Peru excite, but lapse in concentration and missed penalty cost them vs. Denmark
The result was a disaster, but there was so much to admire in Peru's return to World Cup action for the first time since 1982, even though they went down to a cruel 1-0 defeat to Denmark.
It is worth recalling that Peru got nowhere near qualifying for recent tournaments and that two years ago they looked very unlikely to reach Russia. The team's away record in World Cup qualification was, until recently, something from the chamber of horrors. From mid-2004 until late 2016 they failed to get a single win on the road, with two draws and 26 defeats, scoring just 14 goals and conceding 70.
Their story, then, is one of remarkable progress under coach Ricardo Gareca. The Argentine looks a little as if he played guitar for Steely Dan in the 1970s, but he has rolled back the years to produce a side to match some of the best teams of Peru's past. Certainly at World Cup level, Peru have seldom played better than they did in Saransk.
There were few signs of the obvious pitfall: that of the team being overwhelmed by the importance of the occasion. In the buildup to Russia, Gareca has worked hard to ensure that his side do not drop too deep and invite crosses into their penalty area. Under pressure, this advice was not forgotten.
Against Denmark, Peru came up the field and played the ball with their new found confidence, giving all the hallmarks of a well-coached side. They continually work three- and four-men moves, and then switch play to the opposite flank, making diagonal progress as they move down the pitch. Several times they caught out the Danish defence and often came close to breaking the deadlock.
The best example was the penalty won (with the aid of VAR) and then badly missed by Christian Cueva near the end of the first half. It came at the end of a fine passing move, orchestrated by Cueva, but the little playmaker is mercurial, and in this case the pressure of the occasion proved too much, as he ballooned the ball over the bar.
Distraught at his wastefulness, Cueva had to be helped off the field at half-time by his teammates, but he hit back well after the break. And so did the team after going behind to a Yussuf Poulsen goal just before the hour mark.
The test of a team always lies in how it responds to going behind. Does it possess the talent and the mental strength to respond? Peru certainly did, and while Denmark had the occasional chance on the counter attack in the remaining half hour, the bulk of the game took place at the other end, with the Danes having to strain every defensive sinew to keep Peru out.
Paolo Guerrero came on to give the attack a focal point, while Andre Carrillo was flying down the right wing. Chances were created, danger threatened, and in the end a draw was the least that Peru deserved. Instead they went down to a defeat which, with France next up, could mean that their return to the World Cup ends early.
And that is because there was one aspect of the team's play that did not work as well as expected.
The most important member of the side, the player who balances out the team, is central midfielder Renato Tapia. Strong and well balanced, he has been winning the midfield battles and was superb against Lionel Messi late last year when Peru drew 0-0 away to Argentina.
But there were a couple of moments when he seemed to lose concentration, allowing Christian Eriksen to run behind him. One, in the first half, cost him a yellow card as he was forced into a foul on the edge of the area. The other, after the break, cost his team the vital goal. A single, simple pass behind Tapia left Eriksen in space to skip away and slip Poulsen behind the defensive line to beat goalkeeper Pedro Gallese and steal the three points.
Going into the game with a record 15-game unbeaten run, Peru needed everything to work perfectly to make it 16 and give themselves a good chance of reaching the second round. A missed penalty by Cueva and a lapse of defensive discipline from Tapia prevented that from happening.
Now Peru must get something from Thursday's game against France. Neutrals will hope they can do it -- their lively supporters would be missed, and on the evidence of this 90 minutes, their team would be missed as well.
Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.