So, it’s Sunday lunchtime and time for the stout yeomen of Slovakia and Paraguay to enter into battle in The Group (so far) Of Parity. Slovakia need a win more desperately than Paraguay today, having been held by New Zealand in their opening match. They will, of course, finish their group matches against Italy. Paraguay, by contrast, will take on New Zealand in their final match and may well consider that a draw today will be enough to leave them in pole position to qualify for a place in the last sixteen. Curiously, though, Paraguay have chosen to play three forwards this afternoon. Are they going to go for it anyway? It would certainly seem that way. It may be that they already have one eye on the next round of the competition. Winning today could well prove to be the difference between playing the Netherlands and playing Japan or Denmark in the next round. A draw would do them today, but a win would be even better.
If Paraguay are going to “go for it” today, the same probably can’t be said of the South African match-going public. There are a lot of empty seats in Bloemfontain today. This is no bad thing, really. Empty seats were a feature of World Cups until the Americans sold the 1994 tournament out, and those using this as a stick to beat FIFA with are displaying a gap in their knowledge of the history of the tournament. Ultimately, why would the South African match-going public turn out in vast numbers and pay the colossal prices required to watch Paraguay and Slovakia on a Sunday lunchtime? Well, it’s up to the two teams to show us. Otherwise, it is up to FIFA to make the tickets affordable for more local people.
Paraguay come hurtling out of the starting blocks, and within three minutes they fire in their first shot of the match, but Roque Santa Cruz’s shot from the edge of the penalty area clips off Martin Skrtel. The Slovakian goalkeeper Jan Mucha is alert and tips the ball around the post. It starts to feel as if Paraguay are going to camp out in the Slovakian half, but attacking formations bring their own risks and when Slovakia do manage to get the ball into something approaching an attacking position, there are some wide open spaces for them to take advantage of. On nine minutes, they get such a break but, with players arriving in the penalty area and plenty of time and space, Jan Durica’s cross is completely mishit and sails harmlessly over the goal.
The match soon settles into a peculiar pattern. Paraguay get possession of the ball and push it wide. Slovakia foul whichever Paraguayan player has the ball. Paraguay lift the free-kick into the Slovakian penalty area. The Slovakian defence clears the ball. If Paraguay do score from a set piece today, it will be because they have had so many free kicks in the Slovakian half of the pitch. If you give the Paraguay midfield an infinite number of free-kicks in the Slovakian half of the pitch, they will get one right eventually. Whether it will be in this match, however, is an entirely different matter. When the match breaks out of this stultifying loop, however, their reasoning for playing three attacking players makes more sense. Cristian Riveros fires a low shot that Muchas does well to smother, Barrios shoots a foot over from the corner of the penalty area and Nelson Valdez shoots a couple of yards wide of Mucha’s post. They’re taking potshots at the Slovakian goal against a team that doesn’t seem to have woken up yet.
After twenty-seven minutes, the goal that has been feeling increasingly inevitable arrives. It doesn’t, unsurprisingly, come from a set piece. Paraguay push the ball effortlessly around the left hand side of the pitch, but when the time is right Lucas Barrios pushes the ball between two defenders and into the path of Enrique Vera, whose shot with the outside of the foot curls tidily into the corner of the net. Slovakia now have to come out and play, though why they weren’t doing this for the previous twenty-six minutes is something of a mystery. After, should they fail to win today they will need a better result against Italy than Paraguay can manage against New Zealand.
They do start to push forward a bit and immediately Paraguay’s defence looks a little stretched, but the quality of their final ball into the danger zone is woeful. On three seperate occasions they get into something approaching a dangerous position, but on each occasion the final ball is hit too hard, too high or to the wrong player. They do, however, pose more of a threat from set pieces, and from a corner on the left-hand side, Salata has the freedom of the Paraguayan penalty area from eight yards but gets under the ball and heads well over the crossbar. Still, at least Slovakia are starting to get into the game, but the potential cost of not taking advantage of the possession that they do have is shown after thirty-seven minutes, when some sloppy defending hands the ball to Roque Santa Cruz, who bursts through but sees his shot well saved by the right foot of the Slovakian goalkeeper. A curate’s egg of a first half ends with Paraguay leading one-nil and having seldom been seriously threatened.
Slovakia start the second half with considerably more urgency than they ended the first, as if it took a quiet reminder from their manager of what would need to happen if they fail to win this afternoon. However, the opening ten minutes of the second half show that Paraguay are just as comfortable defending as they are pushing forward. The dislocated start to the half gives us an opportunity to consider a couple of the more aesthetic attributes of this match. Firstly, just how great is the Paraguayan kit? The shirts lose a point or two for the following that irritating modern trend of not being completely striped on the back but, overall, Paraguay are a sartorial splash of colour at every tournament that the enter. Secondly, it is not entirely unpleasant to see square goalposts make a return to this particular World Cup, and they don’t come squarer than those in Bloemfontain.
For all of their increase in urgency, however, Slovakia seem some way short of having the wit or the guile to undo the Paraguayan defence. Indeed, it almost starts to feel as if they have given up on this match and decided to take their chances against Italy in the final match. The match, which had been entertaining and reasonably open in the first half, soon decends into a mire of misplaced passes and niggly fouls. As Slovakia become more and more frustrated, the more the fouling occurs. Paraguay, meanwhile, give the impression of feeling that they can afford to take their feet off the pedal. There is an element of risk to such a tactic, since a one goal lead is usually fragile one. Against this Slovakian team, however, perhaps they are right. There seems to be no significant goal threat from the European team.
With four minutes to play, a second goal removes any doubt from the notion that yet another three points are headed to South America. It comes from a free kick, but is assisted by some poor defending before the ball is rolled back to Riveros, who absolutely belts the ball past Mucha. A minute and a half into injury time, Robert Vittek shoots from the edge of the penalty area, but Justo Villar tips the ball acrobatically over the crossbar. It is Slovakia’s only shot on target during the entire match. Quite why this sluggishness has overcome them has a degree of mystery about it. Against New Zealand, they seemed to be happy to shut up shop with a 1-0 lead and paid the according price for such complacency.
This afternoon, however, Slovakia have been poor. Technically, they seemed miles behind Paraguay, whose apparent second half complacency was, with the benefit of a couple of minutes’ hindsight, almost entirely apposite. Over two matches, Slovakia deserve little more than the uphill battle that they now face to get through to the next round. Their opposition today, however, have now taken four points from European opposition and, unless one of the biggest surprises in the entire history of the World Cup occurs in their next match against New Zealand, will get to prove themselves in the knockout stage of the competition. On the basis of what we have seen of them so far, they deserve no less.
Thanks again to Historical Football Kits for the kind use of their graphics.