Peru's World Cup quest faces Kiwi test

WELLINGTON: High-flying Peru open their World Cup play-off against New Zealand on Saturday as red-hot favourites to win the two-legged tie and end a 36-year absence from football's showpiece tournament.

On paper, it should be no contest — "Los Incas" are currently at an all-time high of 10th in the Fifa world rankings, above the likes of England (12), Italy (15) and fellow South Americans Uruguay (17).

Oceania champions New Zealand lie 112 places beneath them and no team in play-off history has overcome such a ranking discrepancy to reach the World Cup.

But Peru suffered a major blow in the lead-up to the first leg in Wellington when goal-scoring talisman Paolo Guerrero of Brazilian giants Flamengo was suspended over an "abnormal result" from a drugs test.

They also face a potentially tricky opponent in New Zealand, with skipper Winston Reid (West Ham) marshalling the defence and striker Chris Wood (Burnley) looking to continue his fine form in the English Premier League.

The physical All Whites want to avoid conceding away goals at Wellington's Westpac Stadium, piling further pressure on a young Peru team already shouldering a huge weight of expectations.

The South Americans have not qualified for a World Cup since 1982 and President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski made it clear when the team left for New Zealand that they were carrying the dreams of a football-mad nation.

"We are all warriors and we are going to win," he told the players.

"I know that Peru will win and I am here to wish them all the best. Good luck! Victory! Victory!"

The Wellington match will take place in front of a sell-out 38,500 fans with the return leg on Nov 15 at the Estadio Nacional in Lima.

The winner books a place in the 2018 World Cup finals in Russia.

Coffee ban

Peru have qualified for the finals four times — 1930, 1970, 1978 and 1982 — making the quarter-finals in 1970.

New Zealand have made two finals appearances — 1982 and 2010 — exiting the latter campaign undefeated after three draws in the group stages.

Peru were fifth in the hotly-contested South American confederation but will undoubtedly miss Guerrero, who is serving a preliminary 30-day ban after testing positive for a stimulant.

Their Argentine coach Ricardo Gareca will have to overhaul his forward line to account for the loss of Peru's captain and top goalscorer.

He also faces the challenge of keeping his players sharp after the marathon trip to New Zealand, which is a 14-hour flight and 18 hours time difference from Lima.

"They have forbidden us the coffee, some other things that keep you awake, all that adds up to be able to get to the game well," goalkeeper Pedro Gallese said.

All Whites coach Andy Hudson said New Zealand players were accustomed to travelling halfway around the world for matches but it would be a new experience for the Peruvians.

"Just the travel alone for Peru is a big thing — the jetlag, the foreign conditions — things that we are now used too," the Englishman said.

Hudson may have inadvertently given Peru extra motivation by admitting they were always his preferred opponent as South American qualifiers went down to the wire with Argentina and Chile also in the mix to face New Zealand.

"I feel, out of all of them, we can take confidence out of having to play them," he said.

He added that the Wellington fans needed to show passion and help New Zealand deliver a result that gave them a chance of heading to Lima with their qualification drive still on track.

"Every mistake (Peru) make, the crowd needs to be all over it — it just adds to the pressure and we need that," he said.

"Our home fans for this game really are a 12th man." — AFP