When a group of students from the Inca Garcilaso de la Vega school in Cusco founded a new football club on the 28th July 2009, they surely could not have imagined that less than four years later that same club would be competing in the Copa Libertadores, much less that they would be on the verge of qualifying for the knockout stages. But following a crushing 5-1 victory over Cerro Porteno on Wednesday that is indeed the reality of Real Garcilaso.

It has been a meteoric rise for the young club, whose remarkable year-on-year progress has seen them emerge from the complex web of Peru’s lower divisions to establish themselves as a team capable of upsetting the country’s proven order and of putting together a credible challenge on the continental stage.

They made steady progress in their first two years of existence, but things really kicked into gear when Freddy Garcia joined as coach ahead of the 2011 season. Garcia, a former assistant to current Chile boss Jorge Sampaoli, had previously led both Total Clean and Cobresol to the top flight. He repeated his magic with Garcilaso, taking them to the final of the Copa Peru (a promotion tournament), where they defeated Pacifico 3-2 on aggregate to secure a place in the Primera Division.

Upon promotion, Garcia displayed a keen eye for talent, picking up the likes of Andy Pando, Fernando Alloco and Jhoel Herrera from other teams in Peru, and Fabio Ramos from Paraguayan club Nacional. Garcilaso took the Primera Division by storm, finishing second in league play before losing out to Sporting Cristal in the championship final. Ramos pulled the strings in midfield, providing 12 assists; Pando scored a league-high 27 goals.

Alloco and Pando both left at the end of the year, but Garcilaso, emboldened by their highly promising debut campaign in the top flight, invested as required to cover those departures and improve the overall quality of the squad. Edwin Retamoso and Mauricio Montes joined from inside Peru, while Paraguayans Victor Ferreira and Oscar Gamarra were brought in from elsewhere.

Montes, Ferreira and Gamarra were all among the scorers on Wednesday as a comprehensive victory gave Garcilaso an excellent chance of progressing. Allied to away wins over Cerro and Deportes Tolima and a home point against Santa Fe, the victory saw Garcilaso move up to second in the group on 10 points. They need just a point from their final match, away to Santa Fe, to reach the last 16.

Surprisingly for a team able to leverage the extreme 3,400m altitude of Cusco to their benefit, until Wednesday it had been Garcilaso’s away performances that had most impressed. They went undefeated at home in league play during their debut season in the Peruvian top flight, accumulating over 75% of their final 82-point haul in Cusco, but picked up just one point from their first two home matches in the Libertadores.

If they do make it through to the knockout stages, Garcilaso can take inspiration from fellow Cusco side Cienciano, who used the city’s altitude to their advantage in winning the 2003 Copa Sudamericana, defeating Universidad Catolica, Santos and Atletico Nacional to reach the final against River Plate. The Argentinian side successfully campaigned for Cienciano’s home leg to be moved to Arequipa, some 1,000 metres less elevated, but still lost 1-0, 4-3 on aggregate.

Even if results do not go their way next week, Garcilaso still have a solid base upon which future triumphs can be built. While traditionally successful clubs like Alianza Lima and Universitario are mired in debt and bureaucracy, Garcilaso are able to operate efficiently without the baggage that comes with century old institutions. The club’s well-appointed headquarters includes modern gym and medical facilities, and they also own a youth club in the nearby district of Pisac.

Like Universidad San Martin, who were founded in 2004 and had won three league titles by the end of the decade, Garcilaso look set to establish themselves as a force in Peruvian football. And with the altitude of Cusco on their side, there seems little reason to suggest that they cannot also continue to shake up the order in the Libertadores.

Goal of the Week

Fabio Ramos (32) – Real Garcilaso vs Cerro Porteno

Ramos was the heart of most of Garcilaso’s best play on Wednesday and it was only fair that he should get his name on the scoresheet, which he did, in spectacular fashion, with a free-kick that found the back of the net via the inside of the post.

Player of the Week

Juan Manuel Salgueiro (30) – Olimpia

Olimpia rounded off the group stage with a 4-1 demolition of Newell’s Old Boys, inspired by an excellent performance from Salgueiro, a tricky second striker who on his day can be a real handful. He opened the scoring from the penalty spot, scored the third with a superb low strike from outside the area and also provided the assist for one of Juan Ferreyra’s double. On current form, few teams will want to meet Olimpia or Salgueiro in the last 16.

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