After ending a 36-year drought in making its first World Cup appearance since 1982, Peru now sets out to end a 40-year winless drought in football’s biggest tournament Saturday when it faces Denmark in its Group C opener in Saransk.
This is the first trip to the World Cup for the Incas since finishing last in Group A in Spain in 1982. One has to turn back the calendar four more years for their last World Cup victory as they advanced to the second round in 1978 with wins over Scotland and Iran before going winless in a second group stage and finishing eighth.
Denmark’s absence from the World Cup is notably shorter as it returns after missing out in 2014. The European country crashed out in group play in it last appearance in 2010, a far cry from the Danish Dynamite sides that reached the knockout rounds in 1986, 1998 and 2002 in their first three World Cup appearances.
HOW THEY GOT HERE
Peru started South American qualifying as the fourth-lowest ranked squad of the 10 countries with a FIFA ranking of 50 and lived up to that form with four points through its first seven matches. But veteran strikers Paolo Guerrero and Jefferson Farfan meshed well with a younger set of teammates in the midfield as the Incas claimed 22 of a possible 33 points in the final 11 qualifiers to claim the fifth and final spot out of CONMEBOL.
The Incas secured that spot on the final matchday, sweating out a draw versus Colombia while Brazil beat Chile 3-0. That two-goal swing was enough to give Peru a better goal difference than the reigning Copa America champions with both teams on 26 points.
But Peru still had work to do in the form of an intercontinental playoff versus Oceania representative New Zealand. After earning a scoreless draw on the road in the first leg, Farfan and Christian Ramos scored goals on either side of halftime to give the Incas a 2-0 aggregate victory and a spot in the World Cup.
Like its South American counterpart, Denmark also had to navigate the playoff route to punch its ticket to Russia. The Danes finished second to Poland in Group E during European qualifying and were paired with Ireland in a two-legged playoff. After a scoreless draw at home, Christian Eriksen took matters into his own hands in Dublin, scoring three goals as Denmark overturned an early deficit and recorded a 5-1 victory.
Even with its flameout in South Africa eight years ago, Denmark has proven to be a tough out in group play, compiling a 7-2-3 record in its four appearances.
Both teams are fond of the 4-2-3-1 formation, and Peru’s defense has been impressive with the turn of the calendar year, conceding just once in their five friendlies while going 4-1-0 in their World Cup preparation. Ramos and Alberto Rodriguez form the spine of the Incas in central defense while Yoshimar Yotun and Renato Tapia providing support in the midfield.
The magic, though, is in Peru’s attack where Christian Cueva pulls the strings looking to set up Guerrero and Farfan. The duo have 59 goals in international play, and winger Edison Flores will be no stranger to Denmark after spending the past two seasons with Aalborg in the Danish Superliga.
Guerrero and Farfan are Peru’s most senior players with 88 and 84 caps, respectively. Rodriguez and Yotun are tied for third with 74, while Ramos (68) and Luis Advincula (67) are the other players with more than 50 appearances for the Incas.
Denmark has a strong No. 1 between the sticks in Kasper Schemichel, who backstopped Leicester City to the Premier League title in 2016 and is the son of legendary keeper Peter Schemichel. Talisman Simon Kjaer and promising Chelsea product Andreas Christensen anchor the central defense.
Eriksen has license to roam freely in the midfield, and the Tottenham Hotspur is one of the more creative players at the World Cup. While the Danes will be without injured first-choice striker Nicklas Bendtner, who has 30 goals in international play, Nicolai Jorgensen and Yussuf Poulsen could form a potent trident of attack with Eriksen.
Midfielder William Kvist is the most senior player on Denmark’s side with 80 caps, with Kjaer and Eriksen right behind him at 78. Fellow veteran midfielder Michael Krohn-Dehli is the last of the four Danes with at least a half-century of caps, amassing 59.
PLAYER TO WATCH
Peru – Paolo Guerrero (F)
The World Cup is a second lease on international play for Guerrero, who was originally set to serve a ban for testing positive for benzoylecgonine, the active ingredient in cocaine. But the team captains for the other three teams in the group wrote in support of suspending the ban so Guerrero could play in the World Cup and then serve the balance after they complete play. He scored twice in Peru’s 3-0 victory over Saudi Arabia earlier this month and is the country’s all-time leading scorer.
Denmark – Christian Eriksen (MF)
Eriksen put a huge target on his back by carrying Denmark past Ireland in the European playoff and is no stranger to the big stage after helping Spurs reach the knockout rounds of the Champions League and totaling 14 goals and 12 assists in 48 matches across all competitions.
A very cerebral player, Eriksen is important to Denmark in terms of controlling the tempo and exploiting an opponent’s weakness in addition. He is also a willing defender who mastered backtracking as part of Spurs’ two primary formations as they used both a 3-4-2-1 and 4-2-3-1.
RUMORED TO MOVE
Eriksen is reportedly drawing interest from reigning three-time Champions League winner Real Madrid, which saw how good he was first-hand as Spurs recorded a win and a draw in group play. Schmeichel could be tipped for a move to Liverpool, which is in need of a commanding presence between the sticks to mount a title challenge against Manchester City in the English Premier League.
Per Ladbrokes, Denmark is a slight favorite at 11-8 odds, with Peru listed at 11-5. There are also 2-1 odds for the teams playing to a draw. Guerrero and Jorgensen are joint-favorites for the first goal of the match, getting 9-2 odds, while Eriksen is further down the list at 6-1 odds. Farfan is the second-best option for Peru at 13-2.
There is not much to separate these teams. While Peru may have the better finishers in Guerrero and Farfan, Denmark has the best playmaker on the field in Eriksen, and that could make all the difference. On paper, the Danes also have the better shot-stopper in Schmeichel, though he did have an up-and-down season in the Midlands with Leicester City.
Peru is a very cohesive unit, and surviving the grind that is South American qualifying is nothing to be scoffed at. The Incas defeated three World Cup teams in their run-up, and the Danes did not concede in their final four friendlies. Denmark looked impressive in its final tune-up, a 2-0 victory over Mexico, and also played a full-strength Chile to a scoreless draw in March.
A 1-1 draw seems like the most logical result for this opener, but when anything is possible in the World Cup, a moment of magic from Eriksen will prove decisive as Denmark opens with a 2-1 victory.
Denmark will face Australia in Samara on Thursday, while Peru moves on to face group favorite France earlier that day in Ekaterinburg.