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
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,
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
Japan's set plays have been excellent, with both Honda and
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
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
"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.