“For the first time in 36 years” is a context Peru men’s national team has heard often over the last eight months, but judging by how Ricardo Gareca approached his team’s third game of the 2018 World Cup, the phrase hasn’t lost any of its value.
Although the coach’s Blanquirroja, in the World Cup for the first time since 1982, were already precluded from advancing in the tournament, the team setup for their finale against Australia as if the competition was in the balance. Paolo Guerrero? Christian Cueva? Yoshimar Yotún? All key parts of Gareca’s team. All in Peru’s starting lineup.
That was bad news for one of the Portland Timbers’ two players at Russia 2018: Andy Polo. Polo is one of the youngest players in the Peruvian squad, so he may yet have more chances to see time at World Cups. But as his team played out their 2-0 win over Australia, riding goals from Guerrero and André Carrillo to their first World Cup victory since 1978, Polo remained on the bench. When Peru flies home in the coming days, Polo will do so with a zero in the minutes column.
We’ve talked about this before, how international rosters are almost too large to effectively use, and players toward the end of them have to craft different ways to define their World Cups. For Polo, a player who had appeared in two of his national team’s five games leading into this tournament, this outcome was always a possibility. Although these games could have broken differently, and his possession play could have proved valuable in some late-match scenarios, Gareca’s needs never matched Polo’s attributes.
For Timbers fans, it’s tempting to ask why. Why, when your tournament is already over, did you not give him some time? Any over two losses before this, how did Polo not see the field? That’s easy for us, people who aren’t experts on Peru’s squad, to say, knowing how well Polo’s played for Portland this season. But for many Peru fans, the chance to escape their group’s cellar may have been more meaningful than spreading minutes across the squad.
This was a team that targeted being competitive at the World Cup. How they played there was almost as important as the fact that they were going, he talked about before he left. For Polo to get playing time merely because Peru’s knockout round hopes were dashed would undermine one of the major reasons the team was so happy to make the World Cup.
They wanted to do their country proud, and in the reactions to today’s win over Australia, you could see Peru’s mission was accomplished. So many onlookers from around the world remarked, in the wake of Tuesday’s result, that Peru had performed better than their record indicated – that they could have easily made the second round. It’s difficult to imagine those conversations would have taken place if Gareca didn’t try and put Peru’s best foot forward.
The second day of closing group games has left half of the Round of 16 bracket full, albeit on different sides of the draw.
On one side, Argentina confirmed a spot in the next round with a dramatic, late winner against Nigeria, with Marcos Rojo’s 86th minute strike earning a 2-1 win and setting up a knockout round matchup with France, whose 0-0 draw with Denmark allowed Les Bleus to claim Group C. The winner of France-Argentina’s match in Kazan on June 30 will face the winner of Uruguay-Portugal, who kick off in Sochi on the same day.
On the opposite side of the bracket Denmark’s draw confirmed a matchup with Croatia on June 1, who had already advanced out of Group D before Tuesday’s 2-1 win over Iceland. Those two face potential quarterfinal matchup with Spain or Russia, who each advanced on Monday.
The Timber that’s left
With two starts under his belt, David Guzmán has avoided Polo’s situation. Though Costa Rica head coach Óscar Ramirez has substituted him off in each game, Guzmán has played at Russia 2018, even if two losses mean los Ticos have no chance of making the knockout round.
That situation leaves Guzmán in doubt for his team’s final starting XI, on Wednesday against Switzerland. Having been pulled off in two losing efforts, Guzmán seems like a prime candidate to be changed, should Ramirez go that route. It’s also possible Costa Rica’s boss will roll with the same XI, though, wanting to put his best team out as Switzerland fight for their place in the next round.
Costa Rica and Switzerland make up one of the two 11:00 a.m. kickoffs tomorrow, with the other Group F game, Serbia and Brazil, kicking off at the same time. Earlier in the day (7:00 a.m. PT), Group E will finish with South Korea facing Germany while Mexico tries to close a perfect stage against Sweden.