Paraguay's remarkable progress
Eight rounds out of 18 have been played in South America's World Cup qualifying campaign, and sitting pretty at the top of the table are Paraguay. Four points clear, they are well on course for a fourth consecutive appearance in the finals.
Their progress is truly remarkable. I have visited Paraguay on several occasions. The place and the people have a certain serene charm, but one of the abiding impressions is of mangy dogs snoozing on shattered paving stones.
Of the 10 countries in the continent only Uruguay has a smaller population, and only Bolivia is poorer. And yet Paraguay are able to outperform a football-crazy country like Colombia, which has a population almost eight times larger.
Paraguayan football has always been able to count on fighting spirit. The game brings out the warrior in the people, who knit together naturally to build teams feared all over the continent for their durability.
This, though, has always been the case. In recent times Paraguay's progress has been based on adding more things to the mix.
Their youth development work has been good, with players coming up through the ranks of the Under-20s into the senior side. The local championship became more competitive when the number of teams in the first division was reduced, while staging the 1999 Copa America led to a slight decentralisation of the game, with the entire top flight no longer clustered around capital city Asuncion.
And in this current campaign, Paraguay have also benefited from having a foreign coach keen to implement new ideas.
At first he tried to move too quickly - a surprising error, because he had coached top clubs in the country and should have known what to expect.
His mission was to get the side playing in the opposition's half, imposing themselves on the game. In his first competitive match in last year's Copa America his team beat Colombia 5-0, and Martino was not happy. It was a counter-attacking triumph, and not at all the tactical approach that he was searching for.
The problem really became apparent when Paraguay had their keeper sent off right at the start of the quarter-final against Mexico. The back three were caught between Martino's desire for them to push up and play high, and their own instinct to defend on the edge of their penalty area. Mexico danced through the confusion to win 6-0.
Defeat made Martino more pragmatic. He reverted to a back four and made a virtue of his players' versatility. For tough away games his full-backs have stayed deep and covered. At home they bomb forward and supply crosses. He has midfielders who can mark or create as the situation demands. And, unlike some of his predecessors, Martino can call on a talented and aggressive group of strikers.
The prince among them, of course, is Roque Santa Cruz, who helped set up both goals in last Tuesday's 2-0 win over Venezuela. It is perhaps surprising that his success at Blackburn has not been followed up with Premier League clubs looking at other Paraguayan players.
The Mexican league has certainly caught on. Of Paraguay's squad for the recent World Cup qualifiers, nine are based in Mexico, and some of the others have had spells there.
One who readily comes to mind as theoretically being suited to the English game is midfielder Cristian Riveros, currently with Cruz Azul. Away to Argentina, in the absence of the normal holding midfielder, he did a good marking job on Juan Riquelme.
Three days later at home to Venezuela it was back to normal service - he passes off either foot and has the dynamism to keep popping up in the box. He scored his third goal of the campaign and his 7th in 33 internationals.
With his mix of warrior spirit, talent and versatility Riveros is an appropriate symbol of Martino's Paraguay, and would not look out of place on the pitches of the Premier League.