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Peru left with mixed feelings after surrendering lead in tie with Ecuador

Christian Cueva Carlos Gruezo Peru Ecuador 4

GLENDALE, Ariz. — Peru knows it easily could have lost on Wednesday, but also felt that a win and an early spot in the quarterfinals were within reach.

Just like their post-game sentiments, the Peruvians’ performance was largely mixed.

Peru played Ecuador to a 2-2 draw in a thrilling Copa America Centenario match on Wednesday night at the University of Phoenix Stadium, but the result was seen in both a positive and negative light by head coach Ricardo Gareca and his players. Peru had jumped out to a dream 2-0 start after just 13 minutes in and was the superior side for much of the first half, but a 39th-minute strike from Enner Valencia helped spark the Ecuadorians’ rally and turned the momentum in their favor for almost the rest of the game.

There was both good and bad, strong play and costly mistakes.

“The first 25 minutes were great and, in general, I like the way my team played,” said Gareca. “But we went up against a side that also has the ability to take control of game. When you don’t have the ball, you need to be able to defend well or counterattack their opponents. I think we did that for the most. The first goal gave them sufficient energy and then them scoring as soon as we start in the second half changed the game.

“We got back into the game after that and had chances to win it. I saw a Peruvian side that played for the win the entire time. Keeping the intensity we had at the beginning for the entire 90 minutes is challenging, especially for us since we have players who are still getting used to playing for the national team. It’s a process and we still have some work to do, but I’m satisfied with some of things I saw.”

That surely includes the two strikes that had Peru sitting pretty 13 minutes into the Group B showdown. Peru sent a warning shot at Ecuador seconds into the match when Paolo Guerrero hit a low shot that was pushed away by goalkeeper Alexander Dominguez, but the Ecuadorians were unable to deal with the oncoming pressure.

Christian Cueva struck four minutes later, receiving an incisive pass from Guerrero, taking a wonderful first touch while spinning to nutmeg Gabriel Achilier, and blasting his open effort home to send Peruvians everywhere into a frenzy.

Happiness turned into pure bliss eight minutes later, as Edison Flores tucked a shot home on an impressive half-turn. Guerrero again was involved in the play, flicking on an aerial ball to Flores before the youngster conjured some magic of his own to give underdog Peru a surprising 2-0 lead.

“We showed what Peru has always been known for: keeping the ball on the ground,” said Guerrero. “We aren’t a team that launches it forward. We keep it on the ground and move it quickly. That is what led to our goals, and what we showed.”

Things took a turn for the worse for Peru after the 39th minute. A poor clearance from centerback Alberto Rodriguez allowed Antonio Valencia to connect with Enner Valencia for a splendid volleyed finish, and Ecuador poured on the pressure from there.

The equalizer came three minutes into the second half when, once again, the Peruvian defense was caught uneven, allowing Jefferson Montero to hit a low cross to Miller Bolanos that just had to be pushed home. Peru’s dream start had disintegrated just like that.

“It’s a tough pill to swallow because we should’ve controlled the game in another fashion,” said Cueva. “But I’m calm because of the effort the team put forth and the fans should be at ease because it’s a young team we have right now that is going to get better. It doesn’t happen overnight.”

Ecuador continued to attack relentlessly after scoring the tying goal and had Peru on the back foot. Still, the Peruvians mustered up some chances of their own, including a last-second shot from Raul Ruidiaz on the counter that just missed the far post.

Things get tough now for Peru, which currently sits in second place of Group B with four points. A match against Brazil awaits, and a win will most likely be needed in order to advance into the knockout rounds. A draw would leave Peru’s fate in the hands of the Ecuador-Haiti result, and Peru does not have a tremendous goal differential after beating Haiti only 1-0 last weekend.

Peru knows that it faces quite the challenge, but believes that reaching the quarterfinals is still an attainable goal.

“We have to keep playing how we’ve been playing,” said Guerrero. “Mentally, we need to believe we can go toe-to-toe with anyone. We don’t have anything to be scared about. We’re going to come out and try to play the same way we started today.”

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