2010 was an impressive year for Paraguaywith just four losses in 16 games, including a run to the quarter final stage of the World Cup where they fell to the eventual champions Spain. This may not seem like much of an achievement until you consider the fact that Paraguayis the 4th smallest country inSouth America with a population of just 6 million.
With a consistent if not impressive run of reaching the quarter finals of the Copa America every year since 1993, with the exception of 2001,Paraguaywill arrive inArgentinawith a formidable reputation.
History in International Football:
Paraguay was one of the original participants of the inaugural World Cup hosted by Uruguay in 1930 and was a regular fixture in the early years of the tournament, participating in 1950 and 1958. Since then their appearance has been more sporadic, including a 28 year absence between 1958 and 1986. However, they have a growing history, qualifying for the last four World Cups, reaching the round of 16 on two occasions. And despite a poor showing in Germany in 2006, they improved to reach the quarter finals in 2010.
An impressive showing in the qualifiers meant that Paraguay went into World Cup 2010 as one of the form teams, with a record of 10 wins and only 5 losses in 18 games, including victories over Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay. Paraguay became the second team to qualify from CONMEBOL behind Brazil and ahead of continental powers Argentina, Ecuador and Chile. The team had gone through major changes after World Cup 2006 due to retirements of key players including the mercurial team captain Carlos Gamarra, Francisco Arce, Celso Ayala and number one goalkeeper Jose Luis Chilavert. These retirements coincided with resurgence in the form of the Paraguayan youth sides, with the u-19’s winning the Milk Cup three times in four years. Due to this success, many from the team were promoted to and became key contributors to the national squad, most notably Nelson Valdez, Julio Dos Santos, Jose Montiel and Oscar Cardoza.
Drawn into Group F with defending champions Italy, first time participants Slovakia and New Zealand; Paraguay started with a tough test against La Squadra Azzurra. Italy dominated early possession but was to be punished for not putting away their chances when Antolin Alcaraz rose highest to nod home the opener. Things got worse for Italy when veteran goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon was forced off with injury to be replaced by Federico Marchetti. In the second half La Albirroja more than matched Italy with chances at both ends, however, it was a substitution that lead to the equaliser. On 60 minutes Marcello Lippi introduced Mauro Camoranesi who injected a spark into the team. They were level 3 minutes later when Paraguay’s goalkeeper, Villar, flapped at a corner with the ball falling to De Rossi to tuck home making it 1-1. The match ended with a point a piece, but the effects were more significant, Paraguay had proven they could match the best teams in the tournament. With the confidence brimming, La Albirroja dispatched Slovakia with relative ease 2-0 in their next group game, finishing the group with a 0-0 draw against New Zealand to top the group for the first time in their World Cup history. In the round of 16 Paraguay would face a Japanese side that had beaten Cameroon and Denmark to progress. Finishing 0-0 after 120 minutes, the match would go to penalties; Edgar Barreto stepping up first to slot the ball into the left corner before Endo brought it level curling the ball to the right. A casual finish by forward Lucas Barrios was then cancelled out by Japan captain Makoto Hasebe’s powerful blast. Christian Riveros coolly dispatched his penalty before the key moment in the game when Yuichi Komano fired his shot against the bar, the only miss of the shootout. Successful penalties from Nelson Valdez and Oscar Cardozo rendered Keisuke Honda’s score meaningless with Paraguay going through 5-3 to the Quarter Finals. They would face eventual champions Spain in a tense affair; both teams were awarded penalties which were duly saved. Nelson Valdez had a goal crucially cancelled out due to being wrongly called offside. La Albirroja’s dream run in the tournament would end with a cool finish from David Villa on 82 minutes; nonetheless they would be welcomed as heroes when they returned to Paraguay.
Copa America Record:
The two times champions will go into Copa America 2011 brimming with confidence in their tournament credentials after consecutive Quarter Final appearances since 1993.
Despite finishing as runners-up on four occasions from 1921-1949, it took until 1953 to finally take home silverware in the competition. Hosted by Peru, the 23rd Copa America still used a league format which wouldn’t change until 1975. The tournament itself became known for how close the teams were in terms of points gained with 3 teams on 7 points and Paraguay and Brazil level on 8 separated only by Paraguay winning a playoff 3-2 against Brazil. La Albirroja finished with a record of 3 wins, 2 draws and 1 loss including wins against 3 times winners Brazil and Chile.
They followed this success with a win in the 79th edition of the tournament which had taken on a new structure. The teams were drawn into three groups made up of 3 teams each. Instead of one country hosting the tournament however, the participating teams would play each other home and away, with the winner of the group advancing to the semi-finals (Peru qualified automatically for the semi-finals due to being reigning champions). Paraguay would remain unbeaten in the tournament going through to the Semi’s after wins against Ecuador home and away, followed up with draws against 11 times winners Uruguay. Defeating Brazil in the Semi-finals set up a two-legged Final against a Chilean team that had never won the Cup despite participating in every tournament. Paraguay used home advantage to their benefit, winning 3-0 in the first leg; however, Chile showed they deserved a place in the finals winning 1-0 in the second. Bizarrely this led to a Final Play-off despite the 3-1 lead Paraguay held over Chile, albeit this score would become relevant again after a 0-0 in the play-off led to the aggregate score being counted. Since this win, Paraguay has continued to show their pedigree in the tournament, reaching the semi-finals 4 years later and the quarter finals on six occasions in the last 11 tournaments. Despite this consistency, they have not been able to reach the final let alone win the Copa America in the last 32 years.
Domestic Game in Paraguay:
The domestic league (Paraguayan Primera Division) in Paraguay is currently having problems with hooliganism, as well as being the home league of FIFA member Nicolas Leoz, known for asking the England World Cup bid contingent to name the FA Cup after him. The two most successful teams in Paraguay are Olimpia (38 titles) and Cerro Porteno (28 titles).
In 2008, a new rule was introduced stating that there will be two champions each year corresponding to the winners of the two tournaments played during the season, the Apertura and Clausura. This replaced the old system in which the Paraguayan Football Association divided it’s championships into two sections, the Torneo Apertura and Torneo Clausura. The winners of each tournament would then stage a play-off to decide the each year’s champion. However, if the same team won both tournaments then it would automatically become the national champions. Due to this change in format, there has been a larger variation of teams in the National Championship play-offs; however, all of the Champions have been based in Asuncion. In fact, the league has only been won 4 times by teams outside of Asuncion.
Paraguay has made a reasonable impact on the continental stage, certainly more impressive than some larger nations. Success in the Copa Libertadores has been scarce, with only Olimpia winning the tournament (3 times, 1979, 1990 and 2002).
In 2002, Olimpia celebrated their centenary by winning their third Copa Libertadores after a 12 year gap. They started with wins against Once Caldas and Flamengo to win Group 8 before dominating Cobreloa, winning 4-1 on aggregate. In the Quarter-Finals Olimpia made their statement of intent, putting out perennial contenders Boca Juniors. Match ups against two Brazilian teams were next for Olimpia in their quest to take home the title. Gremio (two times winners) would push them all the way, taking the game to penalties which Olimpia won 5-4. Nery Pumpido’s charges would go on to beat Sao Caetano 4-2 on penalties after the two legged final had finished 4-4.
Paraguay’s key players all ply their trade in Europe’s top leagues with only a handful of players still domestically based; in particular Victor Caceres who has 26 caps.
Without a doubt, the number 1 will be team captain Justo Villar after his fantastic performance in the World Cup, conceding just 2 goals. He is also by far the most experience goalkeeper Paraguay can call upon with 87 caps. Other options include young upstart Joel Silver who was recently called up for friendly matches against Bolivia, and the experienced Aldo Bobadilla.
Defensively, the experienced Paulo Da Silva is currently playing for Real Zaragoza and has made 72 international appearances will most likely line-up alongside Antolin Alcaraz of Wigan in a central defensive partnership. In the World Cup, Paraguay lined up in a 4-4-2 with Dario Veron in the right back positions and Morel Rodriguez on the left. In reality it was more of a 3-3-1-2, with Dario Veron making up a back three and Rodriguez moving into midfield allowing Christian Riveros to drift in behind the strikers. However, Rodriguez has not been called up for the most recent friendlies against Bolivia, with Aureliano Torres being his replacement. This could simply be down to Rodriguez’s age, he is 33. Regardless of this, Paraguay will most probably still line-up the same way with Torres on the left and Dario Veron taking his place on the right.
Paraguay will line-up with four midfielders, with Enrique Vera in the hold role distributing the ball to the creative side of the team. Edgar Barreto, Jonathan Santana and Cristian Riveros will complete the midfield. However, if as is possible, Paraguay line up in a 4-3-3 so that they can accommodate three of their fantastic pool of attackers then Edgar Barreto will partner Riveros and Vera. Other options to choose from include Osvaldo Martinez, Victor Caceres and Santana.
Up front is where Paraguay is most dangerous, with star forwards including Nelson Valdez and Oscar Cardozo to choose from. If a 4-4-2 formation is used, then Nelson Valdez will drift in from wide with Cardozo playing target man. Other options include Blackburn Rovers striker Roque Santa Cruz who has 23 goals in 79 appearances for La Albirroja, Lucas Barrios who is in tremendous form after winning the Bundesliga with Borussia Dortmund, scoring 16 league goals in the process; and Edgar Benitez of C.F Pachuca.
Players to watch:
Paraguay’s star player is Sport Lisboa e Benfica striker Oscar Cardozo, who has had a fantastic season in Portugal, winning the Golden Boot award and helping Benfica finish second in the Primeira Liga. Cardozo scored 38 goals including 26 in the league as Benfica won the League Cup. The 28 year-old has scored 5 goals in 38 appearances for Paraguay, and whilst not being a prolific goal scorer, Cardozo is influential in most games, forcing opposing managers to tailor their tactics against him leaving other players with more space to create chances.
Justo Villar is another important part of the Paraguayan set-up, marshalling his defence and constantly geeing up the team. His 87 caps show the experience the 33 year old has and this will be important in the team not getting rattled against the likes of Pato and Daniel Alves with their direct running.
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