Shocked Paraguay will look to recover

Asuncion (Paraguay), May 31 (DPA) Paraguay have been regular participants on world football’s biggest stage over the last two decades, firmly establishing themselves among the pantheon of South American powerhouses.

However, at South Africa 2010, the hopes of the ‘Albirroja’ are less than buoyant. Despite leading the ultra-competitive South American qualifying zone for long stretches and only finishing one point behind mighty Brazil, the recent shooting of star striker Salvador Cabanas has left the side mired in gloom.

A team that relies on collective interplay and teamwork rather than big names and panache, the absence of one of their stars in such unsettling circumstances could be felt dramatically on their travels in South Africa. Shot in the head in January in a nightclub in Mexico City, where he plays his club football for Club America, the stocky creator has been convalescing and will definitely miss the finals.

Without Cabanas, Paraguay will have to rely on the likes of long-time striker and aerial threat Roque Santa Cruz to provide that little touch of class needed to prosper at the highest levels.

These finals in South Africa will be the eighth World Cup that Paraguay have participated in, and Argentine coach Gerardo Martino will be keen to ride the sides firm defence and lightning counter-attacking style to at least a spot in the second round.

Getting out of the group phase, though, will be no easy feat.

Paraguay have been drawn into a competitive, though arguably manageable, Group F.

They’ll square off against firm favourites and world champions Italy, surprise European package and first-time participants Slovakia and Oceania lightweights New Zealand, in only their second World Cup finals since debuting back at Spain 1982.

‘Slovakia qualified ahead of some very good teams and that shows you what we can expect from them,’ says Paraguayan midfielder Egdar Barreto of Italian Serie A outfit Atalanta. ‘I don’t know too much about New Zealand, but Im sure they have their strong points.’

‘The thing about little-known teams is they can always surprise you. Senegals defeat of France in 2002 springs to mind, and thats why we need to study them in depth,’ he added.

In Real Valladolid net-minder Justo Villar, the Paraguayans have a reliable and established presence between the posts, and in the attacking positions Santa Cruz of Manchester City fame and former youth standout Nelson Haedo Valdez are capable of providing that scoring punch.

One wonders, however, without the golden service from the wily head and velvet feet of wounded Cabanas can the pair find their way to goal?

The coach: Gerardo Martino, Paraguay’s 47-year-old manager, was a well-respected midfielder during his playing days, most notably with Newells Old Boys. He launched his coaching career in 1998 in the lower leagues of his native Argentina.

In 2002, his big break came in the form of a head coaching position at Paraguayan giants Libertad, where he had massive success before repeating the dose with rivals Cerro Porteno.

Seasons of glory and consistency at club level eventually brought a chance to run the line with the national team, an opportunity he snapped up in 2007.

The star – Roque Santa Cruz made his professional debut at the tender age of 16 with local outfit Olimpia in his native city of Asuncion. One year later, the rangy and aerially astute front man lined up for the full national team at the Copa America and was looking a real star in the making.

The call to Europe promptly came and at age 18 he was on his way to Germany and Bundesliga giants Bayern Munich, where his success level can only be termed as moderate. Up next was a star turn in England with Blackburn Rovers before he followed – and outlasted -manager Mark Hughes to Manchester City at the start of last season.