In making its fourth straight appearance in the World Cup, Paraguay travels to South Africa without its leading goal scorer from qualifying. The absence of striker Salvador Cabanas -- who was shot in the head outside a Mexico bar in January yet plans to return to action someday soon -- might have initially dampened the team's spirit, but it has also given some other talented forwards the chance to shine on the world's stage this month.
Expect front men Oscar Cardozo and Nelson Haedo Valdez to be given opportunities on goal for Paraguay, which posted 10 wins during South American qualifying (tied with Chile and more than Argentina and Brazil). The Albirroja started strongly before faltering a bit in the later games of the region's campaign, but a victory over Argentina last September sealed a World Cup berth with two games to spare.
Paraguay reached the second round at the 1998 and 2002 World Cups and had hopes of advancing just as far four years ago in Germany. But the team couldn't recover from an opening-game loss to England and was eliminated at the group stage. A number of players from that team in 2006 are back to make amends for a more experienced Paraguay side favored to reach the 2010 knockout rounds in a group also containing Italy, Slovakia and New Zealand.
Coach: Gerardo Martino
The Argentina-born Martino replaced Anibal Ruiz as national team coach in February 2007, after winning several domestic league titles in Paraguay with Libertad de Asuncion and Cerro Porteno. Known as "El Tata," Martino considers Chile coach Marcelo Bielsa a mentor and therefore favors an attacking style of football -- though the Paraguay manager usually opts for a more conservative system for his squad.
Style of play
While experimenting during qualifying with a more aggressive style of pressuring play higher up the pitch, Paraguay remains a traditionally solid side that possesses a cohesive defensive unit. The Albirroja could line up in a 4-4-2 formation or utilize a 4-3-1-2 setup, and the team will take on a counter-attacking mentality to initiate opportunities for its talented forwards.
Players to watch
1. Nelson Haedo Valdez. A holdover from the 2006 World Cup team, Haedo Valdez scored five goals in qualifying, which was second-highest for the team. The versatile forward is a good finisher who can play off an out-and-out striker or drop into a deeper lying role behind the strikers in midfield.
2. Justo Villar. The Paraguay defense will be helmed by goalkeeper and captain Villar -- who saw just eight minutes of action at the 2006 World Cup before an opening-game injury forced him out of the rest of that tournament. Currently playing for Valladolid in Spain, Villar is a calming presence in goal who played the most minutes of any player during Paraguay's qualifiers.
3. Lucas Barrios. A club teammate of Haedo Valdez at Borussia Dortmund, Barrios enjoyed a fine season in Germany, scoring 18 goals in the Bundesliga. Born in Argentina, the 25-year-old forward was only recently cleared to play internationally for Paraguay and contributed a goal in each of his first two appearances in World Cup warm-ups.
Oscar Cardozo. The 6-foot-4 forward netted 25 goals in 28 league games for Benfica this season, while also playing a key role in the Portuguese club's run to the quarterfinals of the UEFA Europa League competition. Nicknamed "Tacuara," Cardozo is known for his powerful left-footed shot and could earn a transfer to a bigger European club with a strong performance in South Africa this summer.
Roque Santa Cruz. The talented striker's move to Manchester City in the summer of 2009 has not reversed his lackluster campaigns of recent years, as Santa Cruz's scoring output totaled just three Premier League goals in 19 appearances. The 6-2 forward notched 23 goals with Blackburn in the 2007-08 season but has since been bothered by injuries – missing much of the past two club seasons and most of Paraguay's World Cup qualifying campaign.
Three key questions
1. Will Martino opt for a more aggressive lineup in South Africa? With New Zealand and Slovakia as first-round opponents, Martino could go with a bolder strategy by playing three forwards in his lineup. And if the addition of Cardozo or Barrios up front with Haedo Valdez and Santa Cruz proves effective against these Group F teams, will Paraguay's manager stick with the attacking style in later rounds?
2. Can Cardozo translate his goal-scoring form on the club level to the national stage? Cardozo has enjoyed a brilliant campaign for Benfica, but his finishing for the national team has been suspect at times through the years. To help compensate for the loss of Cabanas, the Benfica star will need to convert his chances if he expects more time in Paraguay's regular lineup.
3. Can the squad finally break the "Round of 16" hex? Paraguay reached the second round at the 1986, 1998 and 2002 World Cups but has never advanced beyond the round of 16. With a solid team, capable scorers and a decent World Cup draw, will 2010 be the year that the Albirroja finally reach the quarterfinals?
G Justo Villar, Valladolid (Spain)
D Dario Veron, UNAM Pumas (Mexico)
D Julio Cesar Caceres, Atletico Mineiro (Brazil)
D Paulo Da Silva, Sunderland (England)
D Claudio Morel Rodriguez, Boca Juniors (Argentina)
M Enrique Vera, LDU Quito (Ecuador)
M Edgar Barreto, Atalanta (Italy)
M Nestor Ortigoza, Argentinos Juniors (Argentina)
M Cristian Riveros, Sunderland (England)
F Nelson Haedo Valdez, Borussia Dortmund (Germany)
F Roque Santa Cruz, Manchester City (England)