THE QUICKEST goal in France 98 helped unfancied Paraguay pull one of the most glamorous second-round dates, against the hosts on Sunday. But any sense of injustice felt by Spain, the first seeds to be knocked out of this World Cup despite last night's 6-1 defeat of Bulgaria in Lens, will have been compounded by the fact that the South Americans qualified by beating an under-strength Nigerian line-up.
Spain's inability to break down Paraguay last Friday, coming after their opening defeat to Nigeria, proved the pivotal result in Group D. Javier Clemente's glorious failures may also offer up a Gallic shrug this morning when they hear that, following Celso Ayala's opening goal after 53 seconds last night, Paraguay's crucial second was scored by Miguel Benitez, whose day job just happens to be with Espanyol. He should be assured of a warm reception when he returns to pre-season training next month.
Bora Milutinovic, his Nigerian side already assured of winning Group D and a tie with Denmark in St Denis on Sunday, pronounced himself in possession of a clear conscience after naming only five players from the starting XI who beat Bulgaria.
Milutinovic, enhancing his reputation by advancing the cause of the fourth team he has managed in a World Cup finals tournament, rested three players on yellow cards and Daniel Amokachi, who injured himself during the pre- match warm-up. "We had so many problems tonight. We had players injured as well as those on cards," said the charismatic Yugoslav. "We need to protect our players."
Of the late injury to Amokachi, the former Everton forward due to captain the side, Milutinovic was not wholly forthcoming. He would only say: "It is not a major problem but it is better for us he does not play." Asked whether he felt any sympathy for Spain, against whom his team had come from behind to beat in one of the games of the tournament so far 11 days earlier, he said: "I think only of the Nigerian team. I am sorry for the other team that they score six and go out, but my job is for Nigeria."
Nigeria started with all the concentration of an ageing five-a-side outfit still putting out the pre-match fags. Paraguay's necessarily ambitious opening had the resident "Stattos" reaching for their record books but Ayala's headed goal from Francisco Arce's free-kick wide on the right, was still slower than the efforts of Vaclav Masek for Czechoslovakia against Mexico in 1962 and Bryan Robson for England against France in 1982.
Nigeria soon regained their swagger. Wilson Oruma was well-placed to sidefoot the ball home, but the glory in the goal came in the through ball fashioned by Sunday Oliseh to release Tijani Babangida down the inside- right channel. The resulting square pass elicited a simple finish.
With Spain's starting to rack up the goals, Paraguay knew they had to take risks. A wonderfully executed 20-yard strike from Benitez, the one attacking player to stand out for Paraguay in the sterility of the two goalless draws that built the platform for progress, ensured that the South Americans go beyond the first stage of the World Cup finals for only the second time.
Then, with four minutes remaining, Jose Cardozo finally banished all doubts by confirming victory with a shot on the turn from eight yards out.
NIGERIA (4-4-2): Rufai (Deportivo La Coruna); Eguavoen (Torpedo Moscow), Okafor (Kansas City Wizards), West (Internazionale), Iroha (Elche); Babangida (Ajax), Oliseh (Ajax), Oruma (Lens), Lawal (Roda JC Kerkrade); Kanu (Internazionale), Yekini (FC Zurich). Substitutes: Okpara (Orlando Pirates) for Oliseh, h-t; George (Real Betis) for Oruma, 69.
PARAGUAY (4-4-2): Chilavert (Velez Sarsfield); Arce (Palmeiras), Sarabia (River Plate), Ayala (River Plate), Gamarra (Corinthians); Benitez (Espanyol), Paredes (Olimpia), Enciso (Internacional), Caniza (Olimpia); Cardozo (Necaxa), Brizuela (Argentinos Juniors). Substitutes: Yegros (Cruz Azul) for Caniza, 56; Acuna (Real Zaragoza) for Benitez, 68; A Rojas (Union Santa Fe) for Brizuela, 79.
Referee: P Un-Prasert (Thailand).
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