Re-write the football coaching manuals, the Olympic football tournament suggests. Power leads to glory…not all that tiki-taka nonsense. The United States womens’ march to Gold, and the Spanish men’s march to…the airport were the key features of a mostly exciting round of Olympic football matches. If the women took the first round plaudits, the men’s took the second. And the medal prospects of both Team GB’s look a lot healthier than they did. If the gymnasts could do it…
The United States appear to be on a marketing exercise with the kits they have already worn. Their alternative blue kit against France forced Les Bleus to change their shirts. And any Hamilton Academicals fans at Hampden on Saturday might have felt somewhat disorientated by the sight of red and white hoops pouring forward. Opponents Colombia looked overwhelmed early on. And after ten minutes, the odds on this match being the Group G encounter to finish 5-0 would have been short. However, Colombia were more spirited and organised than in their first match, and held on to the slimmest mathematical hope of a quarter-final place by restricting ‘USNWT’ to 3-0. They used a combination of grit, luck and the crossbar which the States’ Abby Wambach thumped in the style of her surname with one long-range effort.
Wambach’s powerful all-round game, Megan Rapinoe’s industry and Alex Morgan’s pace did for Colombia. And Elodie Thomis’s pace proved decisive for France against DPR Korea in Hampden’s second match. It was surprising that Thomis’s 62nd-minute introduction destroyed DPR Korea’s challenge so comprehensively. They are FIFA-ranked two places behind France (eighth against sixth). And for an hour those rankings looked about right, with the sides separated by Laura Georges’ 44th-minute header. The Korean defence decided, as Georges went hurtling through the air to attack a corner, that if she wanted the ball that badly she could have it. Georges looked in no little pain as she reacted to scoring, but we discovered at the final whistle that she always smiles like that. Four goals in twenty minutes may scupper DPR Korea’s qualification for the quarter-finals as one of the two best third-placed teams in the three tournament groups. That still looks likely to be contested with Canada, who won their ‘banker’ encounter 3-0 against South Africa, and New Zealand, who play their ‘banker’ opponents Cameroon today. All three teams will likely finish with three points. DPR Korea’s goal difference is now the third best.
New Zealand were five minutes from squeezing all the vibrancy out of a potentially very vibrant Brazil. The Cardiff Millennium Stadium pitch has looked the slowest of the tournament, helping New Zealand keep pace with the Cristiane/Marta partnership which dismantled Cameroon last week. Team GB’s 3-0 win over the Africans was played at a similarly careful pace, certainly compared to the States’ simultaneous rush around at Hampden. Hope Powell’s women may have some ruing to do having squandered chances to overhaul Brazil on goal difference and top their group. This would have left them needing a draw against Brazil at Wembley tonight, in what will be by a margin the biggest women’s football international in Britain.
And topping their group would mean a quarter-final against one of the best third-placed teams. Otherwise Team GB will play the runners-up in the Japan/Sweden group, which is still in the balance after the sides’ goalless draw at Coventry on Saturday. Neither side got going until the second half. And while Japan were denied victory by a number of saves from Swedish keeper Hedvig Lindahl, Lindahl would not have been proud to have let in any of the goal attempts. Japan are World Champions. But they haven’t yet hit World Cup-winning form in this tournament. And England beat them 2-0 in the World Cup group stages last year. Team GB are in good enough form to stand a chance against any of their potential opponents, with injury their main concern after encountering Cameroon’s ‘commitment’ to the art of tackling – striker Kelly Smith was substituted at half-time to count her bruises as well as recover from them. Ironically, however, the knee ligament injury to dominant Scottish centre-back Ifeoma Dieke, which has ruled her out of the Games, was down to the pitch more than any tackling. Dieke’s replacement Sophie Bradley “just defends,” according to listenable BBC pundit Lucy Ward. This may be just as well in the matches to come.
Team GB’s men continued their 200% improvement with a coherent and ultimately comfortable win over the neat-passing but lightweight United Arab Emirates. A couple of magical Stuart Pearce substitutions combined with a Ryan Giggs header to at least momentarily silence their critics. And their opening draw against Senegal, and their chances of at least drawing with Uruguay to secure a quarter-final spot, were shown in better light by Senegal’s eye-catching Wembley win over the South Americans. Luis Suarez’s most obvious impact on Sunday was to turn the previously vilified Senegalese into neutrals’ favourites just by being on the pitch. What helped so many people take Senegal to their hearts was a tremendous performance in what the BBC’s Guy Mowbray absolutely nailed as an “unusual but highly-entertaining” 45 minutes.
Senegal’s tackling was no less violent than in their first game. At Wembley, though, it was allied to an equally committed and powerful display on the ball against a Uruguay team whose under-achievement was personified by the on-field meanderings of Edinson Cavani. Uruguay’s decision to select an over-age strike partnership in Suarez and Cavani seemed a clever one. But only Suarez is functioning. And the old-man duo of this Group has been…Craig Bellamy and Ryan Giggs. Uruguay were so outplayed early on by Senegal that the crowd didn’t get to boo Suarez until the 17th minute. And matters barely changed after Abdoulaye Ba saw red for upending the Liverpool man. Ba’s dismissal was inevitable, as he’d not long been booked. But the straight sending-off may have greater suspension implications. His trip on Suarez looked more blatant, if less brutal, when replayed from the referee’s angle. And his dismissal garnered rapturous applause from the stands – because of his victim and because Senegal had already won the crowd’s hearts and minds – Pape Moussa Konate’s goals and occasional showboating proving particularly endearing.
Beating Spain, and knocking them out of the Olympics in the process, won Honduras a fair few hearts and minds. But even the bravery and skill attached to their second-half rearguard action against Spain could not mask their underlying cynicism. The prime example of this was marauding right-back Wilmer Crisanto, whose final raid forward in the closing stages ended in a heap some five yards beyond the touchline, thanks to some frustrated Spanish tackling. Yet despite the presence of two officials and numerous arguing players, Crisanto managed to roll himself back onto the field of play in time to delay the free-kick even further. It was blatant cheating which should have seen him rolled back off the pitch with a red card in his face.
Spain were clueless against Japan and for another 35 minutes here. But then they started to play, and only terrible luck, equally terrible finishing and some ultra-lenient officiating denied them the point which would still have kept their quarter-final prospects intact. The Hondurans were as fitfully lively as they’d been in their first match and their seventh-minute goal was superb, their only scorer so far, Jerry Bengston, heading home a pinpoint cross from their dominant personality, Roger Espinoza. It was no surprise that Spanish pressure increased after the cautioned Espinoza was substituted lest he be sent off. And Spain had already gained some momentum and had struck the frame of the goal twice, with Atletic Bilbao teenager Iker Muniain embarking on what seemed like a personal mission to win the game. That they didn’t was down to Venezuelan referee Soto Juan and substitute striker Rodrigo – Juan for refusing the clearest of penalties when Rodrigo was shoved in the back in the 86th minute and Rodrigo for hitting the bar with the freest of headers FOUR yards out. It was lively off the pitch, too, as a half-time spat produced two of the game’s, ulp, 13 bookings. And every time Juan reached for a card late on you thought ‘surely HE’S had one already.’ Remarkably, no-one had. A fantastic match…and result. But the Hondurans haven’t quite won my heart and mind.
“Japan are almost through to the quarter-finals,” noted the BBC’s John Roder after Kensuke Nagai’s delicate late lob earned them another 1-0 win, this time over Morocco, who are better than one point from two games suggests. Of course, there was no “almost” about it, as no result from the Spain/Honduras game could deny them a top two place. The Japanese are slowly progressing in international football tournaments. And their neat passing style just outweighs their profligacy in front of goal, which nearly proved costly as the Moroccans fashioned chances themselves in an ‘absorbing’ (trans: a tiny bit dull) affair, with the busy Nordin Amrabat failing to convert two of them. A “happy Steven Ireland” is the phrase that springs to mind when I see Amrabat. It’s the tablets.
Group B produced two lower-key affairs. South Korea have Japan’s ability to dominate possession without doing anything much with it. Against a scruffy Switzerland team – in fashion and football terms – they were more creative than during their first game. And they won the game in the seven-minute second-half spell which produced all the goals. Park Chu-Yung’s excellent diving header (an eyebrow-raiser at his club, Arsenal – who needs Robin Van Persie?) was quickly matched by a header from name-of-the-tournament Innocent Emeghara (even for a cosmopolitan nation such as Switzerland, this team is a remarkable mix of family origins). And Koo Ja-Cheol’s stunning left-foot volley four minutes later won the game.
Mexico top the group after beating a slightly-disappointing Gabon 2-0, Tottenham long-term misfit Giovanni Dos Santos “bagging a brace”, as they probably don’t say in the Mexican press. None of the four games in this group has ranked among the tournament’s best. But the group is the most fascinatingly poised, with yesterday’s winners on four points and yesterday’s losers on one. All four could go through. All four could go out. Brazil, still have the tournament’s best style, although they only intermittently showed it at Old Trafford in their 3-1 win over a ‘well-drilled’ Belarus. They almost monopolised possession in the opening minutes – even when Belarus did get the ball it usually went to the Brazilian-born Renan Bardini-Bressan. And if they were shocked when Bardini-Bresan gave Belarus an early lead they didn’t let it show.
All three Brazilian goals were terrific, with Neymar just about the star and Oscar fitfully looking a class act. But their defence, though not overly-tested by unambitious opposition, still suggests it could undo anything done at the other end. Egypt exposed Brazil’s defence often enough last Thursday. And they exposed New Zealand’s almost at Old Trafford. They, like fellow North Africans Morocco, are way better than one point from two games suggests. And a win over Belarus tomorrow will still see them through to the quarters. But how they didn’t win this game… Having gone behind to one of the tournament’s worst goals – a Chris Wood mishit from three yards after the six-foot plenty Oly-Whites striker crept un-noticed into the six-yard box – Egypt created and spurn equally good chances. The Mexican wave around the Manchester crowd midway through the first half was particularly annoying, as the game had been excellent until then. No-one was waving during the last, frantic, astounding fifteen minutes, which ought to be a BBC highlights package by itself.
Egypt took one of their first-half chances but hadn’t taken any more, whilst leaving themselves increasingly open to the increasingly confident Oly-Whites’ counter-attacks. There were clear-cut scoring opportunities about every minute. And it was some effort by Emad Moteeb to miss the open goal presented to him. Egypt would be a loss to this tournament if they were to depart early. But they’ll have only themselves to blame if they do.
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