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Aug 17, 2008

Brazil-Argentina matchup eagerly awaited

BEIJING -- If you were to select an ideal group of semifinalists, you'd probably want a healthy dose of the tournament's big guns along with an overachieving team that has played the role of ultimate party crasher.

On that basis, the four teams that have reached the semifinals of the men's Olympic soccer tournament are as absorbing a quartet as you'll find. In Argentina and Brazil, you have two teams who were on everyone's list of favorites. Nigeria was also tipped as a team to watch prior to the competition's start. Then there is Belgium, which ignored its curfew and has decided to stick around a while longer.

Nigeria vs. Belgium

When it comes to Belgium, it's tough to determine what the bigger shock was: that it defeated heavily favored Italy, or the manner of its victory. Certainly coach Jean Francois de Sart's pregame strategy did not call for going down a goal and a man inside of 18 minutes, but that's exactly what happened. And instead of folding, Belgium came back and put three goals past the heretofore impregnable Italian defense, claiming a 3-2 victory.

The question now is: Does Belgium have anything left? Defender Vincent Kompany, thought to be the lynchpin of the team, was recalled by club side Hamburg prior to the quarterfinals. Fellow center back Thomas Vermaelen was sent off against Italy, leaving the Little Devils without their two first choice central defenders. Giving de Sart yet another headache is the question mark surrounding goalkeeper Logan Bailly, who exited the quarterfinal with an injured shoulder, making it uncertain that he'll recover in time for the semifinal.

Men's Olympic semifinals
Tuesday
Belgium vs. Nigeria
Shanghai, China
6 a.m. ET

Argentina vs. Brazil
Beijing, China
9 a.m. ET

Tops on de Sart's to-do list is to figure out how to reconfigure his back line, although given how the makeshift central pairing of Jan Vertonghen and Jeroen Simaeys performed against Italy, de Sart could do worse than persevere with the same back four that finished that match.

Captain Maarten Martens will also be relied on more heavily, as he and the industrious Tom de Mul will be expected to be the main suppliers for quarterfinal heroes Kevin Mirallas and Moussa Dembele.

Nigeria survived a tense quarterfinal encounter with West African rivals Ivory Coast, winning 2-0, with goalkeeper Ambruse Vanzekin delivering several sharp saves to keep the Ivorians off the scoreboard.

The self-proclaimed Dream Team IV had its own selection problems earlier in the tournament courtesy of some suspensions, but head coach Samson Siasia now appears to have everyone at his disposal, and the team's quest to duplicate the gold-medal winning performance of 1996 remains on track.

Nigeria's most impressive traits are the electric pace and clever dribbling of forwards Peter Odemwingie and Victor Obinna, as well as midfielders Solomon Okoronkwo and Chinedu Ogbuke Obasi. In fact it is these latter two performers who appear set to provide the biggest danger to Belgium's paper thin defense. Obasi in particular is in fine form. He set up Promise Isaac's goal against the United States in the group stage with a twisting run, and earning a late penalty to seal matters against Ivory Coast.

Perhaps the biggest risk for Siasia's men is overconfidence, especially given the depleted state of Belgium's roster. But given the high expectations back home, the fact that it is close to reaching the final should mitigate that danger.

Brazil vs. Argentina

Given the long-standing rivalry between these soccer superpowers, Tuesday's semifinal is without question the most anticipated match of the tournament.

Brazilian attackers Ronaldinho and Diego seemed out of sorts against Cameroon, while Argentina's Lionel Messi was at his creative best in the Albiceleste's 2-1 win over the Netherlands, giving the impression that Argentina is the slight favorite to progress and deny Brazil its first-ever Olympic crown. But that would ignore the fact that Brazil's defense has been in imperious form during the competition, and it delivered a thoroughly professional performance in dispatching the Indomitable Lions 2-0, an encounter rife with fouling -- both tactical and otherwise -- from both sides.

With that match as a backdrop, don't be surprised to see Brazil lay some lumber into the likes of Messi and his primary supplier, Juan Roman Riquelme. This was exactly Brazil's approach against the same duo in last year's Copa America final, one in which the Selecao committed 37 fouls on their way to a 3-0 victory.

The task of disrupting Argentina's passing game on Tuesday falls primarily to midfielders Lucas and Hermanes; although Anderson can also be counted on to contribute in this area. Given Messi's penchant for setting up shop on the right wing and then cutting inside, expect defenders Marcelo and Breno to give him plenty of attention as well.

Brazil's attack leads the tournament with 11 goals scored, but this is more a case of it getting fat at the expense of weaker teams. Belgium proved very tough to break down during the group stage with Brazil winning 1-0, while Cameroon was even stingier. Brazil didn't score until 11 minutes into extra time, despite the fact that its opponents had been playing shorthanded for 50 minutes.

That's not to say Brazil doesn't have attacking talent. Ronaldinho, Diego and forward Rafael Sobis are capable of creating chances out of the slightest of openings. But plenty of the team's other attack-minded players have remained on the bench for much of the tournament, and it will be interesting to see if players like Thiago Neves, Jo and Alexandre Pato play more substantial roles in this match.

Argentina's defense has been stingy as well, conceding only two goals in four games. And while Messi and Riquelme get the glory, it is midfielders Javier Mascherano and Fernando Gago who provide the platform for the team's success, and they'll be kept plenty busy on Tuesday contending with their Brazilian counterparts.

Questions persist about the effectiveness of Argentine outside backs Pablo Zabaleta and Luciano Monzon, the latter of whom struggled against Dutch speedster Royston Drenthe. And given the way Brazil's fullbacks, Rafinha and Marcelo, push into the attack, you expect that area of Argentina's defense to be constantly tested.

Uncertainty also abounds in the Argentine goal, where Sergio Romero will have to deputize for the injured Oscar Ustari.

.

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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