On a balmy night in the packed Karaiskaki Stadium in Athens, a peach of a header by Fredy Barreiro was enough to fire Paraguay into the last eight of the Olympic Football Tournament. Despite surrendering top spot in Group B to the South Americans, Italy's blushes were spared when word came through of Ghana's defeat by Japan. That surprise result handed the Azzurri runners-up spot and a place in the quarter-finals too. There they will face the African hopefuls Mali while Paraguay take on Korea Republic.
The European champions just could not match the South Americans for commitment on the night. Paraguay, after taking the lead early on, went on to control the game to perfection. Their veteran coach Carlos Jara left nothing to chance, even opting for their yellow change strip for the decisive match. Coincidence or not, Paraguay's only previous win in Greece had also been in yellow.
Yet it was the Italians who had the better of the early exchanges. Their talented youngster Andrea Pirlo, by times languid by times deadly, wasted little time getting Diego Barreto's goal in his sights. The AC Milan midfielder whipped in a measured cross which Alberto Gilardino met perfectly only to see his effort come back off the post. Following up, from point blank range, Daniele De Rossi missed the rebound and a great chance to open the scoring (4').
Paraguay, whose aerial prowess is second to none in South America, were not in such a generous frame of mind. First Carlos Gamarra saw his header blocked after a centre by Emilio Martínez (7') before Fredy Bareiro, the hero of the Olympic qualifiers, broke the deadlock. The Libertad front man rose perfectly in the area to meet a Aureliano Torres cross and head past the helpless Iván Pelizzoli in goal(1-0; 14').
Shaken by the early goal, the Azzurri tried to hit back immediately. Crosses came in thick and fast and caused endless problems in the Albirrojo defence. Gilardino, finally getting on the end of one, looked to have done enough, but the outstretched leg of Barreto brought an audible groan from the striker and kept the South Americans in front (17').
Paraguay's best player in the first half was probably Barreiro. He followed a neat one-two with José Cardozo with a gently placed right foot strike which Pelizzoli could only parry. The rebound fell perfectly to Pablo Giménez, who with more time than he realised, nervously blasted his effort over the crossbar (28').
|Italian Alberto Gilardino (R) and Paraguayan Carlos Gamarra vie for the ball. AFP PHOTO DANIEL GARCIA|
The second half picked up where the first 45 had left off, with Pirlo battling to control midfield and Gilardino attempting to outrun Carlos Gamarra. When the Parma front man finally beat the veteran defender, he found Barreto once again in unbeatable form (54').
Sensing the danger, Carlos Jara decided to strengthen his rearguard by bringing on Celso Esquivel and Ernesto Cristaldo. Claudio Gentile, meanwhile, opted to stick with his formation, limiting his changes to players in the same position. Gentile said afterwards: "This defeat hurt, but we're aware that conceding just one goal was the reason we qualified for the quarter-finals. That was the most important thing: to make it to the next round."
José Cardozo, feeling the strain of ploughing a lonely furrow up front all game, was mercifully replaced by Julio González. The fresh pair of legs almost did the trick, but the substitute striker's superb late effort brought an equally brilliant response from Pelizzoli - and a generous ovation from the crowd (76'). "Perhaps we neglected our attack a bit until González came on, but I didn't want to risk a repeat of what happened against Ghana. Fortunately, it worked out well, and we held on," remarked a jubilant Jara after the game.
The last chance of the match came from a De Rossi strike from range. The powerfully hit shot was goalbound until the invincible Barreto made yet another spectacular save (87'). There was no time for more, and Italy, who are renowned the world over for their defensive discipline, had received a taste of their own medicine. "We beat them at their own game. They are masters at getting men behind the ball, breaking quickly, and inflicting maximum damage. Tonight it was our turn," said Paraguay's talismanic stopper Carlos Gamarra.