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May 15, 2006

Paraguay seek to build in Germany

Paraguay's efforts to qualify for the 2006 World Cup got off to a relatively inauspicious start with a 4-1 defeat away to Peru but Albirroja recovered to finish fourth in the South America group and reach their third consecutive tournament.

All told Germany will be Paraguay's 7th World Cup finals appearance; they made their debut in the very first tournament in Uruguay in 1930 but it would be 20 years until they were next involved, and after another showing in 1958 it would be a further 28 years until their fourth bow at Mexico '86.

Paraguay's best showings at the World Cup have been their most recent.

They reached the second round at both France '98 and Japan/ South Korea 2002, being eliminated both times after narrow 1-0 defeats to quality sides. In 1998 they lost to hosts and eventual winners France, thanks to Laurent Blanc's golden goal; four years later defeat came as a result of Oliver Neuville's goal for a German side bound for the final.

In Germany, Paraguay will face England, Trinidad & Tobago and Sweden in Group B and will be backing themselves to make it through to the round of sixteen for the third time in a row.

England are the clear favourites to win Group B, but despite FIFA world rankings suggesting otherwise, Paraguay (33rd in the world) will feel they are more than capable of upsetting Sweden (16th in the world) and plotting a course through the group stages at the expense of the Scandinavians.

Although England, Paraguay and Sweden alike will view Trinidad & Tobago (47th in the world) as the group's whipping-boys-in-waiting, that could prove to be a very unwise attitude; T&T could provide a nasty shock for anyone foolish enough to underestimate them and their determination to ignore the reputations of country's boasting World Cup pedigrees - Paraguay beware.

Qualification for Germany was reached by finishing fourth in the CONMEBOL group, the last position carrying an automatic position in the finals. Finishing above Paraguay and topping the group were Brazil, followed by Argentina and on the same points but a place higher by virtue of a superior goal difference, Ecuador.

Qualifying in the fiercely competitive 10-team South American group began back in September 2003 with that previously mentioned defeat to Peru, however that disappointing result spurred Paraguay into action three days later in the very next game when the beat Uruguay 4-1.

The key results for Paraguay as they qualified for Germany were those against the big boys; Argentina and Brazil - who were always favourites to secure the top two places - and their nearest rivals for the other two remaining qualifying berths; Ecuador and Uruguay.

Paraguay held Brazil to a creditable 0-0 draw at home, but lost 4-1 in the away leg, a 0-0 draw away to Argentina was a great result as was the 1-0 victory in the return fixture in Asunción.

There were some uneven performances in other qualifiers which for a time threatened to jeopardise their chances. A 2-1 victory over Ecuador at home was avenged in Quito with 5-2 win for Ecuador. Similarly, Paraguay beat Uruguay convincingly 4-1 at home, but went down 1-0 away in Montevideo.

The job of preparing Paraguay for the World Cup, as it was throughout the qualification process, will fall to the steady and uncontroversial 64-year-old Aníbal 'Mano' Ruiz.

Born in Uruguay Ruiz is a vastly experienced coach having worked in Uruguay, Paraguay, Mexico, Ecuador and Colombia taking roles with some of South America's most high profile and important clubs, from Argentina's River Plate and Mexico's Necaxa to Uruguay's Peñarol.

Ruiz has a reputation as something of a coaching nomad having held 23 separate roles since 1976.

Ruiz has a reputation as something of a nomad having held 23 separate coaching and assistant coaching roles from 1976 until taking control of the Paraguay national team in 2002, including an unsuccessful spell in control of El Salvador in their efforts to reach the 1994 World Cup in the USA.

After replacing former coach, Italian Cesare Maldini, Ruiz's most pressing challenge was the need to rejuvenate a team which was coming to terms with losing a swathe of hitherto central figures such as the larger-than-life free-kick and penalty-taking goalkeeper Jose Luis Chilavert and the reliable defensive duo of Celso Ayala and Francisco Arce.

Ruiz has succeeded in guiding Paraguay to the finals by balancing youth with experience and getting the most out of those players nearing the end of their careers, as well as fostering confidence in the younger members of his squad.

Of vital importance to Paraguay when the team are competing in Germany will be the four players that make up the team's spine: goalkeeper Justo Villar, captain and experienced centre-back Carlos Gamarra, midfielder and qualifying star Carlos Paredes and, leading the attack, striker Roque Santa Cruz.

Villar has impressed in stepping into the considerable space left vacant by Chilavert and has enjoyed success in club football with Argentina's Newell's Old Boys and was voted Paraguay's footballer of the year in 2004. Captain Gamarra oozes class at the back and will be looking to those younger members of the squad around him to make up for his ageing legs, though reading the game as well as he does, age may not be such problem.

In midfield Reggina's seemingly indefatigable Paredes could have a key role to play; his natural tackling ability and impressive range of passing will make his role vitally important in both stopping the opposition and developing play for his own side.

Then there is Santa Cruz, whose meagre four-goal haul in the Bundesliga this term for Bayern Munich reveals a season-long struggle with injury. However, the 25-year-old ended the German campaign looking sharp and could prove a handful with his unquestioned pace, aerial ability and technique on the deck.

Can Paraguay make it to the second round for the third tournament in a row?

They have the talent particularly upfront with Santa Cruz and exciting young star Nelson Haedo Valdez to get the goals they'll need. Paraguay's problems will be at the back, ageing legs and lack of depth could prove Albirroja's downfall.