Defensively sound, superbly well drilled and the scorers of a textbook set-piece goal, Paraguay gave Italy a taste of their own medicine in the opening game of Group E in Cape Town, drawing on their own defensive strengths to hold the world champions to a 1-1 draw.
"Both teams play a similar game," said Paraguay striker Roque Santa Cruz minutes after the final whistle had blown. "Italy are a tight-knit unit. They are well organised and it’s hard to catch them off guard, but while we didn’t create that many chances, we didn’t let them make too many either."
Sharing that view was Santa Cruz’s coach Gerardo Martino, who was delighted with his side’s gritty showing: "It’s very encouraging to get a draw against the reigning world champions. The fact we matched them is perhaps even more important than the result itself."
Taking the lead from a superbly executed set-piece, Paraguay then let victory slip from their grasp when the Italians fashioned an equaliser from a corner.
Martino was not surprised to see both goals come from similar sources: "We didn’t move the ball around with much accuracy, partly because one of their specialities is stopping the opposition from playing. But they weren’t able to get a passing game going either because that’s an area of the game that we have also mastered. It’s perfectly logical, then, that both sides needed dead-ball situations to score."
While accepting that the two sides were evenly matched, Marcello Lippi had expected more from his troops. "On the one hand I’m happy we played as a team and that we were able to react to their opening goal," he commented in the post-match press conference. "I’m also pleased we responded physically, mentally and with our hearts. But more than anything else I’m disappointed we didn’t win, because we normally do in games like this. They sat back in the second half and didn’t manage to have a single shot on goal, and that defensive solidity is something we can build on."
"When all’s said and done they are the world champions, and on top of that they have a tremendous amount of World Cup experience," said Paraguay goalkeeper Justo Villar. "It’s reassuring for us that we were able to give as good as we got against them and it bodes well for the rest of the competition. Italy are famed for their tactical appreciation and their culture of defending. But tonight we showed we have nothing to envy them in that respect."
Italy captain Fabio Cannavaro was one man to agree with that assessment. "They’re solid, they play well and they know their job on the pitch. They had one chance in front of goal and they took it. They’re organised and they take what few opportunities come their way."
The Juventus man might well have been talking about his own side, but this was a night when Paraguay matched Italy at their own game.