Olympic Games Football: The Quarter-finals
Hopefully, the Olympic football quarter-finals finished two things. Hope Solo’s international football career. And my attempts to predict Olympic football matches. I was one well-struck Australian shoot-out penalty from getting all four women’s quarter-finals’ wrong. So, from now on, I’m sticking to history, such as…Hope Solo’s international football career.
USA 1 Sweden 1 (Sweden win 4-3 on penalties)
Sky’s Paul Kelso tweeted that Solo’s press conference after Sweden’s penalty shoot-out win was “remarkable.” It wasn’t. Not for her. She’s a veteran hissy-fit egomaniac. Her accusations of Swedish cowardice wrote headlines. But her pig-ignorance was greater exposed by her insistence that Sweden wouldn’t “make it far in the tournament.” They’re in the semi-finals, you dopey sod. Go home.
Context dictated Sweden’s tactics. The US would have won an expansive game, despite never reaching peak form in Brazil. Coach Pia Sundhage knew that, having coached the US from 2008 to 2012. Substitute Stina Blackstenius’s 61st-minute goal was against the run of play but had not come out of nowhere. The US recovered like true champions (Solo’s gormlessness shouldn’t mask their quality). To the delight of commentator Paul Dempsey whose pro-US bias was embarrassingly evident.
The game improved as it progressed, during extra-time too, against expectations. But it was nearly ruined by dreadful officiating. The States’ Carli Lloyd had a goal disallowed incorrectly for offside, although Lloyd appeared to foul her marker before netting. And a minute later Sweden’s Lotta Schelin was flagged offside despite the ball cannoning her way via a defender. Thankfully, Sweden’s shoot-out success made such errors irrelevant.
Solo actually had a thought-out shoot-out strategy, taking giant sideways strides which almost guaranteed a save if she went “the right way.” But for Sweden’s potentially decisive penalty, Solo went for a change-of-gloves routine to add the passage of time to the pressures already on penalty-taker Lisa Dahlkvist (“how can I make myself even more hated than I already am?” thought Solo, as she looked at her right glove. “I know…”).
The referee disappointingly resisted the temptation to let Dahlkvist take her kick while Solo fiddled with her fingers some yards from goal. But Dahlkvist’s smile said “It’s OK. I’ll wait.” And Solo’s changed glove could be sold “as new” on eBay, untouched by a matchball. Now that she’s back home. Tee-hee.
Germany 1 China 0
Penalties did for China, too. Well, one penalty. Germany were only one-up when Shuang Wang struck the post with her 84th-minute spot-kick. But the let-off was no more than a partly rejuvenated Germany deserved. Goalie Zhao Lina kept China in the match a lot longer than they deserved. The already-booked Shanshan Wang momentarily forgot that booting an opponent up the windpipe was, at least, a cautionable offence. Her look of surprise at seeing red was…well…a surprise. And Melanie Behringer’s 76th-minute winner was inevitable on two counts. One, that it would happen and, two, that it would be a special shot. Little else would have beaten Zhao.
Canada 1 France 0
France’s group stage breezes past Colombia and New Zealand suggested that they were shaking off their under-achievers’ tag. Captain and centre-back Wendy Renard was nailing down the player-of-the-tournament award. And Louise Cadamuro (nee Necib) was, at last, sort of, justifying the “female Zidane” tag which has followed her throughout her drifts on the fringes of finals games. Alas, the quarter-final was a 90-minute reversion to type and Canada were good enough to benefit.
Despite scoring twice against the hapless Football Ferns, Cadamuro was benched for the quarter-final. Initially, this didn’t look important. France should have had an early penalty when Eugenie Le Sommer was upended in the box, this certainty unaffected by her game-long predilection for hitting the deck at the hint of a nearby challenge.
Canada, though, are made of stern stuff. Allysha Chapman’s fearful-looking (shoulder) injury was testament to their literal preparedness to “go in where it hurts.” While the game’s only goal, Sophie Schmidt’s close-range but well-taken side-footed shot, emanated from the game’s only touch of significant class, Janine Beckie’s flick over her marker’s head and pinpoint cross.
Cadamuro’s performance screamed “I’m retiring after this” (she is). And that may be a consideration for many disappointed French players, which would be especially harsh on the magnificent Renard, whose pitch for individual tournament honours may yet be successful. Canada’s post-match delight screamed “we fear no-one.” And with the USA home by now, Canada need not even fear being cheated at the semi-final stage, as never happened in 2012 either. Oh no.
Brazil 0 Australia 0 (Brazil win 7-6 on penalties)
If “Brazil superstar” Marta had ever dreamt of “doing a Cristiano Ronaldo,” I’m sure penalty failures were not involved. And had her shoot-out failure against Australia knocked Brazil out of their own Olympics, fans’ reaction would have been hard to predict (though her penalty miss in the 2007 World Cup final against Germany doesn’t appear to have dented her popularity). Fortunately, Brazilian keeper Barbara ran to Marta’s rescue. Literally. Way too literally for the laws of the game. Equally fortunately, referee Carol Anne Chenard, officious to the point of despair during the 120 minutes, didn’t seem to care.
Barbara didn’t so much leave her line as charge towards the penalty spot in the hope that she’d collide with the ball travelling the other way. She neared the edge of the six-yard box for the first three kicks before saving Katrina Gorry’s effort having had her on-rushing tendencies belatedly curbed by Chenard. She was off her line/trolley again, though, when she saved Allana Kennedy’s kick to send Brazil through. And again, when it mattered most, Chenard didn’t care.
Brazil shaded a 120 minutes which was better than 0-0 suggested, after which you’d have backed Lydia Williams to be the better shoot-out keeper. Instead, Barbara used her considerable bulk (and officially-sanctioned law-breaking) to cover for her technical keeping deficiencies. And, most importantly, to save Marta from whatever blame for exit from Brazil’s own Olympics may have heaped upon her.
Semi-final predictions: You are joking.
(PS: In the group stages, it was Brazil 5 Sweden 1 and Canada 2 Germany 1. Just saying.)
Another Germany/Brazil encounter looms over the men’s tournament. A Neymar-less Brazil famously crashed 7-1 in 2014’s World Cup semi-finals, a beating from which Brazil’s international game doesn’t appear to have recovered. And if Colombia’s apparent game plan had worked, Brazil would be Neymar-less again. Honduras are in the way of Brazil fulfilling their part of the Germany/Brazil bargain. Though nobody is quite sure how. Oh…and Denmark played some attacking football…and lost anyway.
Germany 4 Portugal 0
Germany gave Portugal the sort of hiding for which many football fans were crying out during Euro 2016. The worry for Germany is that their performance will have pundits tipping them for glory just before they show that they’ve peaked too soon. Arsenal’s Serge Gnabry is becoming Germany’s star. If Tony Pulis was a pundit his reaction to that would have been interesting. Although Pulis would just as likely not recognise Gnabry and simply call him “the lad” as he gave Gnabry just one substitute appearance in five months on-loan at West Bromwich Albion last season.
Mind you, if Gnabry had been this good, he’d have been the first name on Pulis’s teamsheet, and achieved more during an admittedly injury-hit spell at Arsenal. “Are you watching, Arsene Wenger?” is an increasingly popular newspaper headline. Matters might have been different had Carlos Mane taken a terrific early opportunity, not the first time a Portuguese no.17 has been in that situation. Keeper Bruno Varela was their best player, though. And if striker Davie Selke had been on form, Germany would have been out of sight by half-time.
Portugal beat Germany 5-0 in last year’s Uefa Under-21 championship semi-final, Europe’s Olympic qualifying tournament. Saturday’s encounter was over as a contest after Mathias Ginter headed home Germany’s second on 67 minutes. But they drove on, suggestions that they were after total revenge gaining credibility by-the-minute. Hopefully they haven’t left their form behind in this quest.
Nigeria 2 Denmark 0
It took three-and-a-bit games. But against Nigeria, Denmark finally offered a consistent attacking threat. Only after Nigeria scored, early-ish in each half, and mainly inspired by gargantuan centre-back Eddie Gomes. But attacking football nonetheless. Nigeria were never not in control, though. Chelsea’s Mikel John Obi is the high-profile name. But the team’s true dynamism has come from Imoh Ezekiel, Umar Sadiq and, until his injury against Colombia, Ogenekaro Etebo, who netted four in their 5-4 win over Japan. And they appear recovered from a fraught pre-tournament, when they were held up at their Atlanta training base for days after what Sports Illustrated magazine’s Grant Wahl called “a bevy of travel issues”; they only arrived in Manaus in the Amazonian jungle seven hours before their opening game.
Nigeria sat back after each goal, which as an energy-saving exercise worked a treat (and after their travel troubles who could blame them?). Aside from Gomes and perpetual motion captain Lasse Vibe, Denmark were never on-song in Brazil. And if Nigeria needed to re-establish their first and second half leads, they’d probably have managed it.
It will be a surprise if the Germany/Nigeria semi-final cagily drifts towards penalties. But I’m not predicting anything anymore. Especially after…………….
Honduras 1 South Korea 0
South Korea have only themselves to blame. Somnolent for 34 minutes, brilliant for 25, they should have added goals to their dynamism. Instead, Honduras produced a stunning breakaway goal, then randomly fell over a lot in order to waste time and got their reward when referee Gehad Grisha revealed a less-than-full appreciation of the concept of “stoppage-time.” While making one of the more routine of his many saves during Korea’s good bit, Honduran keeper Luis Lopez somehow destroyed his shoulder, an injury treated for long enough for his full recovery to be a surprise. Various Hondurans then discovered serious balance issues which, purely co-incidentally, wasted serious time, to the justified annoyance of watching Koreans.
“The referee will stop the watch, he’s no fool,” was the confident advice from the commentary box, along with “I Imagine there’ll be quite a lot of injury-time” just before there should have been “quite a lot” more. As a clearly-inadequate three minutes’ stoppage-time was announced, a simple push in Alberth Elis’s back led to a three-minute stoppage, a stretcher-based departure and a stoppage-time substitution, for which Frisha added…46 seconds. Cue Korean fury.
Little in Korea’s play after Elis’s goal suggested that the extra minutes would have changed the result, however. And there was more to admire than condemn about Honduras, who should have scored again against increasingly-flustered opposition. Whether they can beat their 3-2 quarter-final defeat to Brazil in 2012 depends on how they combat those pesky balance issues. Perhaps being a goal behind in the closing stages will help.
Brazil 2 Colombia 0
At one stage, the Brazil/Colombia TV coverage resembled a highlights reel of fouls on Neymar. He gets kicked a lot when playing for Barcelona, as football superstars always have (even Cristiano bloody Ronaldo gets fouled sometimes). But this looked organised. It was as mistimed as most of the tackles. Neymar had already blasted Brazil’s opener through the gap between Colombia’s two defensive walls. They were as close to getting Neymar sent off as stretchered off, though. Neymar’s search for revenge took place in front of the dug-outs and sparked mass rather-more-than-handbags amongst players, subs and officials.
There was less self-righteousness about this from the world feed commentary than you’d expect from BBC regulars (Barry Davies’ head might have exploded). And the half-time interval cooled matters considerably, with the teams wisely entering the tunnel some minutes apart. By then it was clear that Brazil were going to win. Luan’s cheeky 83rd-minute lob of Colombian keeper Cristian Bonilla was mere confirmation. And Brazil seem to be going about this tournament the right way (think Italy in the 1982 World Cup); being unutterably sh*te in their group before improving as the final approaches. So the double is still on for Brazil. The thing is, it’s still on for Germany too.
Semi-final predictions: See above
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