Paraguay and Brazil's Copa America match is a test of resilience
The semifinal lineup will be completed by the winner of the match in Concepcion, Chile between Brazil and Paraguay. A few weeks ago, Brazil would have been seen as overwhelming favourites to win this one. The odds, though, have probably got a bit closer over the last few days.
Twenty years ago at the Copa America in Uruguay, Paraguay turned up at the stadium in Maldonado for a training session. But the ground was closed, with no one around to open it. No problem. Paraguay shut off the approach road, threw some coats down as goalposts and held a practice match right there.
The story exemplifies the Paraguayan spirit -- no nonsense, no big stars, getting on with the job and extracting the maximum from limited resources. It was that kind of approach that helped the team qualify for four consecutive World Cups between 1998 and 2010. In the last of them, they reached the quarter finals for the first time, where they gave eventual champions Spain a big fright.
Since then, though, things have not gone their way. The signs were on the wall in the last Copa, when they reached the final without winning a game before going down 3-0 to Uruguay. Thereafter, they tried to rebuild too quickly and got off to a bad start in the 2014 World Cup qualifiers from they never recovered, ending up bottom of the table.
Hopes were not high going into this Copa. Ramon Diaz, an Argentine with no previous connection with Paraguayan football, was appointed coach, with only three warm up games to prepare his side. Paraguay did not win any of them and the last match, a 2-2 draw at home to Honduras, did not inspire confidence in the coming campaign.
Those doubts all seemed to be confirmed by the first half of the opening match against Argentina. Paraguay were two goals down and seemingly facing a massacre. They had hardly been out of their own half. There seemed no way back. But that was to underestimate the resilience and fighting spirit of the Paraguayans.
They dug deep, found their warrior spirit, rode their luck a little and came roaring back to snatch a dramatic draw. The team had shown to themselves and others that they could still compete.
Sensibly in the circumstances, Diaz has stuck with an experienced spine to his side; keeper Justo Villar, centre back Paulo Da Silva, holding midfielder Victor Caceres, Nelson Haedo Valdez in the hole supporting centre forward Roque Santa Cruz, with Lucas Barrios in reserve. All are past the 30 year mark. The new generation is spearheaded by 21-year-old Derlis Gonzalez, who will attack down the right, where he should have an interesting duel with Brazil's left back Filipe Luis.
The current Paraguay side has shown that it has the guts and talent to chase the game. What may be in doubt is whether the team can come up with the same defensive resilience it demonstrated four years ago, when they held Brazil to a goalless draw in the 2011 Copa quarterfinals and then won the penalty shootout.
This has clearly been the priority of coach Diaz as he prepares his team to face the Brazilians. He has been drilling his defensive and midfield lines to keep close together, and to mark aggressively, attacking the ball. Paraguay's attempts to spoil may be aided by the conditions in Concepcion, staging its first match of the tournament. Heavy rain has been falling in the region, and reports indicate that the pitch has suffered as a result.
For Brazil, meanwhile, the stakes are high. Always looking over his shoulder, coach Dunga would feel under pressure if his team is eliminated at the quarterfinal stage -- even with its captain and attacking inspiration missing.
It has now been confirmed that Neymar's four match suspension will carry over into the World Cup qualifiers. So if Brazil are knocked out, he will be unavailable for the first two matches in October. But if Dunga's men win, they have the guarantee of two more games in Chile, as the losers of the semifinals face off in a third place match, and Neymar will go into the qualifiers with the slate rubbed clean.
Dunga, though, will only be thinking about the resources at his disposition for the Paraguay game. He agreed with Brazil general coordinator Gilmar Rinaldi's critical comments of the way the team handled Neymar's injury in last year's World Cup. Instead of bellyaching about it, he thought they should have focused on those who were playing against the Germans in that fateful semifinal where they lost 7-1.
Dunga also has experience of winning the Copa with an understrength squad; in Venezuela in 2007 he did not have keeper Julio Cesar, or Kaka, his big star at the time. Nevertheless, Brazil battled through to the final, where they shocked an attractive Argentina side to win 3-0.
This time he is not only without Neymar. Attacking midfielder Oscar, right back Danilo and holding midfielder Luiz Gustavo are all injured. The absence of the latter appears to have forced Dunga to drop David Luiz and the introduce Thiago Silva at centre back alongside Miranda, which has strengthened the defence. And with Robinho knitting the side together nicely in the last game against Venezuela, and Willian providing the necessary spark in the final 30 metres, Brazil still go into the game as favourites. But they need to beware that Paraguayan resilience.
Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.