Stephen Tudor picks out his best bets for the men’s Olympic football tournament.
The huge disparity in quality each coach can select from has always undermined this tournament and that is especially true in 2021 with the Euros, Copa America, Copa Libertadores, Gold Cup, and several clubs simply vetoing their stars going, all leading to a hotchpotch of squads made up of partly unfamiliar names. France’s, by way of example, is depleted of their usual cornucopia of elite fare and contains just two from their recent under-21 Euro pool. They’re led up front by Andre-Pierre Gignac, who last wore an international jersey in 2016 and currently plies his trade in Mexico.
Add in the tournament’s age restriction that has been loosened a touch this year due to Covid, but is still 24 or under with three ‘overage’ players and what we have here is a curio where all that we previously held to be true needs reconfiguring.
What we need right now is to be entertained and distracted; to see a young talent we’ve only vaguely heard of seize the Olympic spirit and run riot on the global stage, exhibiting every flick, trick and elaborate free-kick in his arsenal. Thankfully, we are spoilt for choice.
Takefusa Kubo (Japan)
The Real Madrid loanee’s end-product may be questionable – just a single goal and assist in La Liga last season for Villarreal is proof of that – but watching the 20-year-old winger nutmeg opponents for the sheer hell of it is never less than a joy.
Agile, inventive and in possession of a wicked left foot, Kubo will likely be inspired by performing on home turf and if even just a fraction of his creativity comes off expect his stock to considerably rise ahead of another loan spell, this time to Getafe.
As for Japan, with their overage players all boasting World Cup experience and Takehiro Tomiyasu looking to impress Premier League suitors at the back, they are fancied to go far so it naturally follows that their second favourite status in Group A feels a bit wide of the mark. By comparison to their slick collective, France are a cobbled together bunch of promising but unproven youngsters and with Mexico and South Africa not offering much, back Kubo and co to start the competition with a bang.
Brazil’s squad is top-heavy with attacking flair and all eyes will be on the Bundesliga duo of Paulinho and Matheus Cunha, who are set to become Seleção regulars for years to come. From Richarlison we can anticipate the usual mixture of brilliance and disappointing anonymity, while Gabriel Martinelli will be hoping to stylishly put an injury-plagued year behind him.
It is Antony however who most intrigues, the 21-year-old Ajax prodigy who terrorized the Eredivisie for sustained periods last season. Cutting in from the right, the speedy magician, who played in borrowed boots as a boy, can ping pinpoints crosses at will and should he switch to show-off mode then sit back and enjoy the show.
Hertha BSC forward Cunha is joint-favourite at 5/1 to finish the tournament as leading goal-scorer. Serviced by Antony and surrounded by samba sorcery he is the best shout in this market.
The threat of burn-out is a real concern for an 18-year-old who has played an awful lot of top-level football this past year.
First there was a breakthrough season with Barcelona that saw the Canarian wonderkid feature 52 times across all competitions. Next up, a starring role for Spain at Euro 2020 that earned him the Young Player of the Tournament merit. And now, with pre-season awaiting on his return, Pedri travels to the other side of the world to once again delight with his impish movement and metronomic passing.
Pep Guardiola has stated that two major tournaments in one summer is too much and unsurprisingly the present Barca boss Ronald Koeman agrees. But what can Spain do? As good as they are, they need him.
In a warm-up ahead of the Olympics, La Roja appeared short of ideas until he came on with 20 mins to spare and enlivened them. He is their talisman. He is a bonafide superstar-in-the-making.
Spain are 2/1 to win only their second Olympics. They undoubtedly have the strongest squad with 135 caps won between an assortment of title-winners for their clubs. It’s hard to look past them.
Pedri at #EURO2020:
◉ Most final third passes completed (177)
◎ Fifth-most passes completed (421)
◎ Fifth-most chances created (11)
Straight back into the action with the Olympics.
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) July 18, 2021
Amad Diallo (Ivory Coast)
The Elephants have it all to do with Brazil and Germany in their group but if you’re seeking out a possible surprise package they fit the bill should everything click in the Far East.
At the back Eric Bailly brings Premier League pedigree to the party while ahead of the Manchester United defender, Franck Kessie was excellent as Milan’s lynchpin last term. Up front, former Leicester and Leeds forward Max Gradel is a shrewd overage pick offering a decade’s international experience.
It is Diallo who excites though, a lightning-quick, skillful winger, who could explode in Japan following a few encouraging cameos glimpsed at Old Trafford.
Signed from Atalanta at the start of this year, there are high hopes for the teen in Manchester. He may well show why in the weeks ahead.
Ivory Coast are 11/2 to top an otherwise formidable group. Why not?