Paraguay won their first ever Olympic medal after a 3-1 victory over Iraq in their semi-final in Thessaloniki on Tuesday. Clinical finishing from Jose Cardozo (2) and another from Fredy Bareiro underlined the South Americans' greater big-match experience and sets up a fascinating all-South American duel for gold with neighbours Argentina in Athens on Saturday. Substitute Razzaq Farhan scored a late consolation for Iraq, who now meet Italy in the bronze-medal game on Friday.
Iraq started off like a train. With Emad Mohammed prominent down the right, they charged into the opposition dominating the early possession. But it was Paraguay, looking for a first final appearance in a major international competition, who had the first clear opening. Preying like a vulture on the penalty spot, Jose Cardozo picked up a cross from the right only to see his shot blocked well by goalkeeper Nour Sabri.
Fast and skilful and direct, Emad's refreshing wing play was rendering Carlos Jara's early tactics impotent. However it was the other winger, Hawar Mulla Mohammed, who had Iraq's almost identical opening two chances in the space of three minutes just before the quarter hour. After ferocious tackling, Hawar found himself bearing down on goal but, both times, chose to chip the ball over the advancing Diego Barreto without luck.
The South Americans were under the cosh but they replied with a clinical strike from the irrepressible Cardozo to take the lead. Anticipating a flicked header, the Toluca striker raced through on goal, held off his marker and slotted the ball home (0-1, 17)
Fired by their 1,000-strong band of noisy and colourful supporters, Iraq tore straight back in but their cavalier approach was not having much effect against the Albirrojo defence. Cardozo, 33, was a constant menace, showing off every day of his vast experience to take positional advantage when Iraq's players inevitably lost possession.
|Iraq reach the end of their rainbow. Abdul Wahab Abu Al Hail (C) vies for the ball against Paraguay's Celso Esquivel (L) and Julio Cesar Enciso|
Adnan Hamad's team were wearing the lucky green colours of the past two winners and if it were not for their poor finishing, you might say they were unfortunate to be two down.
Emad had a good chance blocked before the break and after Mahmoud beat three men in one trick down the left, Qusai miscued his effort well wide. Paraguay were not forgiving and countered to deadly effect. Only a stunning flying save from Nour kept out a 20-yard bullet from Barreto. Just before the hour Fredy Bareiro should have made the game safe after Cardozo had unselfishly chested the ball into his path, but the forward leant back and saw his half volley fly over.
To their credit though Iraq refused to surrender. A one-two between Emad and Younis ended with the latter fizzing a shot Barreto acrobatically kept out. Substitute Salih Sadir curled over, then Mahdi Karim flashed a header inches wide.
There was to be no more let off though. In space 20 yards out, Cardozo's shot was saved onto the post and this time Bareiro made no mistake tucking the rebound home high into the net (0-3, 68).
There were more chances as the game continued to flow from end to end. Qusai fired just wide before substitute Razzaq Farhan finally found the net after a one-two to the loud cheers of the Iraqi and Greek fans. (1-3, 83). Mahmoud's header almost set up a grandstand finish, while only the width of a post kept out a Pedro Benitez header.
"I think a few of the players were anxious tonight," said Hamad afterwards. "There was a lot of money riding on this game and the desire to win may have got to a few players. Of course, we lack experience in these matches because we have no league in our country."
"It is a historic moment, our first medal in the Olympics," said a visibly moved Jara. "The boys deserve this moment. They have worked very hard and now we are a living a dream."