The South Americans need to recreate the form of a few years ago, says Henry Mance.
If the World Cup is about peaking at the right time, then someone forgot to tell Paraguay. The Albirroja set the pace in South American qualifying in 2007 and 2008, with wins away to Chile and at home to Brazil, but then stuttered in the later stages. They eventually finished third, which felt like something of a letdown despite their highest-ever points tally. Ã¢ÂÂNo one imagines a perfect qualifying campaign,Ã¢ÂÂ shrugged coach Gerardo Martino.Ã¢ÂÂ¨
Qualification, though, has not recently been ParaguayÃ¢ÂÂs problem. This is their third consecutive World Cup finals. The difference is that this time they were without the golden defensive generation of Carlos Gamarra, Celso Ayala and Jose Luis Chilavert, all now retired. And overall they managed well, conceding fewer goals than any side except Brazil and neutralising Leo Messi in Asuncion.Ã¢ÂÂ¨
But what will make Paraguay worth watching in South Africa is the forward line, built around Borussia DortmundÃ¢ÂÂs Nelson Haedo Valdez. Ã¢ÂÂWe were lucky with the draw,Ã¢ÂÂ says Haedo. Ã¢ÂÂNow weÃ¢ÂÂre hoping to get into the second round.Ã¢ÂÂ If they do that, equalling their best World Cup performances, expect them to show more than the unreconstructed grit that nearly defied France in 1998 and Germany in 2002.Ã¢ÂÂ¨
StrengthsÃ¢ÂÂ¨Paraguay are a hard-working side, strong on team spirit and attacking options. Salvador Cabanas Ã¢ÂÂ the best South American player in qualifying, according to coach Martino Ã¢ÂÂ is still recovering after being shot in January (the bullet is permanently lodged in his skull). But that still leaves Roque Santa Cruz, Oscar Cardozo and Haedo.
Ã¢ÂÂ¨Ã¢ÂÂ¨WeaknessesÃ¢ÂÂ¨Midfield is the problem area. ThereÃ¢ÂÂs a lack of creativity, with naturalised Argentine Nelson Ortigoza the closest thing to a playmaker. And when Paraguay played 4-3-3 in the qualifiers, they were overrun. So Martino has to a job to do if he is to include his glut of attacking talent without leaving the midfield vulnerable.Ã¢ÂÂ¨
Ã¢ÂÂ¨Interesting factÃ¢ÂÂ¨The Paraguayans speak Guarani on the field to avoid being understood by Spanish-speaking opponents. CabanasÃ¢ÂÂ first word after being shot was in the language.Ã¢ÂÂ¨ Ã¢ÂÂ¨
The Coach: Gerardo MartinoÃ¢ÂÂ¨Once a cerebral but average player, Ã¢ÂÂTataÃ¢ÂÂ has become a calm, polite tactician. In other words, heÃ¢ÂÂs the absolute antithesis of fellow Argentine Diego Maradona. Martino made his name winning the Paraguayan league with Club Libertad and Cerro Porteno. Ã¢ÂÂ¨
Key Ã¢ÂÂ¨Player: Oscar CardozoÃ¢ÂÂ¨Nicknamed the Bamboo Tree because of his height, Cardozo is quick with a stinging left foot. CabanasÃ¢ÂÂ absence should give him the chance to reproduce his Benfica form. Ã¢ÂÂHeÃ¢ÂÂs got a special toughness for the big battles,Ã¢ÂÂ says Martino.Ã¢ÂÂ¨
Probable Team (4-3-3): Ã¢ÂÂ¨Villar; Ã¢ÂÂ¨Veron, Caceres, Da Silva, Morel; Ã¢ÂÂ¨Vera, Riveros, Santana; Ã¢ÂÂ¨Cardozo, Santa Cruz, Valdez.Ã¢ÂÂ¨
Fixtures Italy, June 14, 7.30pm, Cape TownSlovakia, June 20, 12.30pm, Mangaung/BloemfonteinNew Zealand, June 24, 3pm, Polokwane
Qualified 3rd in CONMEBOL GroupPeru (A) 0-0Uruguay (H) 1-0Ecuador (H) 5-1Chile (A) 3-0Brazil (H) 2-0Bolivia (A) 2-4Argentina (A) 1-1Venezuela (H) 2-0Colombia (A) 1-0Peru (H) 1-0Uruguay (A) 2-0Ecuador (A) 1-1Chile (H) 0-2Brazil (A) 1-2Bolivia (H) 1-0Argentina (H) 1-0Venezuela (A) 2-1Colombia (H) 2-0
World Cup record1930 1st Round1950 1st Round1958 1st Round1986 2nd Round1998 2nd Round2002 2nd Round2006 1st Round