PRETORIA, June 27 – Japan and Paraguay stand on the brink of history ahead of their second round clash at the Loftus Versfeld stadium here on Tuesday.Neither side has ever made it to the quarter-finals of the World Cup before so one team is guaranteed to be the greatest that their respective country has ever produced.
This match-up is one of the most unexpected and unlikely in the second round and in some respects courtesy of the failings of others.
Paraguay were expected to be playing for second place in their group but Italy’s failure to win a match saw them elminiated with Paraguay taking top spot despite only winning once themselves.
Japan were an unexpected package in their group as they toppled both Cameroon and Denmark while falling by only by a single goal against the highly fancied Dutch.
And having revelled in their underdogs tag so far, Japan coach Takeshi Okada has no intention of changing things around, despite his bold pre-competition prediction that his team would make the semi-finals.
"Paraguay are very strong and we will be the underdogs," said Okada, who coached Japan in their World Cup finals debut in 1998 when they lost all three group matches.
"Honestly speaking, we trail the rest of the world in many senses in the footballing arena, but our great strength is we play as a unit. We have proved that football is a team sport."
However, Okada is aware that breaking down Paraguay’s backline won’t be easy.
"Our first match was an obstacle and since then there has been one obstacle after another. So nothing has changed.
"(Paraguay’s) defence is solid and they press ahead as a whole. They know how to win in the clutch."
Although Japan reached the second round once before, that was on home soil in 2002 when they were then beaten 1-0 by Turkey.
Otherwise they had never won a match in the World Cup until this year, losing five and drawing just once, 0-0 with Croatia in 2006.
Paraguay have a much longer history in the tournament and coach Gerardo Martino is keen for his team to achieve something that will make them stand out from their predecessors.
"If we don’t go through nobody much will remember us (but) if we turn in Paraguay’s best ever showing then they will talk about us for a good while," he said.
Manchester City striker Roque Santa Cruz believes the team has what it takes to keep progressing to a quarter-final match-up against either Spain or Portugal.
"These can be historic times for us as we feel stronger than ever. We are a tight-knit group with bags of quality to get us through to the next round," he said.
Paraguay have certainly had better luck this time around than in their three previous second round appearances.
In 1986 they were thumped 3-0 by England before drawing hosts and eventual winners France in 1998.
There they lost to the first ever golden goal in World Cup history, scored by new France coach Laurent Blanc.
Four years later the draw again did them no favours as Germany awaited them and a goal two minutes from time broke Paraguayan hearts as the Germans went on to the final.
KEY TO THE MATCH
Paraguay’s defence has been water-tight up until now and unless Japan can get in behind the South Americans, they’ll find it very hard to score. Paraguay won’t comme forward like Denmark did and Japan will have to take every chance they get because the talented South Americans are likely to find a way through the Japanese back line.