Lucas Barrios scored 19 goals for Borussia Dortmund in the Bundesliga last season, while Paraguay strike partner Oscar Cardozo struck 26 for Benfica in Portugal and Roque Santa Cruz hit three in the five qualification matches he appeared in. All the more surprising, then, that no member of that illustrious trio has yet found the back of the net at the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™.
That said, Barrios, Cardozo and Santa Cruz are contributing in different ways to a potentially historic campaign for La Albirroja. The Paraguayans have scored three goals in their three games so far, two of them coming from midfielders Enrique Vera and Cristian Riveros, and the other from central defender Antolin Alcaraz. Small as it was, that goal tally was enough to take the South Americans into the Round of 16 as the winners of Group F, a section in which defending champions Italy finished bottom.
With a last-16 tie against Japan tomorrow, the Guaraní forwards know that the time has come for them to start doing what they do best, although that does not mean to say they will not be dispatching their other duties for the side. As Santa Cruz acknowledged in an exclusive FIFA interview with the Paraguay squad: “There’s more to what we do than just scoring goals.”
Among the beneficiaries of their unstinting efforts up front is Riveros, who scored his side’s second in the 2-0 defeat of Slovakia. “What matters most is how the team plays,” said the Cruz Azul midfielder. “When we score it’s even nicer if it’s someone who’s not a striker and doesn’t usually find the target. And it’s even nicer still if it’s in a World Cup match.”
One of the jobs Gerardo Martino’s forwards are expected to perform is to pressurise opposing defences as they bring the ball out, a tactic the Japan rearguard will be subjected to if the Argentinian coach opts for a 4-3-3 formation again. That victory over the Slovakians, which came in their second match, provided a very clear example of just how effective the Paraguay game plan can be. Pressing high up the pitch, the South Americans unsettled their opponents and managed to take control of the game as a result.
“Our job is to make sure the defence doesn’t have a lot of space to play in, and to try and stop the opposition from getting their game together and controlling possession,” explained Santa Cruz. As the well-travelled Manchester City striker added, the movement of the front men also brings fluidity to Paraguay’s game. “At the same time we can create chances for our partners up front and for the people behind us. That way everyone gets a chance to score. Our team-mates really appreciate what we do and we’re working hard.”
Few members of the Albirroja side have been putting in bigger shifts than Nelson Valdez, whose selfless running down the left and through the centre, with and without the ball, has been causing all sorts of problems for their rivals. “Nelson has been doing a lot of defensive work for us,” said an admiring Santa Cruz, although the Dortmund man himself was keen to share the praise with his colleagues. He said: “We all work hard. We come from a poor country and we feel a very strong need to do it proud. All of us are aware we have a chance to do something really special at this World Cup and we’re trying to do our very best in every game.”
In Valdez’s eyes the only person who should take the credit for their strength in unity and more aggressive style is Martino. “He’s changed our mindset and the way we play. In the past we were just known for having a strong defence, for being a side that didn’t have any strikers and didn’t score goals. Now the coach can’t sleep at night for thinking about who he’s going to leave out in the next game.”
Martino’s major tactical change has been to shelve the 4-4-2 formation in favour of a system deploying three hard-running forwards. “To be honest, I don’t mind working harder than the others and letting them score the goals,” concluded Valdez, the ultimate team player. “I don’t have a problem doing all the dirty work because everything we do is for the team.”