Having boasted world-class players like goalkeeper Jose Luis Chilavert and centre-back Carlos Gamarra, Paraguay have earned a reputation in the past for having one of the most solid defences on Planet Football. And though the squad currently preparing for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ will aim to be equally solid at the back, they will also need plenty of firepower to beat their previous best finals performance of reaching the Round of 16.
If fit, Roque Santa Cruz should be an integral member of the Paraguayan attacking arsenal, with the Manchester City forward optimistic about his nation’s prospects when speaking to FIFA.com.“We are very good going forward now," he said.
Everybody has been saying for years that we usually lose to the big-name nations. So we must find the mental strength required to find our best form, no matter the opposition.
"Paraguay have always had a reputation in South America for having one of the strongest defences on the continent, but lately we’ve also become known for our attacking qualities. This combination will make us hard to beat. This is probably the best national team in Paraguayan history, and we are hopeful of going further than the Round of 16 for the first time,” added Santa Cruz, whose country scored 23 goals and conceded 16 in 18 qualifying matches.
And despite the tragic incident that will sideline talismanic front-runner Salvador Cabanas for the foreseeable future, La Albirroja still have the personnel to give even the finest defenders sleepless nights. Oscar Cardozo is enjoying an incredible season with Benfica and is currently top of the scoring charts in both the UEFA Europa League and the Portuguese top flight, while Borussia Dortmund pair Nelson Haedo Valdez and Lucas Barrios are forces to be reckoned with in German football.
What is more, the latter striker, born in Argentina to a Paraguayan mother, could be considered something of a bonus, having only recently received his naturalisation papers and become available for selection by coach Gerardo Martino.
Tendinitis in his knee and a calf strain have plagued Santa Cruz during his time at the City of Manchester stadium, where this season he has been overshadowed by the prolific duo of Carlos Tevez and Emmanuel Adebayor. The same injury problems also limited his impact in what was a historic qualifying campaign for Paraguay, though a fully fit and on-form Santa Cruz is a genuine threat for both club and country.
On the road to South Africa, Paraguay demonstrated their new-found attacking bent by scoring two or more goals on six occasions in the qualifiers. This included a 5-1 home demolition of Ecuador, a 3-0 win over Chile in Santiago and a 2-0 home victory over Brazil, all games in which Santa Cruz featured. And despite only playing 308 minutes in qualifying, the City front-man’s three-goal tally stands up to comparison with Cabanas’ six from 1,219 minutes and Valdez’s five in 1,188.
Up for the cup
The big challenge now for Santa Cruz is to get himself into the right physical shape to stand up to the rigours of world football’s biggest competition, particularly as Paraguay will face world champions Italy, fast-improving Slovakia and a rugged New Zealand side in Group F.
“We simply have to start well. Our first match is against Italy who are probably favourites to win the group. Also, it’s important that all the players are in form and it’s crucial that they’ve had enough rest after a long season,” said the former Bayern Munich and Blackburn Rovers star.
“Perhaps we also need to get mentally stronger,” added the rangy goal-getter. “Everybody has been saying for years that we usually lose to the big-name nations. So we must find the mental strength required to find our best form, no matter the opposition. This is a great chance to show the world how much we've improved.”