Paraguay and Japan are both what might be termed emerging soccer nations. Having qualified for the last four tournaments, both can feel comfortable, almost established at the highest table, and yet neither is really expected to do all that much in tournaments. Japan's players celebrated wildly after the 3-1 win over Denmark that secured their place in the last 16 -- the first time they had escaped the group stage on foreign soil -- and if Paraguay's glee was slightly more muted, it, like Japan, is targeting a first ever quarterfinal.
Paraguay has always been the least romantic of the South American nations, a country whose prime footballing strength is its toughness -- "la garra," as they have it -- rather than the great playmakers or strikers of Brazil or Argentina. As a result there is a tendency to underestimate them, but Paraguay has become consistent World Cup qualifiers, playing in each of the last four tournaments, and, under Gerardo Martino, it is perhaps less focused on defending than they have been in previous tournaments. After all, having played under Marcelo Bielsa, the high priest of attacking football and now the coach of Chile, in his days as a player at Newell's Old Boys, it would have taken an act of high iconoclasm for Martino to become a stodgy spoiler in the style of some of his predecessors.
Still, his first priority is keeping things tight, and Paraguay has conceded only once so far -- a dead-ball goal against Italy that was largely attributable to an ugly flap from the goalkeeper, Justo Villar. Victor Caceres has sat in front of the back four, rarely breaking forward, but he is suspended and will miss the Japan match. In the opening game, against Italy, he had three midfielders in front of him; against less intimidating opposition, the tendency has been to use two carrileros (shuttlers), in Enrique Vera and Cristian Riveros. Their job is to offer defensive support, but also to break forward; both were excellent against Slovakia, each scoring in a 2-0 win. Nelson Valdez then operates between midfield and attack as a playmaking presence, with Roque Santa Cruz used less as an out and out forward, as he plays for Manchester City, than as a link man for the striker, who could be either Oscar Cardozo or Lucas Barrios.
When it works, the system offers both defensive solidity and an attacking verve, but it lacks width, which is one of the reasons New Zealand was able to restrict it. If Japan is to impose itself, the suspicion is it must be in wide areas. Both Makoto Hasebe and Daisuke Matsui tend to operate wide in a 4-2-3-1 and Yuichi Komano at least is adept at getting forward, as he showed in testing Thomas Sorensen in Japan's win over Denmark. Then again, if Paraguay dominates the center, Japan may struggle to have enough possession to use that advantage wide -- and even if it does get into dangerous areas there is the issue of what it will do with the ball; slinging in crosses maybe a viable tactic if you have Miroslav Klose, Luis Fabiano or even Emile Heskey as a striker, but not if you have somebody as slight as Keisuke Honda being marked by the likes of Paulo da Silva. Honda, though, as Martino has made clear, remains Japan's prime attacking threat. "Fundamentally they are a team who get back into their defensive positions very well, using a back line of four and practically five midfielders, with Honda generally up front," he said. "When they get the ball they come out very quickly on the counter-attack, this is what we have to be careful of most, the fast breaks. When they find space they get men forward into attack and this is the most important issue to be careful about. And obviously from what we saw the other day, we need to try not to concede fouls near the area."
Japan's set plays have been excellent, with both Honda and Yasuhito Endo scoring with direct free kicks against Denmark, whose coach, Morten Olsen, when pressed on whether committing so many fouls in dangerous areas was an error commented acerbically that no side sets out to concede free kicks within shooting range. Given Japan's problems with scoring goals from open play, though, it may almost be worth allowing its forwards space rather than risk committing fouls.
A lack of imagination and creativity has long been a problem for Japanese football, but it may be that Honda is the solution. He has had a superb tournament, and seems to be blessed with a wry wit and sense of proportion. "I am happy," he said after the victory over Denmark, "but less happy than I had expected. I fully recognized the importance of today's match and I had expected to be really jubilant if we won. Why is that not the case? Maybe because we have not finished the competition. We have to go further. Step by step I want to go higher." He also talked about how letting Endo take the second free kick and then squaring for Shinji Okazaki to roll in the third showed that he isn't really a striker.
His form for CSKA Moscow playing much deeper -- in fact, at times this year he's played almost as a holding midfielder -- suggests he is better suited to a less advanced role. Still, at this tournament, he has worked diligently in that striking role, and given the 4-1-2-3 Japan has tended to use, it may be that he would struggle to find what he might consider a more natural role. Japan coach Takeshi Okada, of course, could switch to a 4-2-3-1, in which case Honda could operate as a withdrawn striker, but presumably Okada reasons the loss of defensive stability isn't worth the risk.
"They're a team that knows how to play when it really counts," Okada said. "All South American teams are not necessarily the same, but Paraguay has a very similar game to Chile. It has a very solid back line, it pushes forward in numbers and switch quickly from defense to attack."
Much like Japan, in other words; the only real different is in the use of the flanks.