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Aug 14, 2008

Heavyweights prepare to do battle

SHANGHAI -- Come for Ronaldinho, stay for Gervinho. That is the message that emerges as the men's Olympic soccer tournament heads into the knockout stages.

Individually, players like Ronaldinho and Lionel Messi have done their bit to raise the glamour level of the competition, but it has also been lesser known players like Italy's Sebastian Giovinco and the aforementioned Gervinho from the Ivory Coast who have added some sparkle.

From a team standpoint, there have been few surprises. Every single favorite in the competition -- with the exception of Serbia -- progressed, with the Ivory Coast deservedly taking its place among the tournament's elite. That means some heavyweight matchups now dot the quarterfinal horizon, including the resumption of a classic rivalry, and an all-West African battle.

Brazil vs. Cameroon

In perhaps the most intriguing matchup of the round, the Auriverde will take on the Indomitable Lions in Shenyang. Brazil's offense has been the most prolific in the tournament with nine goals, but it's worth noting that eight of those tallies came against weak sisters New Zealand and China. When forced to go up against an organized side in Belgium, Brazil huffed and puffed, failing to reach a breakthrough until the Little Devils' Vincent Kompany was sent off.

In Cameroon, Brazil faces a side that is also tough on defense, one that shackled Italy's high octane attack in a 0-0 tie on Wednesday, despite playing the last 58 minutes a man short. The key matchup will see Cameroon's back line, one marshaled by Andre Bikey, going up against Brazil's attacking triumvirate of Ronaldinho, Alexandre Pato and Diego.

Men's Olympic quarterfinals
Saturday
Brazil vs. Cameroon
Shenyan, China
6 a.m. ET

Italy vs. Belgium
Beijing, China
6 a.m. ET

Argentina vs. Netherlands
Shanghai, China
9 a.m. ET

Nigeria vs. Ivory Coast
Qinhuangdao, China
9 a.m. ET

In attack, Cameroon has struggled, and looks to get Stephane Mbia and Aurelien Chedjou back on track. Brazil's defense is one of two in the tournament that has yet to concede a goal, making Saturday's match even more of an uphill climb for the Indomitable Lions'.

Argentina vs. Netherlands

The two combatants, who have staged so many memorable encounters at the World Cup, resume their rivalry Saturday in Shanghai. And while both teams entered the tournament among the favorites, both sides have yet to hit their stride.

Despite having the incomparable talents of Messi and Juan Roman Riquelme at their disposal, the Albiceleste have done just enough to win all of their games, although this is largely due to the difficulty of their group. The sense is that Argentina is more than capable of taking their game up another notch or two.

The Netherlands meanwhile made hard work of earning the second spot in Group B, and were it not for Gerald Sibon's late goals against the U.S. and Japan, the Dutch would be heading home.

But qualify Netherlands did, and it looks to unleash the likes of Ryan Babel and the recovering Roy Makaay. The bigger question is: Can the Netherlands defend well enough to contain Argentina's embarrassment of riches in attack, one that also includes Sergio Aguero? Also on the minds of the Dutch will be trying to get players like Hedwiges Maduro and Royston Drenthe to rescale the lofty heights of last summer, when Netherlands claimed the European U-21 championship.

Nigeria vs. Ivory Coast

The two West African rivals face off in Qinhuangdao, with Ivory Coast actually looking sharper than its neighbors during the group stage. The Ivorians' creative hub, Gervinho, has been in scintillating form throughout the competition, feeding the likes of Sekou Cisse and Salomon Kalou.

Nigeria prevailed in arguably the toughest group of the tournament, and with forward Victor Obinna peaking at the right time, the Super Eaglets have a player capable of winning the match on his own. Head coach Samson Siasia also welcomes back defenders Onyekachi Apam and Olubayo Ademfi from the suspended list, thus improving the team's chances of stifling Ivory Coast's attack.

One interesting battle that figures to emerge is between the respective teams' holding midfielders; Nigeria's Sani Kaita and Ivory Coast's Kafoumba Coulibaly. Both offer an imposing physical presence while being adept at playing the simple ball. Whichever man can impose his will on the midfield largely determines which team carries the day.

Italy vs. Belgium

This all-European affair to be held in Beijing appears to be something of a mismatch. Italy has been one of the class teams of the tournament so far, and their attack, with the diminutive Giovinco pulling the strings for Giuseppe Rossi and Riccardo Montolivo, looks to be too much for the Little Devils to contend with.

Belgium has done well to reach the quarterfinals after losing its opening match to Brazil, but the fact that lynchpin defender Kompany has been recalled by club side Hamburg is a huge loss. It's not the first time that Belgium has had to cope without Kompany however, as the Hamburg man was sent off in the team's opener.

Fortunately Thomas Vermaelen has picked up the slack for his absent teammate, and he'll need to deliver another sharp performance if Belgium is to have any chance of springing an upset. The onus also is on attackers Maarten Martens and Moussa Dembele, as well as midfielder Jan Vertonghen to try and crack an Italian defense that has yet to concede a goal in the tournament.

Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes for Center Line soccer and can be reached at eljefe1@yahoo.com.

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