2012 London Olympics Soccer: 5 Can't-Miss Matches in the Group Stage
The group stage at the Olympics can be dull at times due to the often large gaps in talent between teams, but the early matches offer the best opportunity to assess who are legitimate medal contenders and who will have to be content killing time in the Olympic Village.
The group stage kicked off Wednesday and audiences have been treated to a few interesting games and a few more interesting moments...namely the Korean flag gaffe.
Looking ahead to the remaining group stage matches, a few games stand out as worth watching, either for their medal implications or for their potential for drama.
Here is a look at five must-see matches in the group stage in both the men's and women's tournaments.
Women's: Japan vs. Sweden
Sindy Thomas/Getty Images
July 28, 2012
TV Coverage: MSNBC, 7:00a.m.-9:00a.m. ET
Japan beat the United States to win the FIFA Women's World Cup in 2010, and they are desperately to prove that they are truly the best team in London. The Swedish team doesn't quite have the talent of the Japanese squad, but they are in the top tier of Olympic competitors and they have realistic hopes of earning a medal.
Japan looked strong in their opener against a decent Canadian team, and after losing in the bronze medal match against Germany at the 2008 Olympics, a medal in London would solidify their claim as one of the two best women's teams in the world.
Sweden is coming off an easy 4-1 win over South Africa, probably the worst team at the Olympics, so we won't know their chances until they face some better competition.
Women's: USA vs. North Korea
Drew Hallowell/Getty Images
July 31, 2012
TV Coverage: NBC Sports Network, 12:15p.m.-2:00p.m. ET
Though the Olympic spirit is one of cooperation and friendly competition between nations, sometimes the political situation between two countries can contribute to an atmosphere of increased intensity on the field.
Translation: Expect a hard fought battle between the United States and North Korean women's soccer teams.
The North Koreans, already offended by a pre-game mixup Wednesday that led to the South Korean flag being displayed alongside their players head shots, would like nothing more than to defeat Team USA, who are the favorites to win both the group stage and the gold medal.
France, and Colombia make up the rest of Group G, and the French and the Americans are favored to advance. Though they trail the U.S. and France in talent by a significant margin, the North Koreans are far from the worst team at the Olympics, and it's not inconceivable that they could sneak past a very skilled but young French team.
North Korea knows that they will have to beat either Team USA or France if they hope to advance the the second round, and they should put up a spirited fight against the Americans.
While the U.S. should walk away with a relatively easy victory, the high stakes of the match and the political tensions between the two countries should make the USA-North Korea match one of the most exciting in the first round.
Women's: Great Britain vs. Brazil
Julian Finney/Getty Images
July 31, 2012
TV Coverage: MSNBC, 3:30p.m.-4:30p.m. ET (Joined in Progress)
The most exciting matchup in the women's group stage is sure to be the bout between medal favorite Brazil and host country Great Britain.
Though Brazil is favored to win and is considered the USA's top rival for the gold medal, Great Britain is a good team and will play in front of an enthusiastic home crowd. Great Britain is one of three countries to send both a men's team and a women's team to the Olympics (along with Brazil and Japan), and the British fans would like nothing more than to see one of their teams medal in the national sport.
Expect Brazil to win this match, but Great Britain, with the home crowd's support, have the potential for an upset.
Men's: Mexico vs. Switzerland
Ed Zurga/Getty Images
August 1, 2012
TV Coverage: NBC Sports Network, 12:00p.m.-1:45p.m. ET
Though neither Mexico nor Switzerland are expected to medal, both teams are in the top tier of competitors at the Olympics. Bookmakers currently favor Switzerland to finish in fifth place and Mexico in sixth place, leaving both within striking distance of the podium.
The two teams are by far the top teams in Group B, which includes South Korea and Gabon, and both are expected to make it out of the group stage. This game should offer a glimpse into the teams' capability of surviving outside of a rather weak group.
Men's: Great Britain vs. Uruguay
Julian Finney/Getty Images
August 1, 2012
TV Coverage: NBC Sports Network, 2:45p.m.-4:30p.m. ET
Brazil and Spain are expected to contend for the gold medal, but right behind them are two very good squads: the Uruguayan and British teams. The two teams will square off in their match on Wednesday, as each works to top Group A.
The two teams are the clear favorites in their group, well ahead of Senegal and the United Arab Emirates. Britain will of course have the home crowd cheering them on, and nothing would excite the British fans more than a medal for their team.
The two sides are pretty evenly matched, with perhaps a slight edge going toward Uruguay, and this match promises to be the most exciting and significant match of the group stage, as the winner could likely take home the bronze medal.