Originally posted on The Sports Headquarters  |  Last updated 7/28/12

MIAMI - JULY 10: Maynor Figueroa #3 of Honduras strikes the ball into play during group play of the FIFA 2005 CONCACAF Gold Cup against Colombia at the Orange Bowl on July 10, 2005 in Miami, Florida. Honduras won 2-1. (Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images)
TSHQ’s Olympic Football Preview: Group D

by Gus Elvin

Honduras- After losing all 3 of their matches at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing without scoring a goal, Honduras will look for much better in London. The Hondurans qualified for their 2nd straight Olympics by finishing 2nd in CONCACAF, clinching their spot with a dramatic 3-2 extra time win over fierce rival El Salvador in the semifinals. Honduras was a very surprise qualifier, taking the spot many thought the United States would occupy, but now that they are here expectations have changed. Honduras drew a wide open Group D, as after favorites Spain, the 2nd qualifying position looks up for grabs. Japan, Morocco and Honduras will all battle for this spot, with Japan being tabbed by most as the favorite to finish 2nd. Honduras’s Olympic squad is primarily domestically based, with 3 MLS players, 1 EPL player (Figueroa) and one La Liga player (Lozano) sprinkled in.  Honduras will rely heavily on their overage players, as Premier League veteran Maynor Figueroa of Wigan and MLS players Jerry Bengston (New England Revolution) and Roger Espinosa (Sporting KC) will feature prominently for “La Bicolor Olimpica”.  We will start with the goalkeeper for Honduras, as Platense keeper Jose Mendoza gets his 1st major shot with the U-23 side. Mendoza will be a key player for Honduras if the Hondurans are to have any success at the Olympics, as against teams like Spain, Morocco and Japan, he will be counted on for big save after big save.  The backline for the Hondurans is led by Maynor Figueroa of Wigan, who at 29 is the oldest and most battle tested player on the Honduran side. Figueroa will be in charge of shutting down some of the top strikers in this competition, and is the only Honduran defender who plays his football abroad. Figueroa will be joined on defense by senior national team member Johnny Leveron (Motagua), Orlin Peralta (Vida) and Victoria duo David Velasquez and Wilmer Crisanto. The midfield should be an area of strength for “La Catrachos”, as MLS stars Roger Espinosa of Sporting Kansas City and 19 year old playmaker Andy Najar of DC United lead a skilled and potent group.  Espinosa, who has been a strong MLS player the past few seasons will patrol the middle of the pitch for Honduras and will be tasked with holding up the ball and playmaking for the Hondurans. Najar on the other hand is an interesting case, as he was born in Honduras but grew up in the United States and was a product of the D.C. United Youth Academy. Najar(above) could have played for the United States internationally but decided to play for his native Honduras, and has recently cracked the starting lineup for the senior side. The 2010 MLS Rookie of the Year, Najar is an explosive young talent, who is a wiz on the ball and at playing in crosses from the right wing. The other midfielders to watch for Honduras are Alfredo Mejia of Motagua, Arnold Peralta of Vida, Mario Martinez of Real Espana and Alexander Lopez of Olimpia.  Up front Honduras will be paced by recent New England Revolution signing Jerry Bengston and Honduras’ brightest young star, 19 year old Anthony Lozano. Bengston an experienced vet in both the Honduran top flight with Vida and Motagua and with  the senior national team(22 caps, 8 goals), has recently just moved to Major League Soccer and scored in his debut as a substitute for New England. Bengtson will be the top scoring threat for Honduras, as the lanky striker is a clinical finisher around the goal, who seems to always find himself in the right position. Lozano on the other hand, moved to Spain after starring at age 15 for Olimpia in Honduras, and currently plays with Valencia’s B side. Last season Lozano played on loan for Alcoyano in the Segunda Division of Spanish football where he made 23 appearances and netted 2 goals. Lozano will likely be used as a sub at this tournament behind Eddie Hernandez, but his skill and quality could make him a 1st team choice for head coach Luis Suarez. Honduras figures to show better than they did in 2008, as after a World Cup appearance in 2010, Honduras is making strides in international football.  Expect Honduras to be much improved in 2012 but in a very even group outside of Spain, it will be tough for the Hondurans to qualify for the knockout stage. Honduras can matchup evenly with Japan and Morocco but in the end I think it is 3 matches and out for Honduras in a closely contested Group D. Honduras will not go without a goal or point in 2012 but the knockout round may just elude them, as Japan has a more experienced and slightly stronger side. Honduras should not be taken too lightly by their Group D counterparts though, as the Hondurans enter the tournament on a 3 game win streak, after sweeping a 3 game warm up schedule against fellow tournament participants Egypt, Gabon and United Arab Emirates.

Japan- Making their 5th straight appearance at the Olympic Games in football, Japan brings a strong side to London hoping to fare better than their last 2 appearances. The “Samurai Blue” qualified for the 2012 games by finishing atop Group B of the AFC Olympic Qualifying Tournament, going 6-2 during the qualifying campaign. Japan’s 18 man roster for this Olympic Tournament features 12 domestically based players, 5 German based players and one player based in the Netherlands (Maya Yoshida). To start, Japans roster is missing a few of their top players, as Manchester United signee and former Borussia Dortmund star Shinji Kagawa, Arsenal’s Ryo Miyachi and possible overage selection Keisuke Honda(CSK Moscow) were all left out of the Olympic side. Of the players in the side, the top names for Japan include Takashi Usami (1899 Hoffenheim), Yuki Otsu (Borussia Mochengladback) and the domestically based Kensuke Nagai (Nagoya Grampus). In goal Japan will start FC Tokyo netminder Shuichi Gonda, who has started 5 games for the U-23 side including some of the later AFC qualifiers. Gonda will need to be strong in this tournament as Japan will be battling with offensive based teams Morocco, Honduras and Spain for 2 qualifying positions. On defense, Japan features some talented youngsters who ply their trade in Europe, as Hiroki Sakai (Hannover 96), Gotoku Sakai (Stuttgart) and Maya Yoshida (VVV-Venlo) all have bright futures. The other defender likely to start for head coach Takashi Sekizuka is Yohei Tokunaga of Tokyo FC. Tokunaga, 28, is the only overage player selected to play for Japan at the Olympics and will be making his 2nd appearance at the Olympics, having previously represented Japan in 2004 in Athens. In the midfield, Japan will go with a balance of some domestically based players and some German based players, as Takashi Usami (Hoffenheim) and recent Nuremberg signee Hiroshi Kiyotake headline the group. Usami(above) is a player many expect to have a breakout tournament, as the 20 year old attacking player has already had loan spells with German clubs Bayern Munich and Hoffenheim, and is looked at as one of Japan’s most gifted up and comers. Japan will also feature a pair of domestically based players in the midfield as Keigo Higashi (Omiya Ardija) and Hotaru Yamaguchi (Cerezo Osaka) both will see a lot of playing time. Up front Japan will look for goals from Yuki Otsu (Borussia Monchengladbach) and Kensuke Nagai (Nagoya Grampus). Otsu does not play regularly for the German side but is a talented option at striker or in the attacking midfield, who has 4 goals in 11 appearances for Japan’s U-23 side. Nagai on the other hand, is a speedy striker who found his form last season, scoring 8 goals in 17 matches at the club level, while also notching 9 goals in 14 appearances over the past 2 years with the Japanese U-22 side. These 2 will need to frequent the score sheet in London this summer if Japan has ideas about winning a medal, but both are more than capable of doing so if they are provided proper service.  Japan is a beautiful passing team, and in this group look for Japan to possess the ball and unlock their opponents defense with over the top through balls and swirling crosses. Japan is not getting a lot of hype heading into this tournament, largely due to their roster omissions but I still see them as the 2nd best team in Group D and see them advancing out of the Group stage. Japan does not have a lot of offensive firepower in terms of strikers but their gifted midfield and beautiful passing make them a capable offensive side who should finish 2nd in group D behind Spain. Japan always competes at the international level and in London this summer I see them advancing to the quarterfinal stage behind their German based players Tikashi Usami, Yuki Otsu and Hiroki Sakai.

Morocco- After failing to qualify for the Olympic Games in Beijing, Morocco is back at the Summer Olympic football tournament for the first time in 8 years. The Moroccans qualified for the 2012 games by virtue of finishing 2nd as the host nation at the 2011 CAF U-23 Championship, losing to Cinderella story Gabon 2-1 in the final. Coming into the tournament, many experts are projecting Morocco to finish 2nd in Group D, as most think that Spain will finish atop the group, and Japan and Morocco will duke it out for the 2nd advancing position. The Moroccans like many of the other teams at this tournament, are without some of their top talent, as Montpelliers Younes Belhanda is out with an ankle injury and Adel Taarabt of QPR was left off the final roster. Enough about the players who will not be there, as it is time to talk about the 18 players who will suit up for Morocco this summer in London. Morocco has maybe the most widely dispersed roster at this summer’s Olympics, as Morocco’s roster features players who play their club football in 10 different countries, including Morocco. Morocco’s top young star is Abdelaziz Barrada, a 23 year old attacking midfielder, who plays with La Liga side Getafe. Barrada(right) is a player of very high quality and skill, and is the Moroccan most likely to provide that moment of brilliance at this tournament. After playing sparingly over 3 years at PSG, Barrada established himself as a 1st team regular last season with Getafe and is being coveted by top European clubs, including Arsenal.  Barrada will be joined in the midfield by 29 year old Houssine Kharja. Kharja, one of Morocco’s 2 overage players, currently plays his club football in Qatar but has previously played with European giants like Sporting Lisbon(Portugal), Inter Milan, Fiorentina, and Roma. Kharja not only brings quality to the Moroccan side but also brings a wealth of experience, as Kharja has played at the highest levels of European football and has also amassed 70 caps for the Moroccan national team. Rounding out Morocco’s midfield are Driss Fittouhi of Ligue 2 side Istres (France), Omar El Kaddouri of Serie B side Brescia and Imad Najah of Dutch giant PSV. Up top, Morocco is also a very dangerous side, as overage player Nordin Amrabat of Turkish outfit Galatasaray, recent Sporting Lisbon signing Zakaria Labyad and Belgian based Soufiane Bidaoui give Morocco 3 legitimate scoring options.  Amrabat is the most experienced of the 3 having previously played with PSV and Kayserispor (Turkey), and will be Morocco’s top option attacking down the wing.  Labyad is the young player to watch for Morocco up front, as the soon to be Sporting Lisbon winger is a pacey attacking player who gives Morocco width and speed in the attacking 3rd. On the backline Morocco will rely on French based players, as Abdelhamid El Kaoutari (Montpellier), Zakayra Berdich (Lens), Yessene Jebbour (Rennes) all should start for the “Atlas Lions”. El Kaoutari is the best known of this group, as the 22 year old French born defender, has been a regular for Montpellier the last couple seasons, playing a key role in this past season’s Ligue 1 championship side. The final line of defense for Morocco at the Olympic Games will be goalkeeper Mohamed Amsif of Bundesliga side FC Augsburg. Amsif, who was born in Germany and was a German youth international, is the 2nd choice keeper for Augsburg and has represented Morocco just twice at the international level, since switching his football allegiance last season. He will be asked plenty of questions early in Group D, as he will tasked with turning away strikers like Neymar and Hulk of Brazil, Otsu of Japan and Jerry Bengston of Honduras. Morocco will be in a tight battle all the way through group play but in the end, I think Morocco gets edged out by Japan for 2nd position in Group D. There are no guarantees in Group D and after Spain, the rest of the group looks to be completely up for grabs. Morocco has a lot of quality and European based talent in their side but against a fundamentally sound and stingy Japan team, Japan gets the points and advances alongside Spain to the quarterfinals out of Group D.

Spain- Spain enters the Olympic Games on as dominant a run as we have seen in international soccer, as La Roja has won 3 straight major tournaments (Euro 2008, 2010 World Cup and Euro 2012). While this is a U-23 event, Spain will still look to build on their recent string of success, as the Spaniards enter as one of the favorites and feature a squad with 3 players from Spain’s recent Euro 2012 title team. Juan Mata (Chelsea), Javi Martinez (Athletic Bilbao) and Jordi Alba (Barcelona) all represented Spain at Euro 2012, and will be expected to be leaders on this younger and less experienced Spanish side. Other key names to watch for Spain include Iker Muniain (Athletic Bilbao), Ander Herraro (Athletic Bilbao), Cristian Tello (Barcelona) and Manchester United keeper David de Gea. We will start de Gea who at age 21 is already starting at Manchester United, in addition to being groomed as Iker Casillas’ successor as the Spanish #1 keeper. De Gea had an up and down 1st season in England with United but played his best football toward the end of the year and has built up his sometimes rocky confidence heading into the Olympics. De Gea will not be asked to stand on his head in the early rounds of the tournament but if Spain has their sights set on the gold medal, de Gea will likely need to be strong at some point for the Spaniards. The backline for Spain is headlined by Barcelona youngster Jordi Alba, who not only played every game for Spain at Euro 2012, but was named to the Team of the Tournament, joining 10 of his Spanish teammates in the 23 man outfit. Alba will not only anchor the backline for Spain but look to push forward, something we saw early and often at Euro 2012, as Alba had a crucial assist for Spain against France and scored against Italy in the Final. Alba will be joined in the backs by recent Borussia Monchengladbach signee Alvaro Dominguez, Real Sociedad central defender Inigo Martinez and Barcelona teammate, 21 year old right back Martin Montoya. In the midfield Spain is loaded as they can play Euro 2012 member Javi Martinez alongside Atletico Madrid playmaker Koke and 20 year old Malaga phenom Isco. Also available in the midfield is Chelsea reserve Romeu and future star Ander Herrara of Athletic Bilbao. This group is as good as any in the tournament and rivals Brazil’s young midfield, as Martinez is one of the more underrated young players in Europe, while Koke, Isco and Herrara all have shown they are capable of brilliance at the club level in La Liga. At forward, I expect Spain to play Chelsea playmaker extraordinaire Juan Mata on one wing, diminutive Athletic Bilbao winger Muniain on the other, with either experienced striker Adrian (24 years old) of Atletico Madrid or promising Barcelona wonderboy Cristian Tello in the middle. Mata is a real treat to watch, as his passing vision and service delivery rivals anyone in Europe, and should key Spain’s attack from set pieces and the wings. Muniain on the other hand is a pacey striker, who at 5’7” has already been nicknamed the “Spanish Messi” both because of his diminutive stature and brilliant skill. Muniain is a name gaining a lot of steam in the world game, as he is a key component to that young Athletic Bilbao team that knocked Manchester United out of the Europa League last season and will be looking to build on a great season at the club level with the U-23 national side. In the 1st game look for Spanish head coach to start the veteran Adrian at forward but don’t be surprised as the tournament goes on to see exciting Barcelona youngster Cristian Tello. The 20 year old Tello(pictured above) is being touted as the next great Spanish player, and is not afraid of playing at the big stage. Tello showed that quality and his ability to perform at the highest stage this past season, playing and scoring a brace for Barcelona in a Champions League clash with Bundesliga side Bayern Leverkusen. Tello is another one of the potential breakout stars for Spain at this tournament, joining the likes of Isco, Herrara, Montoya and Muniain among others. Spain is loaded on paper heading into this tournament, as their combination of experience (Mata, Alba, Javi Martinez) and brilliant youth (Muniain, Isco, Tello, Herrara) will make them one of the top challengers to favorite Brazil. In Group D look for Spain to finish top of the table, as their pure talent and quality will separate them from good but not great sides in Japan, Morocco and Honduras. Spain should be fun to watch this month, as they have a lot of gifted young players, who play with an exuberance and flair that is not seen as much in the modern international game. On paper Spain is the 2nd best team in this field but with no dominant veteran presence or alpha dog star, Spain could struggle early on both with establishing individual roles and a collective team identity. Spain is my pick to win Group D, as their young stars and holdovers from Euro 2012 should converge to give La Roja a very strong and formidable squad. If you are a fan of football check out team Spain, as they are littered with current and future European stars and should play an attractive and classy brand of football.

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