Guided by an Argentinian coach, the national side qualified comfortably for next summer’s World Cup.
At a time when Argentina are struggling so badly, it is somewhat ironic that former national coach Marcelo Bielsa in Chile and one of his disciples, Gerardo Martino in Paraguay, should be thriving across their borders.
Martino, 46, learnt the coaching trade while a central midfielder in the Newell’s Old Boys team that was trained by Bielsa and won the1992 Argentinian league title and reached the Final of the Libertadores Cup that same year.
After winning several Paraguayan championships in charge of Libertad and Cerro Porteno, he was handed the national job in 2007.
Martino’s team are built on the traditional strengths – in defence and in the air – of the Paraguayan game, while their midfield is combative. However, they do possess dangerous forwards who have honed their craft in the Mexican league and in Europe.
They built a commanding lead in the World Cup qualifiers, ending last year on top of the 10-nation South American group, six points ahead of Brazil. But a poor start to this year saw their advantage quickly eroded by Brazil, and a 2-0 home loss to Bielsa’s Chile in June handed Dunga’s team, who won 4-0 in Uruguay, the lead.
Come September, Martino was desperate for his team to secure the qualification that had appeared a formality, and an unimpressive 1-0 home win over Bolivia set them up for the deciding clash with Argentina.
Martino’s side rediscovered their better 2008 form in a good first-half performance against Diego Maradona’s Argentina. Paraguay could have scored three times, hitting the woodwork twice, but they sealed qualification with Nelson Haedo Valdez’s fine goal at the end of a move with Salvador Cabanas at the heart.
Paraguay sat back on their lead, and it is a sad indictment of Maradona’s Argentina that they were unable to at least snatch a point in a lacklustre display.
Martino’s selection policy has been conservative in terms of drafting in new names during the World Cup campaign and he waited until qualification was secured to call up central midfielder Nestor Ortigoza, a 26-year-old who was born in Argentina and obtained his father’s Paraguayan nationality in April.
A fine ball winner, but also creative in distributing from deep – as he has proved in helping Argentinos Juniors, into second spot in Argentina’s Primera Division – Ortigoza is a good addition to Paraguay’s squad.
With players of his ilk added to Martino’s squad, it now remains to be seen if Paraguay will go that extra mile and reach the last eight of a World Cup finals for the first time.