Paraguay look to kickstart new era against Messi's Argentina - ESPN

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Paraguay look to kickstart new era against Messi's Argentina - ESPN

Paraguay's new manager Argentine Daniel Garnero makes his national team debut against Lionel Messi's Argentina, the reigning world champions.

Paraguay's new manager Argentine Daniel Garnero makes his national team debut against Lionel Messi's Argentina, the reigning world champions.

It is almost the definition of being thrown into the deep end. In the third round of South America's World Cup qualifiers, Paraguay already have a new coach. Guillermo Barros Schelotto was sacked after last month's opening two games, where his team hit the woodwork numerous times as they were held 0-0 by Peru and then went down 1-0 -- victim of a late VAR-awarded penalty -- against Venezuela.

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So Barros Schelotto has been replaced by another Argentine, Daniel Garnero. After failing to score in those opening games, Garnero has promised a more attacking approach. And on Thursday, based on next to no time on the training ground, he will aim to put this philosophy into practice -- away from home against the reigning world champions.

Garnero gets his reign underway in Buenos Aires against Argentina. In his playing days, he was a fine playmaker with Independiente. As a coach, he has extensive experience in Paraguayan football -- a big advantage over Barros Schelotto and something that should mean that the local media treat him with more patience.

With Guarani, Olimpia, and Libertad he has won the Paraguayan league eight times -- a statistic which is highly impressive even with the acknowledgment that the country plays two separate championships a year. So he knows the scene and most of the players, even the ones who are now based abroad.

Even so, the thought of kicking off against Lionel Messi is daunting.

In the first two rounds, Argentina were the only ones who really looked like a team. This was hardly surprising as the interval between the end of the previous World Cup cycle and the start of this was much shorter than ever. A cluster of new coaches had not had extended time with their players and, predictably, most of the teams came across as badly undercooked.

Argentina were the exception. Lionel Scaloni has been in charge for five years, much longer than anyone else, and his men are still on a high from winning the Qatar World Cup. Over the next two and half years a gradual process of evolution will take place and it is not clear how long Messi will still be included.

But he is still around, and made the difference in the opening game, winning the points at home to Ecuador with a magnificent free kick. And Argentina did exceptionally well without him in the second game, the midfield dictating the rhythm of the match in an impressive 3-0 win away to Bolívia at the extreme altitude of La Paz.

So how can Garnero's Paraguay succeed against this well-oiled machine?

The coach will dream of setting the pace of Miguel Almirón free to run at an Argentina back line that is not always entirely convincing. To give Almiron some kind of platform, traditional Paraguayan virtues of defensive resilience will surely be important.

For all Garnero's talk of attacking, this is a game where his team will almost certainly spend most of the time marking, harrying, and hoping for an opportunity on the break.

Meanwhile, possibly the most intriguing tie comes earlier in the day on Thursday when Uruguay visit Colombia. With a 1-0 win at home to Venezuela followed by a goalless draw away to Chile, the Colombians were a little disappointing in the opening rounds. But they remain unbeaten under Argentine coach Nestor Lorenzo, who accumulated 6 wins and 2 draws in warm-up friendlies.

Uruguay's Marcelo Bielsa suffered his first defeat in the last round, going down 2-1 to Ecuador at the altitude of Quito -- and the conditions for Thursday's game will also not be easy. Colombia like to play their home games in the afternoon in the sweltering heat of Barranquilla, and the likely high temperature will make it tough for Uruguay to play Bielsa's dynamic pressing game.

And the fixture list does not get any easier for Uruguay, who in next week's fourth round are up against Brazil. Along with Argentina, Brazil also won both their opening games, although they were much less impressive away to Peru than they had been against Bolivia at home.

But Brazil should have few problems maintaining their 100 per cent record this week when they have another "home banker" against Venezuela in Cuiaba. With three points on the board, Venezuela are confident of going all the way to their first World Cup, and how well they cope with the visit to Brazil will be a test of their credentials.

Elsewhere, Bolivia made an awful start last month, and now aim to bounce back at home to Ecuador. The opponent, though, is not ideal. Bolivia's strongest weapon is the extreme altitude of La Paz -- which worries Ecuador much less than the others.

And the Pacific derby between Chile and Peru is usually anything but peaceful. With both sides off to a poor start (a point each and just one goal between them) this latest meeting in Santiago could prove especially feisty.

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