Group A

Paraguay vs. Japan: After penalty kicks, Paraguay advances to World Cup quarterfinals

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By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 30, 2010

PRETORIA, SOUTH AFRICA -- Paraguay didn't so much win the World Cup round-of-16 match against Japan on Tuesday at Loftus Versfeld Stadium. Rather, the Paraguayans put the tedious game out of its misery.

"Perhaps not the way people wanted to see it," confessed Gerardo Martino, the Argentine coach of La Albirroja (white and red).

Oscar Cardozo provided the decisive stroke in a penalty kick tiebreaker, securing a 5-3 triumph after 120 miserable and scoreless minutes.

Paraguay is headed to the quarterfinals for the first time in history, the fourth South American side to remain in contention. With each in a separate bracket, the possibility exists of the continent filling every semifinal slot.

Paraguay will face Spain on Saturday at Ellis Park in Johannesburg. For the good of the sport, one would hope that the quality of play rises significantly.

Before the shortcomings in regulation and extra time are reviewed, Paraguay's precision in the tiebreaker must be commended. Each attempt was expertly converted. Yuichi Komano hit the crossbar in the third round, dooming Japan's efforts.

"We had plenty of the ball and we managed to keep a clean sheet, but we lacked a cutting edge," Cardozo said. "In the shootout, we had a slice of luck."

Thousands of seats were empty at this capital city venue. Just as well. Those who found no appeal in the least glamorous of the round-of-16 matches were wise to stay away.

Yes, the defending was of decent quality and each goalkeeper was called upon at anxious moments. The intensity picked up after a temperate start and, with so much at stake, the tension built. For the most part, though, this match was a dud, perhaps the worst in a tournament that began with several forgettable encounters.

It's unfair to draw conclusions from a game's score line. A week earlier at this very same stadium, the United States and Algeria provided great theater without the benefit of a goal until Landon Donovan's late strike.

This grim affair lacked both goals and gusto.

The first half offered little. Paraguay kept possession, methodically trying to mount an attack. Japan wanted to stretch its legs in the open field. Indeed, there were some quality chances: Goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima blocked an angled shot by Lucas Barrios, who had used a clever touch and turn to penetrate the penalty area.

Daisuke Matsui answered with a 30-yard one-timer off the crossbar. From a corner kick, Roque Santa Cruz, Paraguay's most decorated player, snapped a 12-yard bid wide of the right post.

Late in the half, Matsui jetted down the right flank and squared the ball to Keisuke Honda at the top of the box. Honda has been one of the World Cup's revelations, scoring a pair of goals and exhibiting a gifted touch, but on this opportunity, he sliced a 22-yard one-timer wide of the left upright.

The restless crowd longed for a livelier second half, but the match continued to lack invention. The off-key vuvuzela symphony and a fan wearing a gigantic puppet head of Argentina's loony coach, Diego Maradona, provided welcome distraction. Mild chances surfaced, but nothing to threaten the deadlock. With time melting away and neither side able to crack open the match, hopes for an outcome in regulation faded.

Paraguay had the better of play in the first 15 minutes. Japan displayed some nice combination work in the final 15. Penalty kicks, an undesirable but inevitable destination, awaited.

"We played with our heart," Martino said. "Sometimes the heart is enough for this kind of match."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company

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