KEIR RADNEDGE in SAO PAULO: Brazil’s gamble on the fitness of Neymar paid off when the hosts rummaged their way to a 2-0 victory over Colombia after an explosive Olympic quarter-final in which the referee read the riot act to both captains and coaches.
The Barcelona superstar had trained on his own the day before the clash in the Estadio Corinthians and did not participate in a training game after collecting a muscle strain during the 4-0 victory over Denmark which fired Brazil into the last eight.
However he was judged well enough to start against the Colombians with whom he had scores to settle: Neymar had been crucially injured against them in the 2014 World Cup quarter-finals and was then sent off in the countries’ next duel in the 2015 Copa America.
The match was marked by a feisty start and tempers soon flared. First Manchester City-bound Gabriel Jesus was floored deep in the Colombian half and then Neymar was pushed to the ground.
Once he had regained his feet and squabbling players from both teams had been separated by Turkish referee Cuneyt Cakir, Neymar took responsibility for the 13th-minute free kick. He fired it low through a pourous defensive wall and beyond the right hand of diving goalkeeper Cristian Bonilla.
This only encouraged the Colombians to snap away all the more at Neymar, a cynical tactic which achieved its aim of winding up the Brazilians and putting them off playing their football.
Five minutes before half-time, in retaliation, Neymar and two team-mates chased down Andres Roa, thus provoking a free-for-all which saw all the players and substitutes from both benches piling in for a touchline rumble.
Once a fragile peace had been restored referee Cakir ticked off both captains, Neymar and Teofilo Gutierrez, and then summoned respective coaches Micale and Carlos Alberto Restrepo for a further cautionary lecture.
This had no effect whatsoever on the Colombians who immediately redoubled their efforts to kick down Neymar at every opportunity. Wilmar Barrios and Harold Preciado were booked for just that in quick succession before Helibelton Palacios laid out Gabriel Jesus with a stiff-arm chop across the throat.
Half-time, however, appeared to have the desired effect of calming tempers and both teams began the second half with greater footballing intent: Brazil needed to extend their lead and Colombia needed an equaliser.
Brazilian keeper Weverton nervily parried a couple of long-range Colombian efforts but then the Cafeteros were fortunate not to concede a penalty when Delvy Balanta’s raised arm blocked a shot from Brazilian midfelder Luan.
Colombia had Bonilla to thank for a sharp save to an angled header from Rodrigo Caio but the Atletico Nacional goalkeeper was finally left exposed and helpless when Luan found space in the 83rd minute and sent his shot soaring up into the top corner for Brazil’s second goal.
Victory was a hard-earned reward for the stifling strategy adopted by Brazil in and around midfield in their most cohesive performance of the Olympic tournament so far.
Coach Rogerio Micale’s men are odds-on favourites to despatch rank outsiders Honduras in their semi-final in Rio de Janeiro on Wednesday and thus clnch a place in next Saturday’s final in Maracana against Germany or Nigeria.
The dream of that elusive gold medal beckons ever more intently.
Wed, Aug 17 – Semi-finals: Nigeria v Germany (Sao Paulo, 16.00); Brazil v Honduras (Rio Maracana, 13.00).
Sat, Aug 29 – Bronze play-off: Belo Horizonte (13.00). Gold medal final: Rio Maracana (17.30).
Aug 4 – Gp A: Iraq 0, Denmark 0; Brazil 0, S Africa 0. Gp B: Sweden 2, Colombia 2; Nigeria 5, Japan 4. Gp C: Mexico 2, Germany 2; Fiji 0, S Korea 8. Gp D: Honduras 3, Algeria 2; Portugal 2, Argentina 0.
Aug 7 – Gp A (Brasilia): Denmark 1, South Africa 0; Brazil 0, Iraq 0. Gp B (Manaus): Sweden 0, Nigeria 1; Japan 2, Colombia 2. Gp C (Salvador): Fiji 1, Mexico 5; Germany 3, S Korea 3. Gp D (Rio, Olimpico): Honduras 1, Portugal 2; Argentina 2, Algeria 1.
Aug 10 – Gp A: Denmark 0, Brazil 4 (Salvador); S Africa 1, Iraq 1 (Sao Paulo). Fjnal standings: Brazil 5pts; Denmark 4pts; Iraq 3pts; S Africa 2.
Gp B: Colombia 2, Nigeria 0 (Sao Paulo); Japan 1, Sweden 0 (Salvador). Final standings (all three matches): Nigeria 6pts; Colombia 5pts; Japan 4pts; Sweden 1pt
Gp C : Germany 10, Fiji 0 (Belo Horizonte); S Korea 1, Mexico 0 (Brasilia). Final standings (all three matches): S Korea 7pts; Germany 5pts; Mexico 4pts; Fiji 0.
Gp D: Algeria 1, Portugal 1 (Belo Horizonte); Argentina 1, Honduras 1 (Brasilia). Final standings (all three matches): Portugal 7pts; Honduras 4 (gd 0); Argentina 4 (gd -1); Algeria 1.
Sat, Aug 13 – Quarter-finals: Portugal 0, Germany 4 (Brasilia); Nigeria 2, Denmark 0 (Salvador); S Korea 0, Honduras 1 (Belo Horizonte); Brazil 2, Colombia 0 (Sao Paulo).
Tue, Aug 16 – semi-finals: Brazil v Sweden (Rio Maracana, 13.00); Germany v Canada (Belo Horizonte, 16.00).
Fri, Aug 19 – Bronze medal play-off: Sao Paulo (13.00). Gold medal final: Maracana (17.30).
Results so far:
Aug 06 – Gp E (Rio, Olimpico): S Africa 0, China 2; Brazil 5, Sweden 1. Gp F (Sao Paulo): Canada 3, Zimbabwe 1; Germany 2, Australia 2. Gp G (Belo Horizonte): United States 1, France 0; Colombia 0, New Zealand 1.
Tue, Aug 09 – Gp E: S Africa 0, Brazil 0 (Manaus); China 0, Sweden 0 (Brasilia). Final standings (all three matches): Brazil 7pts, China 4 (gd -1), Sweden 4 (gd -3), South Africa 1.
Gp F: Australia 6, Zimbabwe 1 (Salvador); Germany 1, Canada 2 (Brasilia). Final standings (all three matches): Canada 9pts, Germany 4 (gd +4), Australia 4 (gd +3), Zimbabwe 0.
Gp G: Colombia 2, United States2 (Manaus); New Zealand 0, France 3 (Salvador). Final standings (all three matches): US 7pts, France 6, New Zealand 3, Colombia 1.
Fri, Aug 12 – quarter-finals: US 1, Sweden 1 after extra time (3-4 on penalties: Brasilia); China 0, Germany 1 (Salvador); Canada 1, France 0 (Sao Paulo); Brazil 0, Australia 0 after extra time (7-6 on penalties: Belo Horizonte).