Olympic Soccer: Difference Makers for Each Team During the Quarterfinals
With the quarterfinals set, the biggest surprise during this year’s Olympic football tournament is that powerhouse Spain has been sent packing after collecting just one point and more amazingly, not a single goal.
Spain, along with Brazil and Uruguay, were considered the favorites before the competition began, but now only the Verde-Amarela remain standing after Great Britain defeated Uruguay 1-0 to advance to the final eight.
But even without the perennial powerhouses, intriguing matches abound and the gold medal remains largely up for grabs.
Could Central American upstarts Honduras possibly upset Brazil? Can Great Britain do something that England usually fails to do and advance to the semifinals?
While many big name players are missing because of Olympic rules that only allow three players per country to be older than 23 years old, those present are making the most of their opportunity and taking advantage of the spotlight.
Most people already know who Neymar is, but who will be the other difference makers during the quarterfinals? Here we take a look, team by team, at the eight players who can take their countries to the next level.
Great Britain: Daniel Sturridge
The 22-year-old played only 46 minutes, while still recovering from bacterial meningitis in Great Britain’s opening match against Senegal, which ended in a 1-1 draw.
But since then, Sturridge scored goals in each of the last two group matches, including the match winner in first half stoppage time against Uruguay, leaving La Celeste out of the tournament.
The English forward is coming off a productive season with the Blues in which he started 28 matches and contributed 11 goals and three assists.
But he’ll find himself fighting for playing time this season as a busy transfer window has seen Roberto Di Matteo’s squad already scoop up Brazilian prodigy Oscar and Belgian winger Eden Hazard.
The latest gossip has Sturridge making a move to White Hart Lane, mainly because Tottenham striker Emmanuel Adebayor remains unsigned.
Sturridge will need to continue impressing during these Olympics when the Brits, who won group A, take on South Korea, who finished second in group B with a semifinal spot at stake.
South Korea: Park Chu-Young
The Taeguk Warriors reached the quarterfinals by winning their second match against Switzerland 2-1, bookended by 0-0 draws against Mexico and Gabon.
The Koreans are led by 27-year-old Park Chu-Young who produced the first of their goals in the win over the Swiss.
The Arsenal forward is looking to bounce back after a rocky first and possibly last season with the Gunners that saw him take part in only one Premier League match, a 2-1 loss to Manchester.
South Korea has struggled to score in this tournament and will need Park to show the creativity and goal-scoring ability he displayed during the 2010 World Cup when his free-kick goal against Nigeria sent his country to the quarterfinals.
Park could also be playing to impress his next manager, as rumors are linking him to a season-long loan to Championship club Blackburn Rovers now that finding playing time for Arsenal seems unlikely after Arsene Wenger’s squad picked up German winger Lukas Podolski and French striker Olivier Giroud.
They’ll need his offense when they take on hosts Great Britain. The Brits have scored in each of their matches and are third in goals scored, including a 3-1 victory over the United Arab Emirates.
Brazil: Leandro Damiao
Now we get to tournament favorites Brazil. The five-time World Cup champions have yet to win Olympic Gold, but they have more than enough talent to add hardware to an already-impressive trophy case.
We all know about Pato, Marcelo, Hulk and Neymar. They all play, or could play, for some of the most prestigious clubs in the world, so we won’t waste time on the difference they can make, which is rather large.
Leandro Damiao has played two matches for Brazil and has scored in each of them, which ties him for the team lead along with Neymar.
Coach Mario Menezes has been trying to appease his many weapons by alternating playing time between AC Milan striker Pato and Damiao, who led Brazil in scoring in 2011.
But the 23-year-old Internacional star seems to have the upper hand and will be looking to start in Brazil’s quarterfinal match against Honduras.
Barring a truly inspired effort by one of the remaining teams, Brazil seems to be on its way to securing their first Gold medal. Its offense has been outstanding, scoring nine goals in three group matches.
While Damiao may not be the best player on Brazil, he’s one that could make a difference in a close match.
Honduras: Jerry Bengston
Easily the most surprising of the remaining teams, Honduras used a shocking 1-0 win over heavily favored Spain to secure a spot in the final eight and a meeting with Brazil.
Los Catrachos advanced thanks to timely goals from Jerry Bengston. The 19-year-old striker has Honduras’ three goals during the tournament, including a brace against Morocco in its opening match, and the game winner that sent Spain packing.
Bengston is hoping to make a name for himself outside his country after signing with the New England Revolution last month. In only two matches, Bengston has already found the net once for his MLS club.
His Olympic performance could lead to interest elsewhere, especially if he has more goals up his sleeve.
He’s currently tied for second in the tournament in goals scored, but he’ll have a hard time finding space against a Brazilian team that hardly gives up the ball.
Mexico: Giovani Dos Santos
Hardly mentioned before the tournament, Mexico has quietly turned in three solid performances, especially defensively, on its way to the quarterfinals.
Offense has been hard to come by for Los Aztecas, but the catalyst continues to be Tottenham winger Giovani Dos Santos.
Dos Santos came off the bench during each of Mexico’s first two matches, but didn’t disappoint when he was on the pitch. He came in as a halftime substitute in Mexico’s second match against Gabon and his brace led El Tri to a 2-0 victory after a poor first half.
Mexico’s defense has been suffocating throughout the tournament, but pitching a fourth shutout in four games might be difficult against a solid Senegalese team. Dos Santos, the only player on the team to not play in Mexico, will again have to provide the offensive spark if Mexico is to have a chance at winning the Gold.
A cloud continues to hover over the Mexican winger’s future as he’s asked out of Spurs on several occasions, although recent reports state Gio would be happy to stay at White Hart Lane, only to see new manager Andre Villas-Boas blast him for his desire to part ways.
It defies logic how a player of his caliber, who consistently plays well for his country, can’t seem to find his way onto a European pitch.
Will his performance at the Olympics finally show Tottenham what they’ve been missing?
Senegal: Moussa Konate
It’s been reported that the Hammers have already made a $1.8 million offer for his services.
Konate has started and scored in every match for Senegal, including an impressive first half brace against Uruguay. He’s currently leading the tournament with four goals and is a serious contender for the Golden Boot trophy.
Senegal secured a spot in the last eight without losing a match and is looking to do something that South Korea, Gabon and Switzerland have all failed to do: score against Mexico.
In possibly the most intriguing matchup of the quarterfinals, the Maccabi Tel-Aviv player will have to come up big again if he’s to crack los Aztecas’ stingy defense.
Along with Egypt, the Lions of Teranga will look to continue a strong pattern for Africa that has seen the continent win two Gold medals and one Silver medal over the last four Olympics.
Japan: Maya Yoshida
Japan reached the final eight in the same way that Mexico did, without allowing a goal.
Much of this is thanks to captain Maya Yoshida, who has played every minute for Japan and has played solidly.
The 23-year-old central defender currently plays for VVV Venlo in the Eredivisie, but much like many of the other players on this list has garnered attention and accolades from top European clubs.
If the Samurai Blue is to advance to the semifinals, it’ll need another strong effort from its back line, especially Yoshida. Japan has struggled offensively in this tournament and have only scored two goals, which places a lot of pressure on the young defender.
Japan is playing an Egypt team that has already scored six goals in the tournament, including two in a loss to Brazil.
Egypt: Mohamed Salah
Another surprise in the tournament, Egypt comes into the quarterfinals as the second highest goal scoring team behind Brazil.
They’ll need to keep that up if they’re to advance, as their defense has been porous throughout the tournament, allowing goals in each of their group matches, including three against Brazil. (Granted, Brazil has scored three goals against each of its opponents.)
But behind The Pharaohs offensive surge is Mohamed Salah. Signed to Basel earlier this summer, the 19-year-old striker has used the Olympics as his coming out party. He’s scored in all three matches and is tied with Honduran Jerry Bengston for second in scoring.
They’ll need his offense as they take on Japan who, as previously mentioned, has yet to allow a goal during these Olympics.
In a match that could easily finish 1-0, Egypt will be glad to know they have a prolific goal scorer on its side.