WELLINGTON, New Zealand -- Since arriving in New Zealand for their World Cup playoff, Peru's players have responded cautiously and patiently to the same question. Not about who might play on Saturday, but who will not.
Paolo Guerrero, Peru's captain and leading scorer, is missing while provisionally suspended for failing a doping test following the World Cup qualifier against Argentina.
The absence of striker Guerrero is the biggest setback Peru faces as it attempts through home-and-away playoff matches against New Zealand to qualify for the World Cup for the first time in 35 years.
There are also the formidable obstacles of travel, time zones and climate which make the match against No. 122nd-ranked New Zealand more difficult than it might have been for 10th-ranked Peru.
Peru's players have tried techniques of sleep deprivation to quickly acclimatize to a new time zone and have padded themselves lavishly against New Zealand's strong winds and cool temperatures.
But Guerrero's absence has been the recurring theme. He scored six times in South American qualifiers and led his team to fifth place. Peru's football association will challenge his suspension with the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Switzerland and, if successful, will have him for the return leg in Lima on Nov. 16.
For now, the South Americans have done their best to treat persistent questions about their captain with respect but indifference.
Edison Flores, whose partnership with Andre Carrillo is one of the team's strengths, is hopeful the Guerrero-size gap will be filled by a player he is not naming.
"It will be someone who has all our confidence and characteristics similar to those of Paolo," Flores said. "We just have to wait for him to adapt to the work so that he does it in the best way."
New Zealand coach Anthony Hudson has said Guerrero is "irreplaceable," taking a neat opportunity to highlight Peru's problem.
"I don't really think they have anyone that is a physical presence like him and who can play the type of game they like to play with him in the team," Hudson said.
But he makes a concession.
"Attacking midfielders, the two who sit in behind whoever plays up front ... they're all quality players. Where people say (Peru goes) direct to Guerrero, they actually play a lot through (Christian) Cueva and Flores and (Yoshimar) Yotun. They've got some very good players through the middle."
Flores, based in Denmark, is one of those players and part of a new generation.
The older generation is represented by 36-year-old New Zealand striker Shane Smeltz and 33-year old Peru forward Jefferson Farfan, both in their last World Cup cycles. Smeltz played for New Zealand at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa but Farfan has never had that experience, which adds urgency to his personal quest in Saturday's match.
Smeltz knows the opportunity to play in football's showpiece will never come again for him.
"It certainly adds to the occasion, I think, knowing that this is definitely or probably my last," Smeltz said. "It would certainly be a fairytale to get to another World Cup.
"I think it's just as exciting, the pressure, the intensity, as it was the first time."
Neither Farfan nor Smeltz have fully realized their youthful potential. Smeltz has played 58 games for New Zealand without matching his young promise and Farfan, whose talent was first recognized at 14, first played for Peru at 19. Now at Lokomotiv Moscow and after 75 caps, the inconsistent Farfan remains a contentious figure in Peru.
But his greatest endorsement may have come from the absent Guerrero, who said come the World Cup playoffs "Farfan will be playing. He is needed in the team."
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