The World Cup is one week away, and if you are a soccer fan, it is hard not to be anxious for the tournament to begin. In anticipation of the first Group F match on June 14 (Italy v. Paraguay) I will post of preview of the other three teams in Group F, to help Azzurri fans see the competition in the group stage. Also, I would encourage everyone to visit EPL Talk and cast their votes on which squads will advance from the group stage.
Manager – Gerardo Martino
FIFA Ranking – 31
Schedule – Italy (6/14), Slovakia (6/20), New Zealand (6/24)
Qualification – Second place, CONMEBOL
Big name player– Roque Santa Cruz (Manchester City)
Last time did not qualify for WC – 1994
For many experts, Paraguay is considered the second team most likely to advance from this group. The nation is playing in its fourth consecutive World Cup but has never advanced past the second round. To advance even further, it needs to rely on its defense while hoping its thin front line and inexperienced manager can come through when needed.
Paraguay finished a convincing second in the tough CONMEBOL, only one point behind first place Brazil. In qualifying they won matches versus Brazil (2-0), Argentina (1-0), at Chile, and at Columbia, with a draw at Argentina. But the big story in the lead up to the World Cup was the shooting of striker Salvador Cabenas in March, prompting his temporary retirement from soccer and depriving la Albirroja of a very talented striker.
Cabenas’s absence means the club will further need to rely on Roque Santa Cruz, the Premier League veteran who notched three goals in 18 EPL matches this season. He is one of four players on the squad who played in England this year, and Serie A fans will recognize midfielder Edgar Barreto, who starred for Atalanta this season. But other than those, most of the players have made their careers in South American leagues. The stars of the 1998 and 2002 squads that have retired are being replaced by players that are veterans of the Paraguay squads that won the Milk Cup in 2002, 2003, and 2006.
One place where there is glaring inexperience is on the bench. Manager Gerardo Martino was appointed in 2007, and this will be his first World Cup as a manager or player. He was successful at the club level in Paraguay, but the difference between the national league and the world stage may place Paraguay at a slight disadvantage, especially against experienced squads like Italy. He favors a 4-4-2 formation with Santa Cruz and Nelson Haedo Valdez (Borussia Dortmund) up front.
Defense is the key for la Albirroja, as the club tends to play tight in the back and wait for opportunities to counter. The keeper is Justo Villar, who made 15 appearances in La Liga for Real Vallalodid but has only seven minutes experience in the World Cup. He has, however, appeared in multiple Copa America tournaments. Cristian Riveros in the middle is the key to the counter – the left winger will lead the breaks and push the ball to the forwards to create scoring chances.
But Paraguay is vulnerable to experienced teams that maintain possession. And this is why they are an excellent first match for the Azzurri, an experienced and disciplined club. Italy certainly has more talent, and if they dominate possession and take advantage of their scoring chances, the Paraguay match offers them an opportunity to build positive momentum into the next round. But sloppy and undisciplined play and they could have problems with Paraguay, casting doubt on their repeat chances.
Paraguay has the talent to advance and cause problems for the Italians, as well as advance into the round of 16. But anything more than that may be too much to ask. But what do you think?