Vera 27, Riveros 86
Paraguay put themselves in a strong position in Group F with a comfortable win over Slovakia. Goals from Enrique Vera and Cristian Riveros were enough to seal the points in Bloemfontein.
It was all Paraguay in the opening stages with Roque Santa Cruz forcing Jan Mucha into a save after just three minutes, his deflected shot having to be pushed past the post. Riveros shot straight at Mucha from the edge of the area after Nelson Haedo Valdez laid the ball to him before Lucas Barrios fired just over the angle of post and bar after linking well with Vera. The Paraguayan pressure paid off in the 27th minute with Vera putting them in front from the edge of the area. Barrios held the ball up well before slipping in Vera who finished with the outside of his boot into the corner under heavy challenge from Jan Durica. Kornel Salata had a chance to level the scores 10 minutes later, meeting a corner with a free header 10 yards out but his effort cleared the bar. It was nearly 2-0 moments later when Slovakia gave the ball cheaply to Vera in their own half but Mucha saved Santa Cruz’s effort with his foot.
The chances were hardly flowing after the break and it took until the 72nd minute for a real chance to arrive. Santa Cruz crossed from the left and his delivery was met by Vera, who should have done better than to head down and wide of the near post. Five minutes later, substitute Aureliano Torres fired a left foot shot from 30 yards but it fizzed just over the bar. It took until the 85th minute for the second Paraguayan goal to arrive with Riveros striking viciously past Mucha from 20 yards. The ball was laid off to Riveros by Paulo da Silva after his initial header from Torres’ free-kick had been blocked. With two minutes of stoppage time played, Robert Vittek forced Justo Villar into tipping over his 20 yard effort, the closest Slovakia had come to a goal.
Having been forced into life by going a goal behind, it was puzzling to see Slovakia so lacking in impetus early in the game. Considering that they face a daunting final group match against Italy, they seemed remarkably happy to play for a draw. Their setup was very negative with just Vittek playing through the middle in attack, with their passing slow and overly patient. Captain Marek Hamsik was stationed more centrally than he had been against New Zealand but he again struggled to have the impact that his burgeoning reputation at club level would have you anticipate. It was left to 20-year-old Vladimir Weiss to try and spur some life into his side but it was a big ask for such an inexperienced player to try and carry his team.
Having spent their game against Italy defending stoutly with two rigid banks of four, Paraguay started with a more flexible three-man attack against Slovakia. A draw would have suited the Paraguayans more than the Slovakians but they came out looking only for the win. Santa Cruz was named at the expense of Torres whose expert delivery had set the goal up for Antolin Alcaraz against the Italians, a decision that was justified by Claudio Morel’s fine free-kick that just eluded the head of da Silva after 18 minutes. The movement of Barrios and Haedo Valdez was excellent, linking well playing off the physical presence of Santa Cruz. Vera showed great willingness to get forward from the right hand side and it was from one of his lung-bursting runs that his goal came.
The second half never really got going, with Paraguay not showing quite the same adventurousness as they had before the break and Slovakia failing to turn their urgency into chances. Slovakian Coach Vladimir Weiss Senior left it late to make a more offensive substitution, giving Miroslav Stoch just seven minutes to have an impact at the expense of a defender. It was just two minutes later that Paraguay wrapped up the victory and it spoke volumes that Villar did not have to make a save in the regulation 90 minutes. Vittek finally gave him something to do deep into stoppage time but even then it was hardly a golden chance. On their showing so far at the World Cup, Slovakia will not trouble Italy on Thursday and will exit the competition limply.
Full credit goes to Paraguay who have shown two different sides to their game in their first two Group F matches. Having shown they can play a defensive containing game against Italy, nearly stealing the points but for Villar’s goalkeeping error, they have now shown that they can dominate games on the front foot. Their bench contains additional attacking options, with Oscar Cardozo not having even played 25 minutes yet at this World Cup after 38 goals this season for Benfica. They need only a point from their final match with New Zealand to make sure of progression to the Round of 16 and many will fancy them to secure all three points if they attack the All Whites like they did the Slovakians.