Right from the off, football fans across the globe have been glued to the action at the Men's Olympic Football Tournament Beijing 2008, drawn by the prospect of thrilling clashes between the world's finest sides. And now, just over a week into the competition, the heat has been turned up several notches with the beginning of the knockout stages.
Not only will this Saturday's four mouth-watering quarter-finals decide who remains in the hunt for an Olympic medal, but historical rivalries and regional pride add spice to an already intoxicating mix. And we here at FIFA.com we are delighted to bring you all you need to know about the action ahead.
The big game
Argentina - Netherlands
Shanghai, 16 August, 21.00 (local time)
Two of the leading contenders to finish in the medal positions here at Beijing 2008, the Albiceleste and the Oranje have a stack of old scores to settle. While Argentina took ample revenge for a second-round drubbing at the 1974 FIFA World Cup Germany™ by beating the Netherlands in the Final four years later, many Albiceleste fans are still smarting from an epic quarter-final clash at France 1998 - a game settled by a magical late goal from Dennis Bergkamp.
Ten years on from that memorable encounter in Marseille, the two nations' U-23 squads are set to square off for a place in the semi-finals. Featuring players of the calibre of Lionel Messi, Juan Roman Riquelme, Roy Makaay and Ryan Babel, to name but a few, this is a game not to be missed.
The Argentina-Netherlands game certainly promises thrills aplenty, as does the showdown between Brazil and Cameroon in Shenyang. Coach Dunga's Seleção are in buoyant mood after picking up maximum points in the group phase and are heavily favoured to take their first-ever Olympic Football gold medal, a feat their African opponents, now coached by Martin Ndtoungou, achieved at Sydney 2000. The Indomitable Lions defeated the Auriverde 2-1 at the quarter-final stage of that triumphant campaign. Will AC Milan's recent signing Ronaldinho, a scorer that day, have his revenge?
The last eight has also thrown up two contests pitting regional rivals against each other. The first of these will be held in Beijing, where Italy's reward for taking first place in Group D is a match with fellow Europeans Belgium. Though weakened by the loss of Lazio forward Tommaso Rocchi through serious injury, the Azzurrini will still harbour hopes of repeating their podium finish at Athens 2004, or even capturing the gold medal that has eluded them since Berlin 1936.
Meanwhile, the second regional head-to-head will guarantee at least one African side reaches the last four here at Beijing 2008. Preparing to lock horns are Atlanta 1996 champions Nigeria and debut boys Côte d'Ivoire, for whom Chelsea forward Salomon Kalou has been in inspirational form. Can the Ivorian upstarts topple the Nigerian old-stagers?
The players to watch
Expect an abundance of fleet-footed forward play from Lionel Messi and Ryan Babel as Argentina and the Netherlands do battle, while Ronaldinho will have his heart set on avenging Brazil's reverse against Cameroon at Sydney 2000. And with Salomon Kalou ready to lead the Elephants' line against Nigeria, there will be no shortage of established stars to follow on Saturday.
The numbers game
5 - The number of former gold-medal winning nations still in this year's competition: Belgium (1920), Italy (1936), Nigeria (1996), Cameroon (2000) and Argentina (2004). Brazil, Côte d'Ivoire and the Netherlands will all be desperate to add their name to that list this year.
Brazil - Cameroon
Italy - Belgium
Argentina - Netherlands
Nigeria - Côte d'Ivoire
"Italy are a very strong, world-class team. We have the opportunity to make Belgian football history and I'm sure it would have an extra-special flavour if it happened against opponents of this stature. Let's hope we can stay in the tournament and add another chapter to this beautiful story," Belgium coach Jean Francois De Sart.
"We mustn't underestimate the Netherlands, a team with great individuals and who play great football. We're Argentina and as such we're aiming for gold, but we'll respect every opponent that crosses our path. That is our formula," Argentina coach Sergio Batista.
"It's good that there are three African teams in the quarter-finals, it means that we're all strong enough to compete for major honours. Nigeria already know how it feels to be crowned champions, but our side is capable of reaching the final. I've got a lot of faith in our team," Côte d'Ivoire forward Salomon Kalou.
"Fate dictated that we'd come up against Cameroon once more, who are a very strong and dangerous side. Of course we want to do things the right way and progress to the next round. We've been doing things right so far," Brazil captain Ronaldinho.
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