The Olyroos’ first Olympic campaign since 2008 is triggering much excitement in Australian football circles. However, they will be heavy underdogs in a group containing powerhouses Spain and Argentina, as well as Egypt.
Kick360 takes a look at the players the Olyroos will have to keep quiet if they are to have a chance at progressing in the tournament.
It is difficult to single out one key player in a Spain squad that features six players who played major roles in their run to semi-finals of Euro 2020.
While the likes of Unai Simón and Dani Olmo will make life difficult at both ends of the pitch, it is hard to go past electrifying midfielder Pedri as the biggest threat in Spain’s arsenal.
Having broken into FC Barcelona’s first team at the start of last season, the 18-year-old announced himself on the world stage with a commanding performance at Euro 2020.
He featured in all six games and was rewarded for his fine performances by being named in the Team of the Tournament and winning the young player of the tournament award.
His performance in the semi-final against Italy was particularly impressive, with the youngster completing 98% of his passes and his combination play with Olympic teammates Olmo and Mikel Oyarzabal running a world class Italian team ragged.
Pedri is a dynamic player, able to play on the left side of a midfield three or as a left winger. He is comfortable directly running at the opposition as well as acting as a distributor from midfield.
He is often given licence to roam freely in the attacking third, making him difficult to control effectively.
Graham Arnold has his work cut out to curb the influence of this future world beater. He will look to recently capped Socceroo’s in Riley McGree and Connor Metcalfe to lead the Olyroos midfield in quelling the threat that Pedri poses.
McGree and co will have to get in the face of the Pedri as soon as he receives the ball and they may have to get physical in order to limit his impact on proceedings.
Egypt: Ahmed Hegazi
In the pressure cooker environment that is tournament football, the experienced players help lead their teams through the storm. In an under-23s tournament this is magnified, making the selection of the overage players critical to a team’s success.
Egypt will certainly be looking to towering central defender Ahmed Hegazi to be the leader and difference maker in their quest to progress from the group stages.
Hegazi, currently plying his trade at Al-Ittihad in Saudi Arabia, has previously played for West Bromwich Albion in the Premier League in the 2017-18 season, being one of their standout performers despite suffering relegation.
Having also represented his country at the 2018 FIFA World Cup, Hegazi has locked horns with some of the world’s best and will be unfazed by any potential problems that arise during the tournament.
In today’s world of ball-playing defenders, Hegazi is an ode to the traditional no-nonsense centre back, but this does not diminish his effectiveness. His tackling, aerial ability and physicality make him a worthy adversary for any opposing striker.
The Olyroos will be pinning their hopes on striker Mitchell Duke outwitting the Egyptian. Duke has actually faced Hegazi during his time in Saudi Arabia, and Arnold will be hoping that he has gained some knowledge on how to overcome Hegazi.
Arnold may look to deploy Duke in a deeper role, dragging the Egyptian defence out of position and allowing the exciting Australian wingers Daniel Arzani and Marco Tilio to wreak havoc. This limits Hegazi’s strength’s and exposes his lack of pace.
Keep an eye out for the aerial duels at set pieces; Hegazi has a knack of scoring goals and Australia’s man mountain Harry Souttar will have to be at the top of his game to stop him in one box and outmanoeuvre him in the other.
Argentina: Ezequiel Ponce
Argentina will be looking to emulate the success of the senior team in the Copa America by winning their first Gold Medal since 2008. With talent sprinkled throughout the side, the versatility of attacker Ezequiel Ponce could prove pivotal in Argentina’s quest for glory.
The 24-year-old has already racked up 187 senior appearances, playing in Ligue 1, La Liga and the UEFA Champions League. Most recently, he scored a respectable 10 goals in 22 games for Spartak Moscow in Russia.
A product of the Newell’s Old Boys academy that produced Lionel Messi, throughout his career, Ponce has shown an ability to play across the whole of the front line; being strong enough to compete with centre backs, whilst possessing enough pace to cause problems for fullbacks.
Argentina manager Fernando Batista has a wealth of options at his disposal, and he has chosen to experiment with different systems in the warmup games in the lead up to the tournament, utilising both a 4-3-3 and a 4-4-2 to harness the strengths of different players in their squad.
Ponce could find himself leading the line, playing on the wing or even as part of a pair of strikers alongside burly target man Adolfo Gaich.
Alternatively, Batista may choose to use Ponce as a super sub to change the course of games hanging in the balance. After all, his ability to outpace and outmuscle tired defenders could prove the difference between success and failure.
Either way, the Olyroos have to be prepared for every possibility come game time on Thursday night versus Argentina, their Olympic campaign could depend on it.