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May 31, 2006

'I'm not scared of England'

When Paraguay striker Roque Santa Cruz suggests being thrown into a World Cup group with England was a stroke of good fortune, you know he is going in search of some big headlines.

Yet such comments are typical of a bullish forward whose status as a hero in Germany will doubtless be boosted further if he can fire a couple of holes in Sven Goran Eriksson's side in Frankfurt on June 10th.

The Bayern Munich man rarely holds back in his commitment on and off the field and it seems he is more determined than ever to live up his billing on familiar soil this summer.

'People say we should be frightened about facing England, but I don't understand that attitude,' begins the 24-year-old, who is on course to overcome a knee injury to take his place in the Paraguay starting line-up.

'They have some great players, but we could have been drawn in a much tougher group than this. It will be a three-way fight for the top spot and playing England in our first game is perfect. It gives us the chance to get off to the ideal start and a victory will go a long way to pushing us through to the latter stages.

'It will be a close match, but I'm very confident we cause them some trouble and our aim is not just to get through the first round. We believe we can be in the quarter-finals, so the England game is just a start for us.

'If you ask me for an opinion, I see Germany as a bigger threat to win this competition than England. Brazil are the favourites and then after that you are looking at a group of sides behind and England are in that, but with home advantage, I see Germany going a long way. Maybe they will be in the Final.'

A quality forward who is as strong in the air as he is with the ball at his feet, Santa Cruz may have been established as one of the best strikers in world football by now were it not for a succession of injuries.

After years of frustration, his reputation as one of the game's most promising forwards could be enhanced substantially in Germany this summer and in the opinion of Paraguay coach Anibal Ruiz, Santa Cruz's return to full fitness was the key factor in his side's World Cup preparations.

'We very much need Roque,' states the veteran coach.

'He has great experience of football in Europe, will be playing on familiar territory in Germany and has incredible talent as a forward. He's out-and-out class and if he's fit, it will be a major boost for all of us.

'Santa Cruz's presence and goal scoring flair mean so much to us. You could say he's the last piece of the puzzle and I suppose the opposition will be looking at him and wondering if he will ruin their day. I hope to see him doing that.'

People say we should be frightened about facing England, but I don't understand that attitude.
Roque Santa Cruz

The view in the English media that a World Cup opener against Paraguay represents little more than a gentle preamble to their anticipated glorious triumph has not gone down well with the star name in Anibal Ruiz's tight and committed camp.

'This will be a very close game and if anyone in England expects us to be a nice warm up game for them, they may be surprised,' states Santa Cruz.

'Our team is built on its solidarity. Everyone stands shoulder to shoulder with everyone else. We fight and support for one another from first minute to last and this team don't believe in lost causes. In that sense, we have something of an Anglo-Saxon mentality. We're also very well organised and tactically we know what we're doing. In the attacking-third, we have plenty of flair and youthful promise.

'We have some great young midfielders in my Bayern team mate Julio Dos Santos, Edgar Barreto, Cristian Riveros and Jose Montiel. Up front Nelson Valdez of Werder Bremen could be a revelation. I feel we've never had as much attacking potential as we have now. That is why we are going into this competition feeling very confident of achieving something memorable.'

Victory for either England of Paraguay in this fascinating Group B opener would be crucial and the word in South America suggests that coach Ruiz may be tempted to tinker with his traditional 4-4-2 formation to counter the world-class stars Eriksson has at his disposal.

'When you look at guys like Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard, it's clear that they are the key factors for England,' states Ruiz, who is tipped to employ a 4-5-1 line-up in this game.

'I know Wayne Rooney is special and his absence may help us, but they still have so many top class players and we have to be ready to absorb their talents.

'We have a tendency to sit a little too deep at times and if we do that against England, it will not help us. Their midfield players are so strong pushing forward and if we ask them to come on to us, we know what will happen. Maybe we can look at a few different formations because we have to make sure we match up to them properly.

'There is no doubt that they form a very impressive whole. England have the individual class and the collective organisation. Defensively they look strong and they have a lot of creativity and finishing power. The scoring threat of Owen, Lampard and Gerrard needs to be taken very seriously.

'Nevertheless I'm optimistic we can get a result. I have a set of players who usually stand up on the big occasion. In the first game of a World Cup, you want to issue a statement of intent, to set the tone for the whole tournament. It's good that we start off with a massive challenge against England. We will be totally focused and looking to spring a surprise.'

While Ruiz's tries to play the role of diplomat prior to the big kick-off, Santa Cruz is very much acting as Paraguay's cheer leader in chief and he is quick to brush off fears that his injury concerns may see him sit out this game.

'There was a time when it looked as if the World Cup may be too soon for me,' he adds.

'At the time, my feeling was I had to get right for the sake of Bayern Munich and if I missed this tournament, there was nothing I could do.

'Now that it is here, I promise to be fit for the England game. I'm determined to prove that Paraguay is not just another international team. The fact that we will be playing in Germany, where I have so many happy memories from my time with Bayern Munich, makes it even more special for me.'

Every World Cup tends to throw up a shock result in the first couple of days of action and Paraguay clearly believe they will be the side making all the headlines this time.


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