Peru end 36-year wait with unlikely run to first World Cup since 1982
And so the last spot in the 2018 World Cup has gone to Peru, which qualified for the first time since 1982.
For much of South America's marathon campaign it appeared that Peru were to miss out once again. But a stroke of luck -- they were awarded a 3-0 win despite losing 2-0 to Bolivia because their opponents brought on an ineligible player for the last few minutes -- and a strong finish gave them a place in the playoff against New Zealand, and a 2-0 win in Lima on Wednesday was enough to complete the job.
Saturday's first leg in Wellington had finished 0-0. Peru's fear was that New Zealand might grab a vital away goal Wednesday. Peru's hope, meanwhile, was that they could get around and behind New Zealand's three centre-backs. To this end the dynamic Luis Advincula replaced the more defense-minded Adrian Corzo at right-back, and within three minutes he had fired a shot against the bar. On the other flank, left-back Miguel Trauco put in a succession of dangerous crosses.
Chris Wood -- New Zealand's big, imposing centre forward -- was again only fit enough to start the game on the bench. Coach Anthony Hudson was clearly hoping to keep the game goalless for as long as possible and play on Peruvian nerves before unleashing his star striker.
His plan went awry after 27 minutes on a rare occasion when his team were caught upfield. Edison Flores passed long down the left flank for little Christian Cueva to run on and collect. It was just as coach Ricardo Gareca had planned, as Peru got into the space behind New Zealand's wing-backs.
On Saturday, Cueva had wasted a good opportunity to combine with Jefferson Farfan by selfishly going for the shot. This time his decision-making was perfect. He held up the ball for long enough to get in position for a shot. Cueva rolled the ball back and across to Farfan, who emphatically fired home.
It was a moment of extreme joy for Farfan, who celebrated in floods of tears by producing the shirt of his old Lima school colleague, Paolo Guerrero. Guerrero, Peru's captain and centre forward, was suspended for these games after failing a drug test.
The complexion of the game had now changed. New Zealand had to chase, and sure enough, Wood appeared after the interval. Once again he made an immediate impact. The Peru defence were unable to cope with his strength and height. Could New Zealand get enough players around Wood to take advantage of his knockdowns? Or could they supply him with a cross that he could attack front to goal?
Suddenly Peru did not look so assured. The nerves were jangling. Gareca prepared to make a defense-minded substitution, taking off striker Raul Riudiaz and bringing on Yoshimar Yotun to help regain control of midfield.
But before Yotun could make his entrance, the course of the action was altered by a goal from an unexpected source.
Of all the manners in which New Zealand would concede a goal, a corner would not have been high on the list. But Cueva's kick from the right caught two black-shirted defenders in confusion, and the ball fell for Peru centre-back Christian Ramos to fire into the roof of the net. Peru had a two-goal cushion -- vitally important because a defensive error seemed almost certain in such an important part of the game.
New Zealand strained with their high balls. Peru brought on a third centre-back, Adrian Zela, to help deal with the threat. But they came close to putting themselves in trouble, giving the ball away in midfield and allowing Wood to bear down on goal. As keeper Pedro Gallese came out, Wood shot just wide.
There were only four minutes of stoppage time left -- but it would have seemed like forever for a jittery Peru defence had Wood's shot gone in the right side of the post. Instead, the celebrations could start. Peru are back in the World Cup, and Thursday has been declared a national holiday.
Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.