Alternative Paraguay hold Italy
Paraguay froze at the Green Point Stadium, and it wasn't just the weather that did them in. Facing an ageing and under-fire Italy should have held few terrors for a side that beat Brazil 2-0 in qualifying for the World Cup yet, shedding their usual attacking habits, they performed well below par and in the end had to scramble for the one point they take with them.
"We must take into account the size of the rival," Paraguay coach Gerardo Martino said after the game. "We had high expectations and were very nervous."
Looking at the positives, they will carry - apart from the point - into their relatively easier forthcoming battles against Slovakia and New Zealand the confidence gained from the draw and may yet record their fifth entry into the second round. It's a point Martino made, while conceding that the match lacked as a spectacle.
Paraguay's form striker during qualification, Salvador Cabanas, was shot in the head in January and is still undergoing treatment, and at times it seemed there was a void where he would have played; the bigger problem, though, was in their inability to capitalize fully on a relatively lightweight Italian defence - especially after the break, when Buffon was replaced by Federico Marchetti.
La Albirroja started without either Roque Santa Cruz or Oscar Cardozo - the latter yet to fully recover from an ankle injury - and that appeared to rob them of balance and rhythm. It took them 20 minutes to find that rhythm, with Nelson Valdez and Enrique Vera exploiting the relative lack of experience on Italy's left, giving Domenico Criscito an especially hard time. Fabio Cannavaro had to delve deep into his experience - and reserves of energy - to cover for both halves of the back four.
The goal, when it came in the 38th minute, was the result of such a move, with Valdez winning a cheap freekick from Giorgio Chiellini. Torres' free-kick was met by Antolin Alcaraz, who out-jumped Daniele De Rossi to head home sweetly. It was a goal Paraguay deserved and it inspired them, briefly, to further forays upfield - and perhaps, but for the break, they might have reverted to something resembling their natural game.
Did the break snap their rhythm or did they fall into a percentage game, content to pick up the point? Tough to say, but what is clear is that it took them almost ten minutes into the second half to test Marchetti, a keeper who would surely have been nervy given the stature of the game and the size of the boots he was filling.
They seemed content to sit back and soak up Italy's pressure, and for a while they did that fairly confidently - one example was a save by Justo Villar from a header by Simone Pepe - and with a few crunching tackles, one of which by Victor Caceres earned him a yellow card.
Riding the punches is always dangerous against Italy, even an Italy as lacking in sparkle as this one. What they lacked in sparkle they made up for with industry and experience, especially after the arrival of Mauro Camoranesi. An equalizer was on the cards but perhaps not in the manner it came - Villar flapping at a corner, missing it completely and de Rossi knocking it home.
From then on, with Italy going for the kill, using all their experience to win the 50-50 balls and stretch the rules just that bit, Paraguay were hanging on. That they held firm was often by accident rather than design, scrambling the ball away to no planned end. The introduction of both Roque Santa Cruz and Oscar Cardozo gave them a bit more experience in holding up the ball but were probably not intended as match-winning decisions.
"We performed with great effort," was Martino's verdict. Yes but can we please have the Paraguay of old - of the qualifying campaign - back. They don't need Cabanas to attack, they need to free their minds - and the rest will follow.