Make-or-break time for Paraguay and Italy
If you had asked Paraguay's Carlos Jara before the tournament to choose a side he would like to face in a do-or-die group game, you can be fairly sure that he would not have chosen Italy. But that is precisely what the Gods of Mount Olympus have decreed. Now the Albirroja will need the cunningness of Ancient Trojans if they are to storm the fortified Italian defences and continue to scale the Hellenic heights.
Whatever the outcome, one thing is guaranteed: the Karaiskaki Stadium in Athens will see a night of high drama this Wednesday.
Leading Ghana with minutes to go in their second Group B game having previously won a seven-goal thriller against Japan, it seemed the Greek Gods were smiling on the Guaraníes. However, the Paraguayan ship then hit stormy waters as two late goals from the Africans washed the game away, and with it qualification for the knock-out stage. Now, with the Azzurri hoping to block their progress to the last eight, there are even darker clouds on the horizon.
"We had everything under control and qualification was within touching distance. Then we made two mistakes and we were punished dearly," the Paraguayan coach told FIFA.com.
Disappointed he may be, but the coach is still upbeat about his team's chances and confident in his players. "It all depends on us. The situation is very simple. We know we have to beat Italy to qualify," he says bluntly. "They have a great side, which means we're in for a very tough game. Nonetheless, we'll be sticking to our game plan and playing to win like we did in our other games." Jara and his men are not just about brash promises, they know how to walk the walk as well. Two wins over Brazil in the last eight months speak for themselves.
What does the coach expect from the tie? In interviews given in his national press, Jara was quoted as saying: "This game will be the most striking of the final group games. There will be two tough experienced sides fighting for the same objective."
Paraguay qualified for their first Men's Olympic Football Tournament for the first time in 12 years after winning the South American Olympic Qualifiers in January. Now, just when it seemed that progress to the last eight was guaranteed, they must go and do it all again. It is not a situation Oscar Harrison, the President of the Paraguayan Football Association(APF), is best pleased about. To his mind, the side lacks " the killer instinct". He went on to say: "When you go ahead that late in a game [Paraguay vs Ghana] then you should go on and win it. I hope we can get a win [against Italy], which will move us one step closer to our objective. It's the only option we have."
The leader awaits
Italy, for their part, with the experienced Claudio Gentile at the helm, have slightly better prospects than the South Americans. For the Azzurri, a draw will be enough to guarantee their place in the last eight. Nonetheless, aware that football has a habit of defying logic, the Italian squad are expecting a no-holds-barred contest on Wednesday night. Their quietly confident coach is also hoping that Andrea Pirlo will be able to rise to the occasion. "He needs to make the step up and we're really hoping he can do that. We now face Paraguay, a tough opponent. How tough, we won't know until we get out there on the pitch."
Italy earned a crucial point (2-2) in their opening game against Ghana, a match which at one time looked beyond Gentile's men. They followed that with another laboured performance against Japan, but this time ran out eventual winners (3-2). Surely then, it is high time for a convincing victory. Alberto Gilardino, the team's top scorer with three strikes, sincerely hopes so: " A win would bring us one step closer to achieving our goal of winning a medal. We'll be out to prove that we are a quality team and that we're worthy of a place on the podium."
The team's obsession with victory is understandable given that the country has not won a football gold since the Berlin Games in 1936. "The team has already shown its character in coming back from difficult situations, which is why we'll be hoping to find that hunger once again on Wednesday," said the Italian No. 9. Paraguay, with their famously mean defence, will be hoping that their appetite is a match for Gilardino and co in Athens.