Paraguay close to last 16 as New Zealand dream of glory


Polokwane (South Africa) : When the team ranked 31st in the world plays the team listed as 78th it is fair to say the World Cup football is not expecting a clash of heavyweights here Thursday.

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But for both Paraguay and lower-ranked New Zealand, a place in the last 16 beckons in Group F where world champions Italy and Slovakia also do battle in Johannesburg.

With just three points separating top from bottom, all four teams have a chance, but Paraguay are the only side who could progress with a draw as they attempt to reach the last 16 for a fourth time.

However, the South Americans, who are at their fourth consecutive World Cup finals, will be out for a victory to avoid playing a team like the Netherlands in the next round.

“The idea is to be first whatever it takes, and to try not to let this beautiful opportunity to close the group stage well slip away,” defender Carlos Bonet said.

“Then we’ll see where we have to play, and against whom,” he added.

Paraguay’s confidence is high after holding Italy to a 1-1 draw and defeating Slovakia 2-0, and the belief is that La Albirroja could go on and reach the quarter-final stage for the first time.

“These results have strengthened us mentally and spiritually, not just as football players but in our attitude as well,” coach Gerardo Martino said.

He is expected to keep the same side that beat Slovakia, and Jonathan Santana could return to the bench if he has recovered from injury.

New Zealand, meanwhile, are living the dream in South Africa after 1-1 draws with both Slovakia and Italy, and the All Whites are in the mood for another upset at the Peter Mokaba Stadium.

Coach Ricki Herbert may also be tempted to stay with the line-up that started against Italy, with keeper Mark Paston, who performed faultlessly in that game, again between the posts even though first-choice Glen Moss is eligible to play after suspension.

The All Whites are out to create their own footballing history by reaching the second stage for the first time. At their only previous appearance, in 1982, they lost their three group matches against Scotland, Soviet Union and Brazil with a 2-12 aggregate score.

Already they have surprised everyone by keeping Italy at bay in their last game to keep their hopes of progressing alive.

“It’s the most incredible result we’ve had across the board,” Herbert said. “As a football coach, it’s way above anything we’ve achieved in the history of the game.”

The Kiwis can now advance with a victory, and possibly a draw if Italy are also held and do not end up with as many goals scored.

“We are always daring to dream,” Herbert said. “At the World Cup anything is possible – we’ve seen some strange results.”