New Zealand, expected to be one of the tournament doormats, has proven themselves with draws against Slovakia and Italy, and while most purported the Italy result as some once-in-a-lifetime miracle, that covers belies the fact that New Zealand has shown itself a capable and dangerous team.
Expect Gerardo Martino to have taken notice. The Paraguay coach is having a great tournament, and where he has to this point pushed all the right buttons in getting Paraguay to the top of Group F, it is unlikely that Martino will let his team’s chances to top the group fade away by making the same mistakes as television punditry.
Paraguay, Going Forward: Gerardo Martino switched from a 4-4-2 to a 4-3-3 for the Slovakia match, a move that worked wonders as the pressure exerted on the Slovakia back line exposed an indecisive defense. Now going against New Zealand’s 3-4-3, it’s unclear whether Martino will stay with the three man attack or switch back to a four man midfield.
Tactical advantages aside, there are personnel reasons why Martino could stay with the formation. Paraguay has a ridiculous amount of striking talent. The three players likely to start against New Zealand - Lucas Barrios, Nelson Valdez and Roque Santa Cruz - keep the leading scorer in Portugal, Oscar Cardozo, off the pitch. The 4-3-3 allows Martino to get more of his best players on the pitch at the same time.
The drawback to staying with the 4-3-3: Paraguay may be outnumbered and constricted before they get into the final third. Against an hard-working New Zealand team who have done a good job of maintaining their formation’s shape, having a three man midfield could make things more difficult for Paraguay than need be.
New Zealand, Going Forward: The All Whites will rely exclusively on counter attacks and set pieces. Being compacted so deep (and in such numbers) in their third while defending, they don’t have the set-up or approach to build-up goals.
That is not to say that the Kiwis are not dangerous. As both Slovakia and Italy learned, New Zealand is capable of getting a goal on the end of a cross, and while Paraguay has shown their own proficiency in executing a set-piece, Justo Villar gifted Italy their goal when he misread a corner kick. A similar error could see New Zealand into the knockout stage.
Above all, New Zealand is going to have to be opportunistic. They know they don’t have the same technical skill as their opponents, but as their strong defending and their relentless work has shown, the Kiwis have a way of mitigating their disadvantages.
How The Match Turns: Not being familiar with the All Whites, it’s natural for Paraguay to underestimate them - from naivete more than patronization. At some point in this match, Paraguay will wake-up and start treating New Zealand with the respect they deserve. The All Whites will wish they hadn’t, as Paraguay will show themselves the slightly better team.