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Sports

Spain should be wary of Paraguay's dark horses causing a shock

Most pundits in full possession if their mental faculties view Paraguay's quarter-final clash with Spain as a walkover for the European champs. But DW's Nick Amies, who claims he's clean and sober, believes in an upset.

Paraguay's Enrique Vera, fourth from left, celebrates with fellow team members after scoring a goal during the World Cup group F soccer match between Slovakia and Paraguay at Free State Stadium in Bloemfontein, South Africa, Sunday, June 20, 2010.

Paraguay can't believe they got through. They're not alone.

Anyone making the bold claim that Paraguay have a good chance of beating Spain to make the semi-finals of the 2010 World Cup needs to accept that his or her employer may ask them to take a drug test.

Only a brain addled by intoxicants could think that the dark horses from South America had any chance of knocking out the European Champions. Mention a willingness to believe that Gerardo Martino's goal-shy side could eclipse David Villa and Co. and you'll be peeing in a cup before you can say Roque Santa Cruz.

This is a team which has reached its first World Cup quarter-final by scoring a meager three goals - two from midfielders and one from a defender - and whose strikers seem so adverse to putting the ball in the net that Salvador Cabanas, the forward left behind in Paraguay, would probably stand a better chance of scoring. And he's recovering from having been shot in the head.

Paraguay may be hoping to play the rugged South American horseman to Ghana's wild tribal heroine in the last remaining romantic story of this World Cup, but readers of lusty fiction might well expect a disappointing finale given the hero's flaccid performances in earlier chapters.

A team boasting the aforementioned Santa Cruz, along with Lucas Barrios and Nelson Valdez, may sound like a wham-bam-thank-you-ma'am' front line but in reality they've been shooting blanks from the start.

Misfiring strikers leave Paraguay looking elsewhere for goals

Neutrals have been swooning over the Paraguayans after they cast aside the form book to make it into the unknown territory of the last eight. By celebrating the triumph of the underdog, however, they overlook the glaringly obvious - Paraguay have been more than a little lucky so far, given the fact that their strikers can't strike.

Paraguay's Enrique Vera celebrates after scoring during the World Cup group F soccer match between Slovakia and Paraguay at Free State Stadium in Bloemfontein, South Africa, Sunday, June 20, 2010.

Enrique Vera has shown Paraguay's strikers where the goal is but they still haven't got the message

In games against New Zealand, Italy, Slovakia and Japan, Coach Martino's blunted sharp-shooters have failed to hit the target leaving the scoring responsibilities to midfielders Enrique Vera, Carlos Riveros and Antolin Alcaraz. They couldn't even buy a goal against Japan and squeezed through on penalties - hardly the form that suggests an upset is on the cards.

And yet, here they are. Paraguay face Spain on Saturday at Ellis Park in Johannesburg with a wholly improbable World Cup semi-final awaiting them if they win. The smart money will be on Vicente Del Bosque's team claiming their place in the last four.

However - and go ahead and break the seal on that little plastic cup now, folks - Paraguay are good enough to spring one of the biggest surprises not just of this World Cup but of all previous ones by sneaking through at Spain's expense.

Before anyone asks whether this writer can walk a straight line or touch his finger to his nose, consider one thing: Switzerland.

Swiss victory gives dark horses hope of frustrating Spain

Spain's David Silva, left, and Switzerland's Stephane Grichting vie for the ball during the World Cup group H soccer match between Spain and Switzerland at the stadium in Durban, South Africa, Wednesday, June 16, 2010.

Switzerland's smothering tactics frustrated Spain who couldn't react when the Swiss went a goal ahead

The Swiss inflicted Spain's only defeat to date at this World Cup by frustrating the Spanish through well-organized defence and a pressing midfield. They only needed one goal to beat Del Bosque's team and they snatched it through Gelson Fernandez, a midfielder. Spain threw everything at the Swiss, but their impatience to equalize unraveled their game plan and Spain finished empty-handed.

Of course, this was the first game of an edgy group stage for Spain and the argument could be made that they have gained mental toughness as the tournament progressed. However, later victories over Chile and Portugal showed that teams prepared to soak up Spanish pressure can still unnerve the European champions by foiling their intricate passing patterns. In each case, Spain's triumph came via a one-goal margin after long periods of frustration.

Despite hardly setting South Africa alight, the Paraguayans have shown a resilience that may prove difficult for the Spanish to break down.

Stifling tactics may provide valuable chance for killer blow

Despite qualifying for South Africa above Argentina, many saw them as odds-on favorites to limp out before the knock-out stage. But they defied that tag, finishing as Group F winners above Slovakia, New Zealand and reigning World Cup champions Italy. Although they had to rely on a penalty shoot-out to beat Japan, remember that they reached that conclusion without conceding against an exciting team full of flair and industry - one who cut Denmark to shreds in their final group game. That defensive effort suggests a team capable of weathering a storm.

From left, Paraguay's Nelson Haedo Valdez, Edgar Barreto, Lucas Barrios, Antolin Alcaraz, and Enrique Vera, partially visible, celebrate after winning the penalty shootouts during the World Cup round of 16 soccer match between Paraguay and Japan at the Loftus Versfeld Stadium in Pretoria, South Africa, Tuesday, June 29, 2010. Paraguay advanced to the World Cup quarterfinals for the first time with a 5-3 victory over Japan in penalty kicks after a 0-0 draw.

Paraguay's win over Japan on penalties showed they could stand firm against a free-flowing team

Paraguay will be preparing to batten down the hatches in the face of a much more intense deluge on Saturday against Spain. But they may not get the hurricane that everyone is expecting. Thus far Spain have yet to turn the flashes of brilliance they have sporadically shown in this tournament into sustained domination. In terms of offensive production, the furia roja are relying at the moment on the red-hot form of one man: David Villa.

If Paraguay can pressure Spain high enough up the pitch - closing down the shaky-looking Carlos Puyol in defense - and prevent distribution from the back, they stand a good chance at denying Villa the supply lines he needs to create havoc in the box.

Paraguay will aim to stifle Spain and deny them space by employing a smothering press in midfield - a tactic which Switzerland (and the US in last year's Confederations Cup) have shown can work. Backed by a well-organized back line that have conceded just one goal in four games, Paraguay will look to stop Spain from creating chances while hoping to take their own when they come.

The longer the game goes without Spain getting a goal, the more space will open up for Paraguay to hit them on the counter. The question, though, remains: can Paraguay score if given the chance?

If they can, and if their defense can shut up shop properly, then a shock win should not be ruled out. But if the real Spain show up and prove everyone else in the world right, then this writer will gladly produce his bodily fluid for testing.

Author: Nick Amies
Editor: Matt Hermann

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