For half an hour on Tuesday afternoon, it looked as if my prediction that Japan might play spoiler to Mexico’s first chance at an Olympic gold medal would come true. Not only did the Japanese score first, off a beautiful, unstoppable half-volley by Yuki Otsu, they were quicker to the ball, their off-the-ball movement was better, their passing was crisper, and their vision and creativity were running the Mexican team ragged. That’s not to say there weren’t some nervy moments, as Mexico had several half-chances and Japan’s defense, the best in the tournament to date, looked out-of-sorts and off-balance at times.
That defense was at least partially at fault for Mexico’s equalizer, as Giovani dos Santos’s driven corner was flicked on instead of cleared, then flicked into the back of the Japanese net by Marco Fabian. The goal came in the 31st minute, and the Mexican team, which even before the goal had been gaining a foothold in the game, became the aggressors, holding the ball much better, and dictating play in a way they had been unable to earlier.
After halftime, Mexico continued to be the dominant team, and in the 65th minute scored a stunning goal of its own. Oribe Peralta dispossessed Japan’s Takahiro Ohgihara 25 yards out from goal and unleashed a laser beam shot into the upper corner that Japan’s keeper, Shuichi Gonda, had no hope of stopping.
Japan threw themselves forward to try and find the tying goal, but in the end, that effort was not rewarded, and Mexico’s Javier Cortes scored the game-killer in the 93rd minute. Mexico will play in the gold-medal match for the first time.
If you just looked at the score of this match, you might think the Brazilians had an easy time of it. They did, after all, score their customary three goals, and managed to stop an opponent from scoring—only the second time this tournament they’d managed that, and the first time came against New Zealand. You might think that, but you’d be wrong. Much like in the earlier game, the underdogs were the better team in the beginning stages. The Korean team came out with more aggression and more energy, put the Brazilians under pressure right from the whistle, and were only kept off the scoresheet by a goal-line clearance in the 12th minute. Two minutes later, a lobbed shot by Kim Hyunsung was again cleared off the line, and two minutes after that, Ji Dongwon just missed the top corner with a shot.
But, again like the early match, the favorites weathered the storm and found their way back into it. By the 20th minute, the Brazilians had found their shooting boots, with Leandro Damiao and Sandro both putting shots on target. In the 23rd, Damiao had another chance roll wide. The goal was coming, and in the 38th minute, Sandro stole the ball in midfield, pushed it to Oscar, who found Romulo in the box for the shot, which slipped beneath the Korean keeper, Lee Bumyoung.
To their credit, the goal did not deflate the Koreans, and they upped their pressure again, carving out chances through the end of the half and the beginning of the second period. Yet the Brazilians again held firm, and in the 57th minute, Marcelo, the Brazilian left back (who was excellent throughout), combined with Neymar, streaking into the box. Neymar sent the ball back, and while Marcelo missed it, Damiao made no mistake, and Brazil led, 2-0.
In the 64th, Damiao added another, becoming the tournament’s leading scorer, and South Korea ran out of gas. It was an epic effort from them, and they were much worthier opponents than many expected, but Brazil continues to chug like a freight train toward the gold medal.
The bronze medal match: South Korea vs. Japan
The bronze medal game will be played on Friday, August 10, at 2:30pm (MSNBC, Telemundo, Live Extra). Both teams have outperformed expectations, and this game is certain to be fast and technical. Asian soccer has come a long way in recent years, and while many consider the Olympic tournament to be lesser than other major competitions, South Korea and Japan have served notice that they cannot be ignored in the years to come.
The gold medal match: Brazil vs. Mexico
The gold medal game will be played on Saturday, August 11, at 10:00am (NBCSN, Telemundo, Live Extra). This is the matchup that many expected coming in to the tournament, but neither team has arrived at the final hurdle without trial. Brazil must be considered the favorite, as their offensive prowess has been unequaled. They also have arguably the top two players of the tournament in Neymar and leading scorer Leandro Damiao. Yet, Mexico has been tested and come through, scored more goals than any other team besides Brazil, and allowed three fewer. One dark cloud is the injury to the player that has been Mexico’s standout, Giovani dos Santos, who was brought off at halftime against Japan. It is unclear how severe his injury is, and whether he will be fit for the final. If he is not, Mexico is at a disadvantage.
In the end, what is sure is that this game will have goals, and possibly lots of them. My prediction? Brazil wins gold: Brazil 3–2 Mexico.