Just two wins away from finally ending its wait for Olympic gold, Brazil will hope to avoid becoming the biggest victim yet of Honduras’ surprise run when the teams face off in the semifinals of the men’s soccer competition at the famed Maracana on Wednesday. After a slow and difficult start to event, when coming under huge pressure from its home supporters, Brazil has found its gear.
Following a 4-0 triumph over Denmark, captain and star man Neymar delivered big in the quarterfinals. Despite, not for the first time, being subjected to a repeated battering by a Colombia team, the Barcelona forward struck a fine first-half free-kick to grab his first goal of the tournament. He then helped set up Luan to make the result safe late on.
“Neymar is very experienced, he helped us a lot," Luan, whose introduction to the starting lineup in the final group game has helped trigger improved performances, said following the win over Colombia. "He controlled the game and overcame the pressure. He was crucial in our victory."
With that victory, Neymar, more than most, will hope to have in part vanquished the ghosts of the last time Brazil hosted a major tournament on home soil. At the 2014 World Cup, Colombia was again the quarterfinal opponent and it was a similarly hot-tempered affair in which Neymar bore the brunt of the opposition’s aggression.
While Brazil again got the win that day, Neymar received a knee to the back which would break a bone and end his World Cup. Without him, Brazil went down to its most humiliating defeat in history, losing 7-1 to Germany in the semifinals.
At one point on Saturday there will have been fear of history repeating itself, at least in terms of the country’s golden boy. After one particularly hard challenge in the first half, Neymar went down clutching his calf and went off for treatment. A nervous few moments follows. Yet this time he battled on and appears to be fully fit for his country’s attempt to overcome the semifinal hurdle.
On paper, it is a contest that Brazil would hardly have been too disappointed to be handed at the start of the tournament. Yet there have already been ample warnings at this Olympics not to underestimate Honduras.
Drawn in a group with Argentina and Portugal, few gave Honduras a chance of matching its performance from four years ago when reaching the quarterfinals. But in the final round of games Honduras secured a 1-1 draw with Argentina to eliminate the 2004 and 2008 gold medalists. In the quarterfinals, it was again a significant underdog against a South Korea team that had impressed in the group stage. But Honduras, thanks in no small part to goalkeeper Luis Lopez, prevented Korea from turning its statistical dominance into goals, before Alberth Elis took advantage of a rare sight of goal in clinical fashion.
The ecstatic celebrations at the sound of the final whistle spoke to just how big an achievement Honduras’ performance is already. But the team is unlikely to be content just to be facing the host in one of the world’s most famous arenas. A victory would guarantee a first ever Olympic medal for Honduras in any sport.
Prediction: Best known for leading Costa Rica to the quarterfinals of the World Cup two years ago, Jorge Luis Pinto, who has combined leading the senior team with Olympic duties, has masterminded another memorable campaign in Brazil. The tactics he has deployed over the past two weeks have been very familiar – looking to frustrate the opposition and take advantage of turnovers on the break. That could find success against a Brazil side that struggled to break down defenses in its opening two matches. However, there is now a better balance and belief about Brazil and Neymar and co should move on into the final.
Predicted Score: Brazil 1-0 Honduras
Kickoff Time: 12 p.m. EDT
TV Channel: NBCSN
Live Stream: NBCOlympics.com