THE DAY REPLAYED - The youth of South America are clearly aiming for global domination! After providing three of the semi-finalists at the last FIFA U-17 World Championship and another three at the FIFA World Youth Championship, the continent now has the Olympic Final all to itself. Tonight in Athens, a Carlos Tevez-inspired Argentina devoured Italy 3-0, while in Thessaloniki, José Cardozo's Paraguay finally put an end to Iraq's amazing adventure by winning 3-1. Those two semi-final successes means history is bound be made on Saturday. Neither CONMEBOL side has ever won the Olympic Football Tournament; indeed, the Paraguayans have never won any medal in any sport!
A seventh dance for Carlito, the same old story for Argentina's opponents
A bumper crowd poured into the Karaiskai Stadium in Athens for what promised to be a spectacular Olympic semi-final between two giants of world football: Argentina and Italy. And the teams lived up to their lofty billing by displaying the tremendous form that had carried them so far. The Argentinians looked the more composed early on, and in the 8th minute Gabriel Heinze went close to scoring directly from a corner. Football fans have grown used to seeing wonderful Argentinian attackers down the years, but the Albicelestes have not always been blessed with such outstanding defenders. In this tournament, the defensive trio of Heinze, Roberto Ayala and Fabricio Collocini have been simply imperious and, assisted by a 20-year-old Javier Mascherano who is mature beyond his years, they have yet to concede a single goal since the start of the competition.
Of course, Argentina's strike-force is mightily impressive too, but being forewarned is not necessarily being forearmed, and Italy simply could not stop them running amok yet again tonight. Tormentor-in-chief was deadly finisher Carlos Tevez. It took just 16 minutes and a majestic volley for "Carlito" to open his account tonight and give him the opportunity to showcase another new dance. He invents one each time he scores so has had to come up with seven so far in Greece. Tevez is odds-on to finish top scorer in the tournament, since his nearest rival, José Cardozo of Paraguay, only has five. One thing Tevez has definitely already won is the heart of the cluster of Argentinian fans in the stadium, who had emblazoned his name across every one of their banners.
The second half was very evenly contested, but Marcelo Bielsa's boys always looked capable of shifting up a gear whenever necessary. In the 69th minute, they gave themselves extra breathing space when Luis Gonzales walloped home a second goal. Still not sated, the albiceleste helped themselves to a third when, in the 84th minute, Tevez fed Mariano Gonzales brilliantly, and the substitute used his first touch of the match to slot the ball past goalkeeper Ivan Pelizzoli. The crestfallen Italians may not have appreciated the irony of conceding a goal to the Palermo striker. The South Americans, on the other hand, were delighted to claim their 16th goal in just five matches, boosting their average to more than three per game. Argentina are now even stronger favourites than before to win the Final, where they will meet their continental neighbours, Paraguay.
"Grandad" Cardozo ends the Iraqi dream
With an experienced and clinical Paraguay taking on an ebullient Iraqi side riding the crest of a wave, this game in Thessaloniki's Kaftanzoglio Stadium was always likely to produce goals. The Iraqis were appearing at this stage of an Olympic Tournament for the first time ever and their unfamiliarity with the formalities raised a smile when they began clapping the Paraguayan national anthem before it was finished, and then hastily stopped as soon as they realised their faux pas. Alas, their inexperience was also to prove costly during the match.
Hamed Adnan's men made a bright start, and the dynamic Mohammed Emad and Mahmoud Younis were soon proving a handful up front. Ably abetted by Mohammed Hawar Mulla, they worked numerous openings but could not apply the telling touch. The Albirrojos would not be so profligate.
After 17 minutes, 33-year-old José Cardozo showed a veteran's eye for a goal as he latched on to a flick-on before driving the ball past Sabri Nour. One chance, one goal, and things were looking good for the South Americans. The Iraqis came charging back though, and Mulla almost put his team on level terms but his lob was scrambled clear. As they poured forward in search of an equaliser, the Iraqis left gaps at the back and Paraguay exploited these expertly, After 34 minutes, Cardozo profited from Freddy Bareiro's decoy run to outwit the defence and grab his second goal on the night and his fifth of the tournament. There was to be no way back for Iraq.
Adnan's players certainly do not lack heart, and they continued to attack with vigour, particularly through Younis and Sadir Salih, who tried a flurry of shots without any luck. After 64 minutes, the Albirrojos struck again and Cardozo was again instrumental. His shot rebounded off a post for Bareiro to follow up and tap home. Six minutes from the end, Farhan Razzaq at last found the net for the Iraqis, but it was nothing more than a consolation goal. The Iraqi dream was thus brought to an abrupt end, but they still have a chance to claim the Bronze medal (which would be only the country's second Olympic medal ever) when they face Italy in the play-off. Paraguay, meanwhile, progress to the Final, where they will claim either the Silver or the Gold. Either way, they will make history, since Paraguay have never before won an Olympic medal in any sport. "Grandad" Cardozo has already earned the gratitude of a nation!