Football may not be the Olympic event that most neutral sports fans look forward to, but all 16 teams taking part in the competition in Brazil will be desperate for success this month.
The action gets under way with a Group A double-header at the Estadio Nacional Mane Garrincha in Brasilia on Thursday, with the final set to take place at the Maracana in Rio de Janeiro on Saturday 20 August.
Hosts Brazil are the heavy favourites to triumph on home soil, something that they were unable to do at the World Cup two years ago. That may prove a preview of things to come for the even-money favourites. Olympic Gold is the only prize in football that the Selecao have not won. Their squad selection is evidence of how desperate they are to change that this summer. Barcelona forward Neymar (pictured) has been included in their 18-man squad, with Paris Saint-Germain’s Marquinhos and Lazio’s Felipe Anderson also due to take part in the tournament.
Brazil should have little trouble finishing top of Group A, with Rogerio Micale’s side far stronger than each of Denmark, Iraq and South Africa, the other teams who complete the first segment. Second spot and a place in the last eight is most likely to go to the Danes, who have players from Fulham, Birmingham City and Brentford as part of their travelling party.
Group B looks to be a rather open one, with Sweden, Japan, Nigeria and Colombia ready to battle it out for the top two places. The Colombians, who have five players to call upon from recently-crowned Copa Libertadores champions Atletico Nacional, are rated as the favourites to come out on top. Nigeria, featuring Chelsea midfielder John Obi Mikel, are worth backing to qualify for the quarter-finals alongside them.
Group C will probably be a two-way battle for top spot between Germany and holders Mexico, who took Gold last time out in 2012. Horst Hrubesch’s charges included Borussia Dortmund’s Sven Bender, Bayer Leverkusen’s Lars Bender and Arsenal’s Serge Gnabry, with Schalke duo Leon Goretzka and Max Meyer also worth keeping an eye on.
Mexico’s 18-man group is filled with domestic-based players with the exception of Houston Dynamo forward Erick Torres, while Manchester United-linked winger Hirving Lozano is one participant who could take the competition by storm. South Korea will be aiming to sneak through ahead of either Mexico or Germany, but Fiji will struggle to record even a single point in Brazil.
Portugal and Argentina are the two heavyweights in Group D, although the latter’s preparation for the Olympics could hardly have been more turbulent. There was even the possibility that the South Americans would not send a team over the border to Brazil. Now that they have arrived in the country and sorted out some of their problems they must be taken seriously as a force. Algeria could well be poised to take advantage of any slip-ups from the above pair. Honduras are considered rank outsiders to qualify for the last eight – only Iraq and Fiji are available at longer odds to win Olympic Gold.
It is easy to see why Brazil are so widely fancied to triumph in this competition for the first time. The combination of home advantage and the strongest squad in the tournament is likely to be enough to bring them Gold in front of their own supporters. There is such little value in investing in a Brazilian victory that it is best to seek alternatives, with Germany and Mexico two of the most interesting options once the hosts have been discarded.
The Central Americans defeated Brazil in the final in London four years ago and have the ability to do so again in a one-off match. The Germans have plenty of quality within their squad and could do the same if they come up against the Selecao in the latter stages.
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