Paraguay must buck one of the trends of the World Cup – the ascendancy of European teams over their South American counterparts – if they are to shock Germany and reach the quarter-finals in today's opening second-round match at Sogwipo on the sub-tropical island of Cheju.
Only two of the eight first-round meetings of countries from the two continents ended in wins for the South Americans, Brazil edging past Turkey with a dubious penalty and Paraguay exploiting the pathetic state into which Slovenia worked themselves. In theory at least, Germany, the three-time world champions, should be too strong to let Europe's dominance slip.
However, Germany have yet to be really convincing in this tournament, their 8-0 defeat of a feeble Saudi Arabia notwithstanding. They were deservedly held by the Republic of Ireland and even after they beat Cameroon in a card-strewn struggle, the coach Rudi Völler was candid enough to concede that his side struggled to handle the pressure of being favourites.
During the coach's playing days, Germany expected, nay, demanded and relished, such status. But these are different times – as evinced by the fact that England could win 5-1 in Munich and the Republic of Ireland caught them with a stoppage-time equaliser – and Völler's quest to re-establish them as a genuine global power is being undermined by injuries and indiscipline.
As if the suspension of Carsten Ramelow and the English-based Christian Ziege and Dietmar Hamann were not worrying enough, now even the late replacements for the eve-of-tournament casualties are falling by the wayside. Jörg Böhme, the Schalke 04 midfielder who stepped in for Sebastian Deisler, is now back in Germany after suffering a leg muscle tear.
Against Paraguay, Völler will therefore have only five players from whom to choose his outfield substitutes. Fortunately for him, three key players are performing to the upper limits of their abilities – the goalkeeper Oliver Kahn, Michael Ballack in midfield and the five-goal striker Miroslav Klose – and are tending to carry the rest of the side.
The Paraguayans, meanwhile, will be brimming with confidence, having outlasted two South American neighbours and former holders in Argentina and Uruguay. The prospect of Cesare Maldini, the 70-year-old former Italy coach, leading them to the last 16 seemed remote after England beat them 4-0 in a warm-up fixture at Anfield in April. It seemed even less likely when they fell behind after being reduced to 10 men against Slovenia with 68 minutes left, yet they came through to win 3-1.
Unhappily for Maldini, the substitute who did most to make it possible, Nelson Cuevas, is doubtful for tomorrow's game. The right-winger, who plays for River Plate in Argentina, scored twice but later pulled up chasing a pass and departed on a stretcher. His presence would be a fillip for Paraguay's target man, Roque Santa Cruz, who has pitted himself against most of the German side as a bit-part player at Bayern Munich and has extensive Champions' League experience.
In Cuevas's absence, Paraguay will be heavily dependent on the set-piece prowess of the Brazilian-based Francisco Arce, whose swerving, pacy delivery has caused problems for opponents here and is sure be a source of concern to Kahn and company. Yet whether it will be enough to stop Germany and redress the inter-continental drift between Europe and South America must be doubtful.
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