effort, like the one against Chile, for Peru to stay in this game. The question is whether the Incas have more than one superhuman performance in them.