Peru, Denmark ride unbeaten runs into World Cup clash
SARANSK, Russia (AP) — Neither Peru nor Denmark has lost in 18 months.
If that streak ends for either squad in their Group C World Cup opener on Saturday, it could spell serious trouble for the loser.
The group also includes France, which is seventh in the FIFA World Rankings and was the runner-up at Euro 2016.
So the pressure is on — again. But Peru and Denmark are used to that by now. They each needed sustained unbeaten streaks just make through qualifying after stumbling out of the gate.
Denmark dropped two of its first three World Cup qualifiers, including a 1-0 upset at home to Montenegro.
Led by explosive star Tottenham Hotspur midfielder Christian Eriksen, the Danish Dynamite responded with six victories and three ties during their final nine qualifiers. That run included a 4-0 rout of qualifying group-winner Poland and a 5-1 demolition of Ireland in the second leg of a two-game playoff to secure Denmark's fifth World Cup appearance and first since 2010.
Eriksen was a scoring machine during that pivotal unbeaten stretch. He finished with 11 goals during qualifying, highlighted by his hat trick against the Irish. He has become known as "King Christian" among Danish soccer fans, who see him as their leading source of not just scoring, but hope of emulating the Danes' surprising European title in 1992.
Denmark's Norwegian coach, Age Hareide, doesn't dispute that the 26-year-old Eriksen is a major star. But he thinks Eriksen's success with Denmark has a lot to do with his competent supporting cast.
"It's not quite true that Denmark is over-dependent on Eriksen," Hareide said to AFP after a training session in the Black Sea town of Anapa this week. "We have a team that works for him.
"It's not a one-man show."
Peru managed just four victories in its first 12 qualifying matches, after which it appeared likely that the Incas' World Cup drought would reach four full decades.
Instead, Peru went 4-0-4 in its final eight qualifying games, including a 2-0 triumph over New Zealand at home to clinch a spot in Russia — its first World Cup appearance since 1982 .
The clinching victory came despite the absence of top striker Paulo Guerrero after the Flamengo star was suspended for testing positive for a banned substance. Initially, the 34-year-old Guerrero's suspension was set to block his long-awaited World Cup debut. But the penalty was reduced, allowing Guerrero to play alongside young Aalborg winger Edison Flores and 33-year-old Lokomotiv Moscow forward Jefferson Farfan.
Guerrero scored five times during World Cup qualifiers, but has played only a few matches since being suspended in November. There's doubt about whether the Peruvian captain can find his usual form, but Peru gained encouragement from his two goals in a 3-0 exhibition victory over Saudi Arabia.
Now, pressure will be high on him to deliver performances that took him to Bayern Munich from 2004 to 2006. But that's better than missing out on Russia entirely, which would have happened if not for a late-hour legal victory in an appeal before a Swiss supreme court judge.
Kasper Schmeichel has the same surname as Denmark's greatest goalkeeper. His father, Peter, was known as "the Great Dane" while starring for Manchester United and serving as Denmark's keeper from 1987 to 2001.
The elder Schmeichel already toured Saransk's Mordovia Arena for his TV show, calling it a place of "special interest" because it's the place where his son will make his World Cup debut for the national team. The elder Schmeichel said he expected the sight of his son on the field to be "very emotional."
Ricardo Gareca broke Peru's heart when his goal for Argentina prevented the Incas from advancing to the 1986 World Cup. Now the 60-year-old coach is set to lead Peru onto a World Cup pitch for the first time since.
While qualifying started poorly, Gareca's steady emphasis on youth and teamwork eventually yielded a more reliable defense, a fluid midfield and a potent attack.
While Danish media have estimated about 5,000 fans will support Denmark in Mordovia Arena, Peru expects to be buoyed by more than 35,000 supporters. Peruvians were highly visible in Moscow on the day of the World Cup opener and are likely to provide a boisterous presence in Saransk, a relatively quiet city of about 300,000.
"We will be locals in those three World Cup matches," Peruvian midfielder Pedro Aquino said.
Associated Press writer Mauricio Savarese contributed to this report from Saransk.