Back at last December's Final Draw for the 2010 FIFA World Cup™, coaches of the traditional world powers were doubtless hoping their charges would be grouped with one of the smaller, less experienced international sides. One such team are New Zealand, arguably the biggest outsiders involved, who at that juncture were preparing to make only their second appearance on football's greatest stage – and their first since Spain 1982.
But the Kiwis, who came through a tight play-off against Bahrain to qualify, have thrown the form book out of the window in South Africa and provided stiff opposition thus far for their Group F rivals. After a last-minute equaliser against Slovakia in their first match, the All Whites then shocked the football world by taking the lead against defending champions Italy. Not only that, they held out for a draw that would go down as arguably the best result in the nation's football history. In their third match, the New Zealanders will confront a strong-looking Paraguay side, current leaders of the group, who also secured a point against Italy and followed up that solid start with an impressive 2-0 win over Slovakia.
Against New Zealand, Paraguay will attempt to maintain the tremendous record of South American teams at this year's tournament. Victory would also ensure that Los Guaraníes finish top of the group, thereby avoiding a tricky encounter with the Netherlands, likely winners of Group E, in the last 16. Complacency remains a possible danger for Gerardo Martino's men, however, as defeat by the All Whites could see them heading out of the competition, depending on the result in the pool’s other game. The New Zealanders, meanwhile, know that a historic first finals win would see them through, irrespective of the Italy-Slovakia scoreline.
Given that Paraguay only require a point to progress, and that defensive solidity is one of the team's major attributes, the prospects of a tight encounter are high. New Zealand have performed in an extremely disciplined fashion so far, and have managed to pounce on the few opportunities that have come their way, scoring twice from a total of three shots on target.
Players to watch
Antolin Alcaraz versus Shane Smeltz
In heading the ball past Gianluigi Buffon in Group F’s opening match, Paraguay defender Antolin Alcaraz may well have scored the most important goal of his career. A reliable centre-half who offers a serious goal threat from set-pieces, Alcaraz could end up being coach Martino's secret weapon at the tournament. That said, Alcaraz will first have to concentrate on subduing the skills of New Zealand forward Shane Smeltz, the Kiwis' scorer against Italy and their eight-goal leading marksman during his country’s qualifying campaign. Propelling his team, 78th in the FIFA/Coca Cola World Ranking, to the next round would be a dream come true for the Gold Coast United striker.
3 – The number of times that Paraguay have qualified from the group stage in previous FIFA World Cups. On each occasion, it was as their section's second-placed team. Can they manage to go one better this time around?
What they said
"A large part of their football is based on their robustness and they will probably try to capitalise on that. But we have our own strong points. We know the type of football we want to play and are playing better match by match," Justo Villar, Paraguay goalkeeper.
"Maybe it wasn't the greatest match ever [against Italy], but we showed great desire and determination. We've given ourselves a chance of qualifying – what a tremendous challenge. All that remains for us to do is give 100 per cent and seize the opportunity we've been given in this final match," Ryan Nelsen, New Zealand defender.
Voice of the fans
"La Albirroja can top the group for the first time in their history. I can see there being a lot of pressure surrounding this encounter, as New Zealand also still have a chance of qualifying. It'll be a close match because the New Zealanders play an effective long-ball game, and Paraguay are no slouches in that department either. It's going to be a difficult afternoon for both teams," FIFA.com user Alvaro_Tele (Paraguay).
New Zealand have the opportunity to upset the odds by qualifying from a group including the world champions and one of South America's traditional powerhouses. Are they set to make history?