Africa’s medal hopes confront favourites in Tokyo

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AC Milan midfielder Franck Kessié (centre) is one of the vastly experienced players who have boosted the Ivory Coast team at the Olympics. Photo: Francois Nel/Getty Images
AC Milan midfielder Franck Kessié (centre) is one of the vastly experienced players who have boosted the Ivory Coast team at the Olympics. Photo: Francois Nel/Getty Images

SPORT


Day eight of the Olympic Games will present a super Saturday for the men’s football tournament when the frontrunners meet the dark horses in the quarterfinals.

Japan and Brazil, hosts and gold medallists, respectively, will be strongly fancied after impressive group-stage campaigns.

But momentum is building for others in the last eight, and all have shown – either consistently or in flashes – the potential to go the distance.

Egypt and Ivory Coast are Africa’s remaining hopes in the competition after South Africa were eliminated in the group stage.

READ: Mahlatsi recounts torrid spell at Olympics

Spain and Ivory Coast called on some heavy hitters for their Olympic campaigns, which has proven to be a smart decision thus far.

With six players – including the exciting, inventive Pedri – having been drafted in from the squad that competed at Uefa Euro 2020, La Roja looked assured and in control throughout their group campaign. This is also the first Olympics at which Spain have topped their group since 1992, when a team including Pep Guardiola and Luis Enrique famously won gold.

The Ivorians, for their part, pipped a youthful Germany side to qualification thanks largely to the experience and class provided by Eric Bailly (Manchester United), Max Gradel (Sivasspor, Turkey) and Franck Kessié (AC Milan).

No one at this tournament – Brazil included – has found a way to beat the Elephants, and Spain will need to be at their best to become the first.

Having arrived in Japan with star striker Chris Wood vowing that the team would “turn heads”, New Zealand lived up to that promise. Observers have been quick to praise the OlyWhites, not only for qualifying for a first quarterfinal, but also for the attractive style in which they did it.

But coach Danny Hay’s impressive side will need to raise their game even higher against an in-form Japan team whose morale was boosted further by a 4-0 thumping of France.

READ: Team SA’s Olympic football camp descends into chaos

The hosts are also protecting the men’s tournament’s only unblemished record, having won all three group-stage matches for the first time in their history.

Japan started the campaign with a 1-0 win over South Africa.

All the stats, both current and historic, would suggest only one likely outcome in the Brazil versus Egypt game.

After all, the Brazilians are unbeaten in their last nine Olympic matches. They have lost just once in the last 16 and, of the eight quarterfinals they have played, have won seven. In five-goal Richarlison, the holders also possess the tournament’s most potent striker. However, they face an Egypt team built on a solid and vastly experienced rearguard that has been breached just once across 270 minutes of Olympic football. Intrigue looks to be assured as an irresistible attacking force meets an immovable defensive object.

Mexico also impressed during the group stage, with their quick, effective counterattacks the subject of praise from Fifa’s technical study group. But in Korea Republic, they are facing a familiar – and feared – Olympic foe. This, in fact, is the third Games in succession – and the fourth since 1996 – at which these sides have met, and each of those encounters ended without a single Mexican goal. Besides seeking to end that barren run against their Olympic nemeses, Jaime Lozano’s side will also need to keep at bay the tournament’s top scorers, with Korea Republic having scored 10 unanswered goals in their past two matches alone. – Fifa.com

Olympic football men’s fixtures

Spain vs Ivory Coast, 10am

Japan vs New Zealand, 11am

Brazil vs Egypt, 12pm

South Korea vs Mexico, 1pm



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