Beneath Paraguay's seductive skin lurks the fearless heart of the Bull

A note of caution as Acuna the 'conductor' orchestrates a symphony of style and substance
Click to follow
The Independent Football

As an indicator of a country's footballing pedigree, being landlocked between Argentina and Brazil is one thing; being deadlocked by Wales is something else entirely. Nevertheless, there was plenty in Paraguay's performance in Cardiff to confirm that England's first World Cup test in Frankfurt on 10 June will be anything but a formality.

A certain Ryan Giggs was willing to testify to that. "If England take this lot lightly or don't perform then they will find it very, very difficult," warned the Welsh captain from the bowels of the Millennium Stadium an hour after his side had escaped with a goalless draw. "Technically, the Paraguayans are very good; they keep the ball well and are very organised at the back, with a real keenness to go forward. But then any team coming out of that South American group are going to be decent, aren't they? And I'm sure the English boys will be well aware of it."

If they are not, they will be once the scouting report hits the FA's well-worn mat. On the face of it, this result was nothing for Sven's spies to write home about, but the Paraguayans' style would have had them scribbling all the way up the M4. England's alarming propensity to sit back and allow opponents time on the ball would play directly into the Albirroja's white-and-red hands. As one of the world's top 10 exporters of bananas, they appreciate how easy it can be to slip up, especially in an opening game of wary footsteps.

"One thing England mustn't give them is too much respect and drop off," said Giggs. "We did that in the first half and made it far too straightforward for them. At half-time, we felt if we upped the tempo all over the pitch, from the back four with the speed of our passing and so on, then we could cause them some problems, and we did that.

"One thing they didn't seem to like was when we played it direct, and we had a bit of success running at them from deep. Like any South American team they're more used to the slow build-up and then the play quickening up in the last third.

"England can hurt them in that respect, and although I wouldn't dream of telling Wayne [Rooney] and the other boys how to go about their business, if they produce the sort of the incisive football they're capable of, then I think they'll beat them."

Giggs was careful to insert caveats, however, not least the Paraguayans' age-old ability to mark the perceived danger men out of the game. "Their central defenders don't half get close to you," confessed Giggs, and the 32-year-old was quick to point out that their most destructive force was not on view. "They've got Roque Santa Cruz to come back and he must be watched," he said, alluding to the Bayern Munich forward who is recovering from a knee injury. "He's a terrific striker - big, powerful and good in the air."

But the man he was chalking up on the board thickest of all was Roberto Miguel Acuna, the midfielder who has won more than 100 caps. "Everything goes through him, he's their most important player. He sits just in front of the back four and controls their passing game, dictating the pace. Like I said, Acuna orchestrates everything."

Anibal Ruiz, the Paraguay manager, calls the Deportivo La Coruña veteran the "conductor". Nicknamed "Toro" ("Bull") for his burly physique and similar temperament, the 33-year-old was credited by Ruiz as being instrumental in their World Cup qualifying group victory against Argentina, the highlight of a campaign effulgent with them.

"Take Toro out of the game, take us out," said one Paraguayan journalist last week. "But that won't be anywhere near as easy as I make it sound." For Acuna not only represents Paraguay's mind but, it seems, their heart too. And there is plenty of it.

"We will never, ever give in," said the naturalised Argentinian, his grunts suggesting the Spanish interpreter earned his euros. "I remember an incident from the 1995 Copa America in Uruguay which, I think, shows we are used to things arriving the hard way. We arrived for training at a stadium one day during the tournament and found it all locked up. No matter, we didn't moan or throw tantrums. We simply blocked off the road outside, lined out a pitch on the tarmac and did our practice there."

If Wednesday was anything to go by, they must have caused havoc on the adjoining roads as well, such is their love of having a shot from distance.

Paul Jones, the 38-year-old who earned the bubbly for standing up to this never-ending fusillade, looked the opposite of a man who had dodged a thousand bullets. "I've never seen anything like it," said the evergreen goalkeeper. "Paul Robinson will have to be careful as they will strike it from anywhere - and I mean anywhere.

"I think the ball they will be using in Germany is an adidas, which will be even lighter than the ones we have over here. The balls are going to be moving for fun, which could be tricky, as these Paraguayans certainly know where the goal is. Their strikers were having a pop from everywhere. In fact, their full-backs were having a pop from everywhere. Anything within 40 yards was fair game."

A South American, in a World Cup, shooting from 40 yards? For David Seaman's sake, don't even go there. Yes, England will be wise to watch out.

Diary dates: Countdown to Germany 2006

7 MAY: Last day of Premiership.

15 MAY: Deadline for squad announcement - may be postponed at request of Sven Goran Eriksson and Germany coach Jürgen Klinsmann.


30 MAY: England v Hungary, Old Trafford.

3 JUNE: England v Jamaica, Old Trafford.

5 JUNE: England squad arrive at training camp near Baden Baden.


10 JUNE: England v Paraguay, Frankfurt.

15 JUNE: England v Trinidad & Tobago, Nuremburg.

20 JUNE: England v Sweden, Cologne.