Paraguay talk a great game

Paraguay's footballers have a secret - a shared language incomprehensible to others - one which they like to tease their opponents with.

Paraguay's footballers have a secret, one which they like to tease their opponents with ahead of big games or major tournaments. Their secret is a shared language incomprehensible to others. They often speak to one another on the pitch in Guarani, the native South American tongue that is taught at schools uniquely in Paraguay. It can give them an edge, a Paraguay player once said, when it comes to things like how they are going to deliver a set-piece.

Paraguay's task today is first to make themselves heard in any language above the noise of vuvuzelas in Cape Town, and then to confuse and confound the world champions. Italy lost to Mexico in their final warm-up match before the tournament, which should encourage a South American team who on paper have more ammunition than the Mexicans. Although the Paraguayans are without Salavador Cabanas, the striker who scored more goals than any of his compatriots in qualifying but who was shot in the head in a Mexico City bar earlier this year - he survived and is said to be responding very positively to treatment - they have a strong roster of strikers.

Roque Santa Cruz may not have much in the way of club form, injury and competition for places having limited his outings for Manchester City in the English Premier League, but he should start, because his status in the national team is so high and his intelligence and aerial threat so valued. Benfica's Oscar Cardozo, the leading goalscorer in the Portuguese Superliga last term, is troubled by an ankle problem, so Lucas Barrios or Nelson Valdez, both of Borussia Dortmund, will partner Santa Cruz.

Barrios is Paraguay's bonus as much as Cabanas has been an unfortunate loss. Six months ago, Barrios, who has had a prolific season in the German Bundesliga, was hoping he might squeeze into Argentina's gifted squad for this World Cup. He was born and grew up there. But thanks to his Paraguayan mother, he is eligible for their neighbours. He may not speak Guarani, but he appears to be welcome among his new teammates, particularly as he has scored three times in his first three international appearances.

Up against them are some of the most celebrated defenders in world football: Fabio Cannavaro, the only defender since the turn of the millennium to win the Ballon d'Or; Gianluigi Buffon, regarded as the finest goalkeeper on the planet for most of the past decade; the admired and athletic Giorgio Chiellini; the versatile Gianluca Zambrotta, whose curriculum vitae includes experience at Juventus, Barcelona and Milan and the title, like four of Italy's back five, of World Cup winner.

If Italy, who are without the injured Andrea Pirlo tonight, are to maintain the idea they can retain the championship of the world, their defence must almost certainly be as resolute as it was four years ago in Germany, aged though it may be. "Defence has always been the foundation of strong Italian teams," Buffon told reporters ahead of the Group F game, "and that's come from excellent goalkeepers, great defenders and a solid midfield. It's what made us strong in Germany and we still have that."

The Italians are becoming visibly bored and irritated by endless questions about them being too old, and lacking enough fresh faces to mount a credible defence of their title. "In a competition like this you need the right experience," Buffon said. He has a point: this World Cup has hardly been a discouraging tournament, at least in its first two days, for veterans. Mexico's Rafa Marquez came into it criticised for being out of form and past his best, at 31. He scored the equaliser on the opening night. And on Saturday two oldies, Gabriel Heinze and Juan Sebastian Veron, both scorned in parts of Europe and Argentina for their supposedly waning powers, combined for the winning goal for Argentina against Nigeria. "Age doesn't matter if you are in the right mental and physical shape," Buffon said. @Email:sports@thenational.ae

? Fabio Cannavaro v Roque Santa Cruz Both big stars in their countries, both coming off unsatisfactory domestic seasons. Santa Cruz, the Paraguay striker, is strong in the air and has a height advantage over Cannavaro, although the Italian has a great leap. ? Alberto Gilardino v Justo Villar Villar (above) is short for a goalkeeper, and he is not surrounded by giants in his Paraguay defence. Italy may look to Gilardino, the Fiorentina forward, to impose himself physically in the penalty area. Tactics Neither of these sides are celebrated especially for their flair, so expect some caution early on and a tendency to strike on the counter-attack or through set-pieces. Player to watch Lucas Barrios The newcomer to Paraguay, having chosen his maternal citizenship rather than the Argentina of his birth and upbringing. Scored 17 goals in the Bundesliga for Dortmund last season. Previous meetings A friendly victory in Parma 1998 is a good omen for Italy. All the goals in a 3-1 result were scored by Italians, with defender Alessandro Costacurta putting the ball past his own keeper for Paraguay's consolation. Did you know? Vittorio Pozzo is the only man to win the World Cup twice as a coach. He led Italy to victory in the 1934 and 1938 World Cups. The team also won Olympic gold in 1936.

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