Having played some stunning football in the early rounds of CONMEBOL qualification to record emphatic victories over Ecuador, Chile and Brazil, this burgeoning Paraguay side were South America’s form team for much of the qualifying process before eventually falling away to finish a highly creditable third. Although the Guaranies have never made it beyond the second round of a World Cup, the draw has been relatively kind to Gerardo Martino’s side and progression to the last 16 – where they would likely face the Netherlands – should be well within their reach. Indeed, with doubts persisting over Italy’s form going into the tournament, should Paraguay top Group F it wouldn’t necessarily be a great shock.
As has been well-documented, Salvador Cabanas, the team’s top scorer during qualifying, was tragically shot in the head earlier this year during an altercation in a Mexican nightclub and, although he miraculously survived the incident, the striker will certainly miss the World Cup. With Cabanas out, Nelson Valdez should step in at centre forward to spearhead the Paraguayan attack, although the Borussia Dortmund striker perhaps lacks the talismanic qualities of Cabanas. With the shooting having clearly affected the whole squad, Martino’s side might well have been brought closer together by the incident, galvanised with a desire to perform for Cabanas, a motivating factor for the Guaranies which should not be underestimated this summer.
Tactically, Argentinian Coach Martino likes his team to play a 4-3-3 with a conventional flat back four and a central midfield three with Christian Riveros (now of Sunderland) acting as the team’s playmaker, flanked by Enrique Vera of LDU Quito and Wolfsburg’s Jonathan Santana. However, it is in attack where the team’s most gifted players can be found. Forming an attacking trident, Roque Santa Cruz – the second highest scorer in Paraguay’s history – is usually deployed down the right side, with Benfica’s tall and powerful Oscar Cardozo on the left and, as I’ve already touched on, Nelson Valdez in the centre, an attacking trio with more than enough ability to trouble even the Italians’ fabled defence and make up for a perceived lack of creativity in the midfield.
As Paraguay embarks upon its fourth consecutive foray into the World Cup, its fans certainly have reason to be optimistic. This is an accomplished and close-knit group of players that, under the stewardship of the astute and popular Martino, could be ready to shock a few of the “bigger” sides in South Africa.
Probable starting XI: Villar (Real Valladolid); Veron (UNAM), Caceres (Atletico Mineiro), Da Silva (Sunderland), Morel (Boca Juniors); Vera (LDU Quito), Riveros (Sunderland), Santana (Wolfsburg); Santa Cruz (Manchester City), Valdez (Borussia Dortmund), Cardozo (Benfica)
The Road to South Africa: 3rd in CONMEBOL qualification
World Ranking: 30th