BLOEMFONTEIN, June 18- Paraguay head into their clash with European minnows Slovakia in Bloemfontein on Sunday knowing a win will go a long way towards securing a place in the knockout phase.Paraguay already have on paper what looked their toughest game in Group F out of the way, drawing 1-1 with defending world champions Italy in their opener while Slovakia were shell-shocked after conceding a last-gasp equaliser against New Zealand.
The South Americans came into the tournament in great shape after beating Brazil and Argentina in qualifying and will fancy their chances of reaching the last 16 after holding the group favourites in Cape Town.
Argentinian coach Gerardo Martino said taking a point from the Italy game had given the team a confidence boost but said Paraguay needed to "improve on our possession and how we move the ball."
The South Americans are in their fourth straight finals with much of the credit given to Martino, who has managed to negotiate a delicate transition phase for his team.
Paraguay’s goalscoring threats include Nelson Valdez of Borussia Dortmund, Roque Santa Cruz of Manchester City and Oscar Cardozo of Benfica.
Their tight and effective defensive unit is marshalled by goalkeeper Justo Villar.
The South Americans are dedicating their games to Salvador Cabanas, the 2007 South American footballer of the year who was shot in the head in the toilet of a Mexico City bar in January. He survived, but is on a long road to recovery.
While Paraguay also let a lead slip in their opener, the stoppage time equaliser conceded by Slovakia meant their draw against New Zealand felt like a defeat and they missed out on establishing a crucial early advantage in Group F.
Head coach Vladimir Weiss described the late equaliser to Robert Vittek’s opener as a "small sporting tragedy for us."
Napoli midfielder Marek Hamsik is the main dangerman for Slovakia with other threats coming from striker Stanislav Sestak, who plays for Budesliga club VfL Bochum, and Miroslav Stoch, a winger who has just been sold by Chelsea to Turkish giants Fenerbahce after a successful season on loan at Dutch champions FC Twente.
KEY TO MATCH
Roque Santa Cruz (PAR) v Marek Hamsik (SVK)
The match pits Manchester City striker Roque Santa Cruz against Slovakia’s captain and playmaker Marek Hamsik. Napoli midfielder Hamsik pulls the strings for Slovakia in midfield and is also a goalscorer. At 22, he is being tipped as a major star and is being monitored by a number of top clubs.
Santa Cruz will be hoping to play a major role after coming on as a late substitute in the match against Italy amid reports of a niggling injury.