Olympic Football: The Semi-Finals

by | Aug 19, 2016

WOMEN

BBC commentator Nigel Adderley nearly said it but bottled out just at the last minute. “Brazil/Canada will be…a good game.” But he was thinking that the Women’s “Bronze Medal match” will be better than the final. Co-commentator Sue Smith suggested that “there will be two good games…er…with the final.” But her nervous laughter betrayed her lack of conviction.

Brazil 0 Sweden 0 (Sweden win 4-3 on penalties)

Somehow, Lisa Dahlkvist didn’t seem quite such the heroine when she struck the winning shoot-out penalty this time. Despite her “travels” during the quarter-final shoot-out against Australia, Brazil keeper Barbara just isn’t as unpopular as Hope Solo. Then again…who is? “Sweden are only here because Team GB decided not to compete” was becoming a mantra by the end of Adderley’s commentary, the sub-text (actually, not that ‘sub’) being that Team GB would have been certain finalists. Hard to deny, the way Team GB have generally performed at these Games.

His statement that Team GB “decided” not to compete was wrong, though. The English FA failed to get any support from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. And without that, Team GB weren’t eligible. After all, England actually qualified for the Olympics. And they don’t have a team here at all. This parochialism was one disadvantage of the BBC commentary replacing the “world feed” for the semi-finals, the persistent name-checking Women’s Super League clubs. Thus Sweden’s goalkeeper was “Chelsea’s Lindahl” (though not when she nearly gifted Marta a 121st-minute winner). While her team-mate was “Manchester City’s Aslani.” Adderley wasn’t as guilty of this as other BBC voices have been at, for instance, African Cups of Nations. And when his commentary was occasionally off-key, Smith was on-hand to set him straight. For all their faults, the BBC beat the World Feed here.

Just as against the USA, Sweden had their chances, despite their blanket defence strategy, although Smith’s insistence that they had “the better” chances before extra-time was pushing it. Meanwhile, Brazil, who started like a goal machine, can’t buy one now, a mirror image of the men’s campaign. Marta cut the frustrated figure we had rarely seen at this tournament, beating her marker with consistent ease, in the first half especially, only for her creativity to be as consistently wasted. Sweden did defend superbly, though. Veteran centre-back Nilla Fischer had looked on her last tournament legs during last year’s World Cup and early on here. But her improvement has matched the team’s. And if Sweden have not been fun to watch (although better in blue than in that accursed “custard” kit), they deserve to be finalists.

Germany 2 Canada 0

Like Sweden, Germany have improved with each game. It seems to be the template for tournament success these days. And a spot-kick and an excellent second goal saw them past a Canada side who planted their flag in plucky territory and stayed there. At her best, Canada centre-back Kadeisha Buchanan has looked as smooth as Alan Hansen in his prime (sorry that I can’t bring a comparison to mind from the women’s game…my ignorance). At times, though, she’s resembled Alan Hansen like he’d be now. And her penalty-box attempt to dispossess Alexandra Popp on 20 minutes was a picture book example, her sliding-tackle some months late.

Canadian keeper Stephanie Labbe was at her athletic best to get out of the way of Melanie Behringer’s fierce straight-down-the-middle penalty. Yet Almuth Schult was the busier custodian, especially after Diana Matheson was introduced on the hour, Schult’s fabulous 77th-minute save from Matheson strangling a Canadian comeback at birth

It was Canada’s misfortune that on the night strike pair Melissa Tancredi and Christine Sinclair simply didn’t look like very good footballers. That, and Germany’s last-ditch defending, proved their downfall. Had Tabea Kemme not cleared Buchanan’s first-half stoppage-time header off the line, Canada would have fancied their second-half chances. As it is, they will fancy their chances against a sinking, disappointed Brazil. Not that I’m predicting anything…not with my track record. Except…

Predictions: The bronze medal match will be the better of the two. And Canada will repeat their 2012 bronze. The pattern of the final, if pattern isn’t too kind a word for what awaits, seems clear. Sweden’s game plan against China, USA and Brazil got them exactly what they wanted each time. And it is difficult to see a relatively plodding Germany being any more successful at breaking the Swedes down. Tiredness may, though, be a factor. The extra hour’s football that Sweden have played this week, albeit mostly in one half, plus the mental exertions of two tight shoot-outs, could tell. Germany’s games lacked that energy-sapping intensity, the quarter-final against China lacked any intensity at all. So I tip them to complete the first leg of an Olympic double, with the caveat that I’ve tipped against Sweden all tournament, quite pointedly too.

MEN

Blimey. Got one right. Germany/Brazil it is. Brazil’s revenge and redemption for that 7-1. A chance for Neymar to show the world what might have been? Oh…and an Olympic Gold Medal for the winners. Nearly forgot… BBC commentator Alistair Mann seemed confused as to whether this was what Brazil wanted, sure that they did until he noticed Brazilian-shirted fans cheering Nigeria in the second semi-final. Oh well. Either way, we will have new Gold medallists. Brazil’s Olympic failings we’re sick of hearing about, Germany’s is more of a surprise. This was the first time they even qualified since 1988.

Brazil 6 Honduras 0

You can imagine Honduran manager Jorge Luis Pinto’s final words to his charges before they stepped out onto the Maracana pitch. “Keep it tight for 15 minutes or so…” would surely have been among them. His first words after his charges stepped off the pitch at half-time? “I said minutes…bloody MINUTES…” Mann judged the mood well, listing all the pressures that might have been on Brazil, especially after the women lost, particularly “how this huge crowd will want them to get on top straight away.” All the pressures that were almost audibly lifted by defensive hesitancy and a Neymar blockdown which rolled slowly into the net. Which means all those Neymar shirts that were changed to read “Marta” have to be changed back again. They’ll look a mess at the final.

It is hard to imagine a worse defensive set-up than Brazil’s going five-sixths of a tournament without conceding a goal. And not very often looking like doing so. Germany will almost certainly put the achingly slow centre-back duo, Rodrigo Caio and Marquinhos, under more pressure than Denmark et al combined. Even the well-beaten, shell-shocked, stage-frightened Hondurans had their moments. Brazil again looked slick going forward and their fifth goal was a genuine beauty, breaking at pace and passing to perfection to give Luan a tap-in he nearly lifted onto the crossbar…or which hit the roof of the net with a satisfying thump, depending on how deep-seated your cynicism is.

But they still look like a Brazil tribute act, with this comprehensive victory down more to Honduran incompetence than anything else. The second and fourth goals were as gifted as the first. The stoppage-time penalty was almost as bad. And that noise you heard in the background at the final whistle? South Koreans asking aloud, all at once: “How did we lose to them?”

Germany 2 Nigeria 0

Another disadvantage of the BBC replacing the “world feed” commentators was the limited research the Beeb people appeared to have done. Mann’s salivating over Brazil’s semi-final win showed that he was unaware of how much better both teams in the second semi-final were than hapless Honduras. And both he and co-commentator Kevin Kilbane appeared to believe that Nigeria’s place in the last four was some sort of fairy tale and called the game as if it was a League Two side against a Premier League side in the FA Cup semi-final, apparently taken aback when Nigeria began to apply concerted pressure and made the game “less one-sided than the first semi-final.”

In truth, Nigeria created disappointingly little from all the decent positions into which they got themselves, despite it being an entertaining game, especially the first half. German top-scorer Serge Gnabry didn’t quite impose himself on the first half after his early booking. He had replacements, though. They had already got in behind Nigeria’s defence twice before left-back Lukas Klostermann opened the scoring on nine minutes. Mann was still dribbling about that goal when German keeper Timo Horn nearly gifted Sadiq Umar an equaliser. “They never blame themselves, do they?” Mann added, over pictures of Horn…blaming himself. It was to be Nigeria’s best chance and Horn redeemed himself with two blocks from the surprised Umar.

Mann was confused throughout the first half, suggesting that striker Davie Selkie had helped “Red Bull Salzburg” win promotion to the “Bundesliga” (it was FC Leipzig, so a case of a mis-dictated crib sheet rather than an unheralded new Anschluss). Nigeria had their moments before half-time but fewer after it and Germany’s only disappointment was that their clinching second goal took so long, sub Nils Petersen adding to the five goals he got against Fiji in his only tournament start. Germany should have been down to ten men when Matthias Ginter committed a second bookable offence not long after his first. But he wasn’t booked. And so Germany are ready, a rare team in Brazil that started the tournament strong and are still going strong. Brazil beware.

One final word. Germany wear white. Nigeria wear green. So, WHY were both teams in their change kit here? “Home” kit in the wash for Saturday? Are the Olympic teams that underfunded? I can’t imagine there’s a huge merchandising opportunity in Olympic change kits.

Prediction:

The final will be an “occasion,” whatever transpires specifically. The 7-1 game means so much more to Brazil than it does to Germany. Only two of the 36 players in the two squads were even involved in the 2014 World Cup. And Neymar is way the biggest deal of them. Whatever is said to be at stake for him is only extra pressure on a by-definition young side up against opposition which has been of a higher quality throughout the tournament in all areas of the pitch. Home advantage is the only realistic advantage Brazil have. And that might not necessarily be an advantage. Unless they are downed by some individual brilliance from Neymar or…erm…, its Germany for Gold. And, whisper it, another 7-1 isn’t out of the reckoning.

Meanwhile, the bronze medal match could be fun. Nigeria will pile forward unless their pre-tournament travel trials and tribulations have really caught up with them, as the closing stages of their semi suggested might be the case. And a nerveless Honduras are ideal counter-attackers…just ask Algeria or South Korea. Especially South Korea. Nigeria to win. 3-2 probably.

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