"Going to the World Cup means travelling with dreams and ambitions," says Paraguay's coach, the veteran Uruguay-born Anibal Ruiz. "And straight away we come up against one of the favourites. We want to measure ourselves against the best. It is tremendous motivation, and I'm very confident we'll do it well." There is little chance, then, that England's first opponents will be overawed in Frankfurt tomorrow. The optimism of the coach is reflected in the ranks.
Their captain Carlos Gamarra tips his side to reach the second round at England's expense. "I think Sweden are our most difficult opponents," he says. "England have some good individuals but I haven't seen them click together when they play for the national team."
With 106 international caps, Gamarra has been part of a team that have made extraordinary progress in recent years. "Before, we used to have a midfield that marked very tightly, but there was a lack of people with the ability to set up the play and we almost didn't have strikers."
It was enough to get them out of the group stages in the past two World Cups, and give considerable problems to future finalists in the second round.
Such achievements in themselves are remarkable for an impoverished nation with a population of six million. But now they aim higher. These days they have much more skill to call on. "Paraguay are different now," says Gamarra. "If we get out of the group then we'll go into the second round looking to play our football with a bit of joy, trying to win rather than hanging on and hoping."
Anything less than the quarter-finals will be seen as a disappointment. Such expectations are based on the experience gained in the past two World Cups, the emergence of a talented new generation, and the possession of attacking strength in depth. Their all-time top scorer Jose Cardozo was forced out of the finals after picking up an injury at the weekend. But at 35 he was a fading force. Hopes are pinned on the 22-year-old Nelson Haedo Valdez and Roque Santa Cruz, who had his beanpole frame not proved so injury-prone would surely be part of the global élite. The 24-year-old has declared himself fit to face England in their opening match tomorrow and said it is up to the coach to pick him.
England's firepower has also been giving Ruiz cause for concern. Even before the injury to Wayne Rooney, Paraguay's coach was worried by Peter Crouch. Although Paraguay are traditionally strong in the air, this side suffer from a lack of height in their own area.
Keeper Justo Villar is very short for the position, a reflex stopper happiest on his line. Gamarra and his centre-back partner, Julio Cesar Caceres, are both excellent timers of the tackle, but neither is an aerial specialist. Against the likes of Crouch, Paraguay must not fall into their old habit of dropping back to their own penalty area. "We want the game to take place further up the field," says Ruiz. Stopping the cross at source is a priority, so the inexperienced but dynamic Cristian Riveros may well be given an important role on the left side of midfield, where his task will be to close down David Beckham.
The playmaker Julio Dos Santos has usually featured on this flank, but he is likely to be left out as Paraguay seek to stiffen their marking against the stronger side of the England midfield.
If Santa Cruz is not risked, Dos Santos could feature in the hole behind a lone striker. This could be especially attractive if England do not play with a holding midfielder. There will be space in front of the centre backs that could be exploited - if not by Dos Santos then by Nelson Cuevas, a lithe, elusive dribbler, or even by one of the strikers in a more withdrawn role.
Paraguay's key man, though, is likely to be Carlos Paredes, who alongside the experienced Roberto Acuña will hold the centre of midfield. England's strength in midfield will force Parades to be cautious.
"He'll have to move more horizontally than vertically," agrees Ruiz. "He played this way against Argentina when he closed down the space of Riquelme [last September Paraguay celebrated their first win against Argentina in World Cup qualification]."
Paredes is Paraguay's answer to Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard. His battle against two much more famous adversaries could decide tomorrow's game.Reuse content