WELLINGTON (Reuters) - Paolo Guerrero’s ban for a failed doping test has deprived Peru of their talismanic skipper for the intercontinental playoff against New Zealand but the South Americans remain strong favourites to reach their first World Cup finals in 36 years.
Oceania champions New Zealand host the first leg of the playoff in Wellington on Saturday (0315 GMT) with the second leg set for Lima next Wednesday.
Peru, who battled through a tough South American qualifying campaign to make the playoff, lost Guerrero, 33, when he tested positive for a stimulant after a match on Oct. 5 and was given a preliminary 30-day suspension.
Guerrero has scored 32 goals in 83 appearances and his presence on the field is one of the main reasons Peru are so close to a fifth finals appearance, but first since 1982.
While his absence could have a huge impact on the playoff, Guerrero’s team mates are standing behind their skipper.
“Yeah we support him in all the things that he says and everything,” midfielder Renato Tapio told reporters in Auckland earlier this week.
“He is our captain and he is always going to be. We just need to be calm and be focused on those games that we need so, we just have to be focused on it.”
Grabbing the playoff place through the South American qualifying zone has seen Peru jump to 10th in the world, while Anthony Hudson’s side, who romped through Oceania qualifying to reach a third successive intercontinental playoff, are 122nd.
One of the reasons behind the All Whites’ low ranking is that they have played so few games, particularly against top-tier nations, in the World Cup cycle. Only 10 of their 22 matches since 2015 have been against teams from outside Oceania.
Five of those 10 games were part of the Confederations Cup campaign in June. New Zealand lost friendlies to Northern Ireland and Belarus before losing 2-0 to Russia and 2-1 to Mexico, before being crushed 4-0 by Portugal in the tournament.
While results have not met Hudson’s bold predictions, the team have shown signs of improvement under the son of former Chelsea and Arsenal midfielder Alan Hudson since he succeeded Ricki Herbert in 2014.
They drew 1-1 with the United States and lost 2-1 to Mexico last year, while their recent 2-1 defeat by Japan showed they can be competitive against higher-ranked sides.
The 36-year-old Hudson has arguably his strongest team available for the playoff with Burnley’s Chris Wood to lead the attack and West Ham United’s Winston Reid marshalling the defence.
“We have all the best players available. The team has grown and is as strong as it ever has been since I have been here,” Hudson told FIFA.com.
“We have some good balance in terms of having strength all over the pitch. Now we have to take all these good performances against top teams, and we have to really believe.
“That is the next step for us.”
Editing by Peter Rutherford