FOX Soccer Exclusive
Brazil turns to Neymar in crunch time
|Tuesday, August 7|
|More: Olympics | Standings|
Neymar led Brazil past a plucky South Korean team 3-0 Tuesday at Old Trafford to set up the clash we all expected: the Verde-Amarela versus Mexico. El Tri recovered from an early goal to torch Japan 3-1 and end Asia’s hopes at Wembley Stadium.
Mexico, having made history by guaranteeing that they have won a medal, will be competing in their first-ever final. The Brazilians will be trying to win the lone major prize that has eluded their storied soccer team: the Olympic gold medal.
On the evidence, either team can carry the day this Saturday at Wembley. It will be hard to stop Neymar, the man from Santos who continues to earn comparisons with the greats of the game even though he has yet to celebrate his 21st birthday. So what if he can’t buy a beer in the United States? He’s still the man.
In Manchester, the chaotic South Koreans, easily the fittest team in world football, showed once again that athleticism is no substitute for technique. Fleet, fierce and frustrating, if the Koreans could stop making reckless passes and start putting their shots on frame, they would be one of the great teams in this sport.
For twenty minutes, they harassed a Brazilian side that seemed prepared for what has become a predictable onslaught. The first twelve minutes saw three great chances as Kim Hyung-Sum and Ji Dong-Won caused chaos inside the Brazilian box. For a moment, it looked as though the Asians might be able to spring a shock.
But Neymar’s creativity soon shone through, with his pressure on the Korean backline directly leading to Romulo’s breakthrough, and then his cutback after the half setting up Leandro Damiao. Both goals came from his inherent unpredictability, while the Korean backline could not afford to let him shoot but they couldn’t handle his drifting runs out wide or his poking and prodding down the center.
His presence settled the game and by the hour mark turned it from a contest into a foregone conclusion. It is easy to see why the lanky striker is so coveted; he exudes a calm that belies his youth and when he was running off the ball, there was more than a whiff of panic in the eyes of the Koreans.
Leandro’s two goals took him to the top of the golden boot table and it will probably be enough to see him win it. Gio Dos Santos is far behind and his fitness is now a major question mark now hanging over the final.
Dos Santos had to come off at the half in Mexico’s win and it is unclear what his weekend status will be. Dos Santos was not as much of a factor today, missing wildly on two gilt-edged chances but Mexico showed just how much they benefit from their long tenure playing together as a team.
If Neymar is the calming force for Brazil, then Mexico’s strength has to be their familiarity with one another. Mexico recovered from conceding a killer goal in the 12th minute. Yuki Otsu’s rocket past Jose Corona was the kind of strike no keeper could hope to stop, a product of too much space and a bit of fortune as it curled top left.
But heads did not bow, and Mexico recovered quickly, leveling matters just twenty minutes later with a threading-the-needle header from Marco Fabian. It came after steady pressure and was fully deserved.
The comeback was completed when Japan made a rare gaffe, Shuichi Gonda pouring the ball out on a plate to Oribe Peralta, lurking just off the shoulder of Takahiro Ohgihara. Ogihara certainly wasn’t slick enough about disposing of the ball but his keeper served him a mess. Peralta was able to pluck it away and then fire in an insouciant, unstoppable shot past the despairing Gonda. Javier Cortes added punctuation in injury time, but the game was gone long before that.
Japan and Korea will now compete for a bronze, the former’s hopes of joining their women’s side on gold now mere vapor. And Mexico and Brazil will hope that their cool heads will carry the day. On paper, you’d surely pick the South Americans – but it would be unwise to bet against this young El Tri side that has shown as much character and skill as we all expected during these Games.
Jamie Trecker is the senior editor for FOXSoccer.com covering the UEFA Champions League and the Barclays Premier League.