Two-time Copa America winners Paraguay go into the 2011 edition of the tournament at something of a crossroads. With a range of players either the wrong side of 30 or creeping up to that landmark, the generation of players that reached the World Cup quarter-final a year ago are approaching their last hurrah.
Nine of Coach Gerardo Martino’s 23-man squad are 29 or older, including such important players as goalkeeper and captain Justo Villar, 34, experienced centre-back Paulo Da Silva, 31 and Roque Santa Cruz, the increasingly injury-hit 29-year-old striker. The forthcoming competition, in which Paraguay will face a group containing Brazil, Ecuador and Venezuela, will either prove a tournament too far or the final fling of a group that contains players who first experienced international football ahead of World Cup 2002.
There is some fresh blood in Martino’s party. Full-back Ivan Piris, 22, impressed during Cerro Porteno’s run to the Copa Libertadores semi-final this year, while winger Hernan Perez, part of Villarreal’s B team, was a standout at Under-20 level. These players, together with the likes of Edgar Barreto, Nelson Haedo Valdez and Lucas Barrios, each currently in their prime years, will be the ones responsible for building on the last year’s World Cup progression. A good showing in the Copa America will ease any fears of a drop-off in quality once the star names of the so-called golden generation leave the international stage.
In the 12 months since Paraguay lost 1-0 to Spain in Johannesburg, having escaped a group containing world champions Italy and seen off Japan on penalties, some of Paraguay’s most important players have suffered difficult spells with their club. Key midfielder Cristian Riveros, a lung-bursting box-to-box player at his best, endured a torrid time at Sunderland, making just 12 appearances and leaving for Turkey’s Kayserispor on a season-long loan this summer. International colleague Da Silva suffered a similar fate in the North East, failing to establish himself before leaving in January 2011 for Real Zaragoza.
The injuries that pockmarked Santa Cruz’s Manchester City career are also a concern, as is the lack of form the forward displayed after a loan return to Blackburn Rovers. Santa Cruz’s struggles put more pressure on the shoulders of Barrios, who scored 24 goals for Borussia Dortmund last season and claimed a Bundesliga winner’s medal for his efforts. Barrios is expected to lead the line for Paraguay, supported by the pair of Santa Cruz and Haedo Valdez in a narrow three-man forward line.
Barrios and company will be supported by a trio of midfielders, a balanced mix of dogged tackling and smart passing, and a back four marshalled by Da Silva and Antolin Alcaraz with a couple of adventurous full-backs. Coach Martino is not afraid to tinker with his system, however, and a switch to 4-4-2, 4-4-1-1 or a back three would not be a shock. Martino will need every trick up his sleeve to overcome the mighty Brazil but progression past the group stage should be the minimum aim.
One to watch – Lucas Barrios: Born in Argentina but a Paraguay international since 2010, Barrios qualifies for La Albirrioja through his mother’s nationality. Prolific at club level, Barrios has yet to really translate that form to the international arena, scoring five goals in 12 games for Paraguay but 47 in 79 for Dortmund.
Piris – Da Silva – Alcaraz – Torres
Barreto – Caceres – Riveros
Santa Cruz – Barrios – Haedo Valdez