SARANSK, Russia (Reuters) - Peru did everything but find the back of the net during the 1-0 loss against Denmark in their World Cup opener on Saturday and having all-time leading scorer Paolo Guerrero sitting on the bench for an hour did not help.
The Los Incas qualified for the World Cup finals after a 36-year absence, defeating New Zealand in a two-legged inter-continental playoff to book their tickets to Russia.
Their campaign got a timely boost last month when Guerrero was allowed to take part in the tournament after the Swiss Federal Tribunal agreed to temporarily lift a 14-month doping ban pending an appeal.
Guerrero made his return in Peru’s white and red-slashed colours in fine style, scoring twice in a 3-0 win over Saudi Arabia in a friendly on June 3 but was missing from the starting line-up in the Group C match against Denmark on Saturday.
The 34-year-old watched from the bench as his side ran the Danes ragged with their crisp, short-passing game but failed to convert the array of chances including a first-half penalty that was sent high over the bar by Christian Cueva.
It took a goal from Denmark’s Yussuf Poulsen just before the hour mark for Peru coach Ricardo Gareca to press Guerrero into action and the difference was palpable.
Gareca said he did not want to change the combination that had seen Peru remain unbeaten for 15 matches since 2016.
“I don’t know what to say. That was the decision we made,” the coach said. “We decided that’s the most convenient really to have that starting XI without him. All the players had been playing for a long time together.
“Bear in mind that Paolo is a very important player but he was the last one to come in to the national squad.”
Guerrero was banned after he tested positive for a cocaine byproduct, which he said he ingested unknowingly when he thought he had been given herbal tea for a flu.
He almost scored an equaliser immediately after coming on when he leapt past his marker to get a header on to a cross but it flew straight into the hands of Denmark goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel.
Guerrero continued to be a threat in the box and also came close when his audacious backheel from a melee trickled past a helpless Schmeichel and the post.
“I really think he played very well,” Gareca said. “He was very fast when he went on the pitch. He was right up to the pace of everyone else and I think that’s crucial.”
While Gareca might consider giving the marksman a start in the must-win match against France on Thursday, Guerrero said he will be ready for any role.
“It was hard to be a substitute, but it was the decision of the coach,” he was quoted as saying by Spanish news agency EFE. “It’s okay if he wants me there. If he wants me to start the next game I will be ready.”
Reporting by Sudipto Ganguly; editing by Pritha Sarkar