In amongst the minefield of lower level club football that’s currently going on, there is the small matter of who takes home the gold medal for Olympic football at the summer Olympics in Tokyo. Let’s have a look at the teams and players competing.
France had a nightmare start to the tournament as they were thumped 4-1 in their opening game by Mexico. There’s some good talent in that Mexico side, most notably Diego Lainez – who lived up to his billing in the opening game with a terrific display. However with the wealth of ability and experience in the France squad it was a pretty substantial upset, with France going off at around evens to win. Veteran striker Andre-Pierre Gignac did offer France a lifeline after he converted a penalty in the second half, they were buoyed after that and chased an equaliser but were finished off by two late goals.
It’s South Africa and then Japan up next for the French, two games they’re expected to win and they’ll realistically need at least 4 points to qualify. There’s no reason why that isn’t achievable, you’d likely have had them down to go unbeaten in this group, however Mexico are a cut above the other two sides in this group so Les Bleus know the toughest test is out the way.
Players to watch
As I mentioned, there’s some pretty big names in this France squad. Game 1 goal scorer Andre-Pierre Gignac is one of the most recognisable players at the tournament, he’s been capped over 30 times for his national team and has appeared for France at the European Championships. After a sensational 21 goal season for Marseille back in 14/15 the big striker has been playing his football out in Mexico for Tigres. No surprise that he’s been tearing it up out there, he’s scored 128 times in 222 games since his move and even at 35 could still comfortably cut it in a top European league. I’m sure though he’s pretty content with 20 goals a season and a massive pay check in Monterrey.
Another recognisable name and now a club team mate of Gignac is Florian Thauvin, Newcastle fans may remember him as an absolute flop but the winger is a player blessed with incredible technical ability. Also a former Marseille starlet he produced some outrageous seasons for them, notably a run of 23, 33 and 24 goal contributions across 3 seasons from 2016-2019. He played 36 times for Marseille last season; scoring 8 and assisting 8 before agreeing a deal to link up with Gignac in Mexico. There’s no doubting his ability but his attitude has often been questionable, similarly with Gignac I do wonder how much this competition really matters to them when it’s evident that both find motivation through more fiscal means.
Along with those two there’s also Lucas Tousart (Hertha Berlin), Teji Savanier (Montpellier) and highly rated youngsters such as Everton’s Niels Nkoudou and Nantes’ Randal Kolo Muani. Realistically this French team should go far in the competition but sterner tests lay ahead if they can get out of the group.
The defending champions got off to a brilliant start as they sept aside Germany 4-2, they took their foot off the gas slightly after romping to a 3-0 half time lead with Everton striker Richarlison scoring a half hour hat trick set them well on their way. It could’ve been even more had Matheus Cunha converted his penalty right on the stroke of half time. The 10 men of Germany did threaten a comeback as they made it 3-2 with 6 minutes to play before Leverkusen winger Paulinho sealed the win for the hosts.
This competition is very important to Brazil, it’s a huge thing for them. I’ve never really batted an eyelid at Team GB’s performance at the Olympics but for Brazil it really is something special, we all remember the images of Neymar in tears when they won gold at the last games and that really says all you need to know about their respect for this competition. They have by far the strongest team as well, the list of players they’ve taken with them is astonishing.
Players to watch
Where do you even start with this squad? Probably with the star man from the opening game – Richarlison. Everton’s £50m striker is one of the most established players at the tournament and will be leading the charge for the golden boot, especially after that performance against Germany. He’s a player who I’ve often not ben convinced by, particularly when it comes to his attitude but the pride of playing for his country at the Olympic games seems to have really galvanized him. He looked so sharp and so motivated from the highlights I’ve seen of that opening game. He’ll be the downfall of many teams this summer if he keeps up that level of performance.
Brazil are under fantastic stewardship too as they’re lead on to the pitch by their captain and football’s most decorated player – Dani Alves. The 38 year old is still playing out in Brazil and is taking immense pride in captaining his country in Tokyo. You won’t find a more experienced player at the competition and his mere presence will work wonders for the younger players and he’s still got plenty to offer on the pitch.
Along with him, the defence is marshalled by Sevilla centre back Diego Carlos who’s been one of the most sought after defenders in Europe in recent years. He’s a Europa League winner and a player who probably feels hard done by to have not made the Copa America squad.
There’s a plethora of talented youngsters in the squad as you’d expect, here’s some more names you may be familiar with and illustrates just how string their team is: Douglas Luiz (Aston Villa), Gabriel Martinelli (Arsenal), Paulinho (Leverkusen), Antony (Ajax), Malcolm (Zenit), Matheus Cunha (Hertha Berlin), Reiner (Dortmund) & Bruno Guimaraes (Lyon).
With most teams at the games you’ll likely see 1 or 2 players who featured for the national team at this summers major tournaments (Copa America & Euro 2020) but with Spain the representation goes beyond just a couple of players. 5 of Spain’s starting 11 from match day 1 featured at the Euros and 4 of them – Pedri, Olmo, Garcia & Torres were regular starters along with Mikel Oyarzabal wo made 1 start and appeared as a sub in all other games.
Spain started their journey in Tokyo with a rather lacklustre 0-0 draw with Egypt. They utterly dominated the game but were unable to find a way past a stubborn Egyptian defence and an inspired goalkeeper. It was a disappointing result for what was an incredibly string starting 11, maybe the closest on paper to the Brazilians. Along with the aforementioned players, Spain lined up with the likes of Marco Asensio (Real Madrid), Mikel Merino (Sociedad), Dani Ceballos (Real Madrid) & Oscar Mingueza (Barcelona). Anything other than the latter stages of the tournament for a side with such quality would be rather disappointing.
Players to watch
First and foremost is has to be Pedri. I caught glimpses of the Barcelona star towards the back end of their league campaign and was relatively impressed, however his performances at the Euro’s have increased his stock tenfold. He was outstanding for Spain and topped the charts for a whole host of different metrics and also found his way in to the official team of the tournament, it’s hard to believe he’s just 18 as he plays with maturity much beyond his years. Just as well he has youth on his side as he’s played a tonne of football lately, he played all bar 2 minutes of Spain’s Euro campaign and played the full 90 against Egypt.
I could pick out any individual from Spain’s attack and write something similar about each but after hours plonked on the sofa for the Euros; the man I’d be most excited to watch would be Dani Olmo. He cropped up a few times for me last season with some excellent performances for his club side RB Leipzig and that snowballed in to a real standout tournament this summer. He was at the heart of so much that went well for Spain, his ability to create chances and space for both himself and his teammates is a joy to behold. He also had more shots than any other player at Euro 2020, so you know you’re never too far away from some action when he picks up the ball.
As mentioned, Germany didn’t get off to the best of starts as they were brushed aside 4-2 by tournament favourites Brazil. That result perhaps flattered them slightly as well as they were blown off the park, particularly in the first half. That being said the Germans do posses a strong squad with a number of recognisable names however in comparison to particularly Brazil and Spain they are left wanting slightly in terms of quality, their squad is more comparable to France’s but their younger squad members probably just edge the equivalent players in the French ranks.
Germany’s next two matches come against Saudi Arabia before they finish the group stages against Ivory Coast. The African nation came out on top of the clash between the other two so that sets up a potential crunch tie to see who makes it through to the knockouts with Brazil basically already set in stone as group winners.
Players to watch
Looking at the squad, the first player I spot is Leverkusen’s Nadiem Amiri. Scorer of the Bundesliga goal of the season he’s a player who first burst on the scene for Germany’s Under 21’s. Possessing exceptional ball control, quick feet and an inch perfect pass, he’s attracted numerous admirers amongst Europe’s top clubs after impressing for his club side last season. He started game one from the left side of a front 3, that’s not his most natural role but he still found the net. He’s much more adept at playing in a number 10 roll or as the most attacking minded member of a midfield 3.
With Maximilian Arnold suspended after his dismissal against Brazil we could see the German’s switch systems for match day 2, that could mean Amiri moving in to a more central position with either Cedric Teuchert or Ragnar Ache possibly coming in to a wide position. It would most likely be the latter after he found the net as a substitute against Brazil.
Max Kruse is probably the most recognisable name on the team sheet. He lead the line in the opener but was withdrawn at 67 minutes having not made a particularly big impact but that doesn’t discredit his importance to this squad. He’s the most senior player at 33 years old and was inspirational for Union Berlin last season despite some injury issues. He made 22 appearances on his return to the Bundesliga following a stint in Turkey; in those 22 games he scored 11 goals and assisted a further 5. In a central role he provides both finishing and playmaking ability, he’s best when utilized as a false 9 with pace in and around him.