By Jonathan Wilson
Spain: out. Uruguay: out. This men's Olympic football tournament is defined at the end of the group stage as much by who has gone out as by who has gone through. With one side of the draw left wide open, there is a guarantee that at least one team in the final - one of Japan, Egypt, Mexico and Senegal - will never have reached that stage of the competition before.
It is the underperformance of Spain that has provoked the most surprise. They failed even to score a goal in three group games, their struggles perhaps highlighting the risks involved in possession football that doesn't necessary create huge numbers of chances. They were unlucky at times - hitting the woodwork three times late on against Honduras and being denied a clear penalty - but they also looked jittery defensively, particularly against Japan, and lacked the sense of composure and menace of the senior national team.
Uruguay were desperately disappointing. They struggled to beat UAE 2-1, were well-beaten by ten-man Senegal in their second game and were second best against Great Britain, looking oddly flat and dispirited with only Luis Suarez offering much in the way of fight. After reaching the semi-final of the World Cup in 2010 and winning the Copa America last year, while qualifying for the Olympics by reaching the final of the South American Under-20 championship, hopes had been high that they could emulate the Uruguay teams of 1924 and 1928 and win Olympic gold, but they never looked potential champions with Edinson Cavani in particular off-colour. The evidence that the new generation is not up to the standard of the likes of Diego Forlan, Alvaro Pereira, Maxi Pereira, Diego Perez and Diego Lugano must be of concern as Uruguay prepare for the 2014 World Cup.
None of the teams who have made it through have been overwhelmingly impressive either. When he took over as Brazil national manager, Mano Menezes promised, as all Brazilian coaches must, that he would restore the sparkle to the national team, that he would play in the spirit of the great attacking sides of 1982 and 1970. It's an unrealistic proposition - the game has moved on and systematised football, defending from the front as one unit, has rendered that style of football a quaint archaism - but there has, at last, been signs of the verve he, and Brazil, would like about their attacking play. Hulk offers power and skill cutting in from the right. Neymar, strutting peacock that he may be, is using his immense abilities increasingly effectively from the left. Both Leandro Damiao and Pato have looked impressive in that lone central striking role, often playing with their backs to goal. And tying it all together has been the majestic creative intelligence of Oscar. The front four, supported with runs from full-back of Rafael and Marcelo, have interchanged superbly.
But defensively Brazil have been a mess. It wasn't just the two goals Egypt scored against them in the second half - which could have been written off, perhaps, as a team that was 3-0 up at half-time losing concentration. There have been gaps in all three games they've played, lapses of marking, basic errors. The front four may end up as Brazil's front four in the World Cup in two years' time, but at the moment, Lucas and Ramires will be welcomed back to operate at the back of the midfield. It's hard to imagine Honduras, unbeaten as they are, impressive as Mario Martinez has been creatively and bravely as they rode their luck against Spain, being able to hold them off in the quarter-final.
If Brazil go through, they will face Great Britain or South Korea in the semi-final. Great Britain, in their first Olympic football tournament since 1960, have been patchy and at times reliant on the excellence of their goalkeeper Jack Butland to keep them in games. He is astonishingly mature for a 19 year old, imposing and dominating, quick off his line and blessed with sharp reflexes; it seems highly unlikely he will stay at Birmingham City much longer. Scrappy at times, still prone to whacking the ball aimlessly forward, there have been other spells in which GB have held the ball well, the use of three passers in midfield - Tom Cleverley, Aaron Ramsey and Joe Allen - creating neat triangles. It was the excellent Allen's interaction with Scott Sinclair on the left that brought the winner for Daniel Sturridge against Uruguay.
Home advantage, in what should be a sold-out Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, should give GB the edge over an organised South Korea side that has conceded just one goal so far. The key battle is likely to come in midfield; the teams play a similar 4-2-3-1/4-3-3 hybrid and much will depend on whether GB can extend its periods of possession.
If they concede possession as needlessly as it did at times in the group stage, they won't readily regain it.
Having not only beaten Spain but outplayed them, Japan's quality is undoubted. They didn't concede a goal in the group stage and the only major criticism of them would be that they don't make enough of the chances they create. Kensuke Nagai is a willing front runner and the interaction of Yuki Otsu, Keigo Higashi and Hiroshi Kiyotake behind him has been impressive. Egypt, their quarter-final opponents, have had much the same problem, elegant and dynamic through midfield but without generating the goals they probably should have done.
The victories of Nigeria and Cameroon in successive Olympic football tournaments represent arguably the greatest achievement of the African game. Senegal, perhaps, are the side most likely to repeat that. Centre-forward Moussa Konate has probably been the outstanding player of the tournament so far and the resilience they showed after being reduced to ten men against Uruguay was remarkable. They face a well-balanced Mexico side that, like so many teams at the tournament, looks rather better at keeping the ball than doing much with it.
Brazil, despite their defensive worries, are overwhelming favourites but, after them, the tournament is open enough that each of the other sides can realistically dream of finding the momentum to carry them to an unexpected gold. And for GB, the great hope must be that momentum is most easily generated at home.