Brazil-South Korea Preview
The beat of the jogo bonito grows ever faster for Brazil as it chases the only title missing from its vast international men's soccer cache - an Olympic gold medal.
And as it does, the pressure ratchets ever higher for the Selecao, who face South Korea on Tuesday at Old Trafford Stadium in Manchester, England, for a spot in the final game.
Much was made of Brazil's squad ahead of these Games, with good reason. The roster coach Mano Menezes pieced together had gained senior national experience and - as seems to always be the case with the Selecao - displayed staggering talent and potential while meeting the Under-23 Olympic age criteria, and his three overage selections were used to compensate for the team's youth on the backline.
As host of the 2013 Confederations Cup and 2014 World Cup, the internal pressure of delivering an elusive Olympic gold for the soccer-mad country had been building almost immediately after Brazil was upset in the quarterfinals of the 2011 Copa America.
The Selecao are back in the semifinals for a second straight Olympics, though not without some nervy moments. After rolling through group play, Brazil needed to show plenty of mettle in rallying from a pair of one-goal deficits to beat 10-man Honduras 3-2 on Saturday when Leandro Damiao scored twice and drew a second-half penalty Neymar converted.
"I'm glad I got the goals because we were in trouble for a while there," Damiao said. "It was nice that we came through when we needed the most. We are still alive."
In addition to showing the ability to play from behind, Menezes' squad proved itself willing to dish out some punishment, accumulating four yellow cards in a testy, physical match.
"It was a very difficult match as we expected it was going to be," Menezes said. "The early goals destabilized our team a bit but I'm happy that the players responded and we could equalize and get the victory to send us to the semifinals."
With four goals, Damaio is second to Senegal's Moussa Konate in these Olympics, and Neymar has added three of his own as the Selecao have scored 12 while winning all four of their matches. Brazil also won its first four matches in Beijing in 2008, before being rolled 3-0 by continental archrival Argentina and Lionel Messi and eventually settled for the bronze.
This time around, captain and overage selection Thiago Silva is taking nothing for granted, showing respect for a South Korean squad that ousted host Britain on penalty kicks Saturday in the quarterfinals.
"South Korea is a team which runs a lot all the time and will never give up," the Paris-St. Germain defender and member of the 2008 Olympic team said. "Even during the extra time, when you expected them to get a bit more tired, they kept running and going after the goal to advance."
While the British fans have jeered Neymar, whom they feel has taken dives to embellish foul calls during this tournament, it's uncertain if they will get behind South Korea after the Red Devils dashed the hopes of Brittania and its unified team with their upset victory.
Lee Bum-young became the hero of the Asian country by correctly guessing to dive left to punch away Daniel Sturridge's shot in the fifth round of spot kicks. Starting goalkeeper Sungryong Jung also denied Aaron Ramsey on a penalty kick in the first half before giving way to Young in the 62nd minute.
"The only thing that I told them was to keep calm and kick the ball with confidence," coach Hong Myung-bo said. "I asked the players to make it very difficult for (Britain) to play its own game."
Facing Brazil is imposing for any country, but to continue its unprecedented run, South Korea must find more offense than it has in its four matches here. The Red Devils have mustered three goals in their four matches but have conceded only two.
The winner of this match will play for the gold against the winner of the Mexico-Japan match at Wembley Stadium on Saturday, while the losers will vie for the bronze Friday at Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, Wales.
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