FOX Soccer Exclusive
Final four teams vie for Olympic gold
The unpredictable Olympic men's soccer tournament reaches the semifinal stage Tuesday and all four of the medal contenders will approach this week with the thought that they could be wearing gold medals next Saturday in London.
It might be fashionable to think that Brazil is the team with the stars and the pedigree to finally win the one trophy which has eluded them in a glorious football history. But the absence of an experienced goalkeeper and a suspect defense, has made them look ordinary too often in the past 10 days and have fueled the hopes of the other three contenders.
Brazil takes on South Korea at Old Trafford Tuesday after Mexico and Japan open the semifinal program in London earlier in the day. The winners, of course, will play for gold on Saturday. The losers will book a Friday date to play for the bronze medal.
Here is why all four will feel confident about their chances:
BRAZIL: Coach Mano Menezes has surfeit of attacking riches, headed by Neymar, who may be emerging as the world's third best player behind only Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.
Neymar has showcased his array of personal skills during the Games, but perhaps most important of all, the Santos striker has demonstrated the ability to sublimate his individuality for the betterment of the team. Yes, he's still taking the occasional unwise shot and yes, he goes down a bit too easily. But he has clearly made everybody around him a threat, finding Leandro Damiao, Hulk and the overlapping backs to create myriad scoring chances. Oscar has been inconsistent, but often very inventive and Marcelo has been a threat coming forward.
There is only one reason to doubt that Brazil will win the gold: the loss of regular goalkeeper Rafael Cabral. Cabral's absence left Menezes with inexperienced Neto and Gabriel, neither of whom has impressed. They are a weak enough link to undo everything the attack create at the other end.
MEXICO: El Tri came to London as perhaps the best-prepared team of the lot. With the addition of Giovani dos Santos to the attack and the emergence of Cruz Azul's Jose Corona as the goalkeeper of the competition, Mexico must be an equal favorite with Brazil.
Dos Santos did not start the first two matches for coach Luis Fernando Tena's side, but when Marco Fabian and Oribe Peralta did not hit the high notes on attack, Tena turned to the Spurs' man to ignite things. Gio has now made the team his own not only by scoring crucial goals but also by lifting the pressure off Fabian and Peralta, who both appear to be finding their form just at the right time.
Corona has been the backstop of a solid defense ever since this team was put together. In London, Corona has been downright spectacular, the glue holding the Mexican backline together. Jorge Enriquez and Darvin Chavez have supported veteran Carlos Salcido, a rock in the defense, and except for a frantic few minutes against Senegal, the organization has been near-perfect.
JAPAN: Sekizuka Japan are extremely well-organized, deceptively quick on the counter, and so good at the back that they have not allowed a goal in the tournament.
Goalkeeper Suichi Gonda hasn't had to be spectacular, either. The defense and midfield have been so effective and persistent that it has been hard for anybody to put consistent pressure on the Japanese goal.
There is one major question hanging over the team as they await the showdown with Mexico: will Kensuke Nagai be fit to go? Nagai is the fastest—and sometimes most frustrating man—on Japan's attack force.
When he came off after suffering an apparent charley horse after scoring the first goal against Egypt, the Japan attack suffered without his speed up top. And yet, Nagai missed so many chances in the opening win over Spain that you wondered if coach Takahashi Sekizuka would be able to get the best from the speedster. Since then, Nagai has done the business in partnership with Yuki Otsu – and his potential absence could be a killer.
SOUTH KOREA: The young Taegeuk Warriors may be the fittest team you'll ever see and that could be what carries them to a medal.
This is not a Korean side with a truly effective attack, but it is a team with such a level of fitness that it simply outworks everybody else. If the Koreans had a pure striker in residence they would have won all four of their matches on possession alone. Instead, they've actually drawn three and arrived in the semifinals via penalty kicks at the expense of Team GB, the Games' host.
Don't under-value the attack, however. And when you take into account the Brazilian goalkeeping issues, the fact that the South Koreans manage to create havoc in the penalty area without necessarily having the panache to make the most of it could be worrying the tournament favorites a little bit.
Ji Dong-Won and Park Chu-Young, both with Premier League experience, are the danger men, but have been inconsistent.
The South Koreans will have to decide between keepers Jung Sung-Ryong and Lee Beom-Young, too. After Jung suffered a shoulder injury in a collision with Micah Richards, Lee came on to shepherd the team through the shoot-out with Great Britain, looking every bit as confident and composed as the starter he replaced.
Jamie Trecker is the senior editor for FOXSoccer.com covering the UEFA Champions League and the Barclays Premier League.
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