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Matheus Cunha’s breakout bigger for Brazil than gold

Brazil have more medals than anyone else in men’s Olympic football, and for the second time they have gold after successfully defending the title they won in Rio five years ago with a thrilling 2-1 win over Spain on Saturday.

The final was a splendid match, better in truth than the competition deserves. With no obligation on clubs to release players, the men’s football is now a thoroughly random event, where so much depends on which players are available. Brazil take this tournament very seriously, and with the Spanish season starting later than most European leagues, they were also able to form a strong side, including six members of their team from the Euros. And the outcome was an enthralling battle of footballing philosophies.

Spain came to play, to retain possession, to work their triangles and play their way through. Brazil’s task was to interrupt their flow, to stay organised, attack the ball at the right time, adding doubt and removing confidence from the minds of the Spanish players. Brazil sought to turn every Spanish pass into a possible risk, a moment when possession could be lost and Brazil could launch their own attacks. And as the first half wore on, the game went their way.

VAR gave them a penalty after keeper Unai Simon had clattered into Matheus Cunha at a free kick. Richarlison blasted over the bar, but Brazil were not unsettled. They took the lead on the stroke of half-time. Claudinho crossed right footed from the left. At the far post Daniel Alves did well to keep the ball alive, hooking it into the danger zone. Spain’s Pau Torres could not deal with the threat, and Matheus Cunha chested down with elegance and fired home with venom.

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Spain reacted with half-time substitutions. Now they had to chase the game, which almost proved their undoing. With space on the counter, Claudinho found Matheus Cunha, who pulled back for Richarlison to work the ball cleverly onto his left foot and pull the trigger. Simon got enough on the ball to send it high, and it came down off the underside of the crossbar.

Spain enjoyed their let-off and found their rhythm. Their crisp passing and razor movement undressed the Brazil defence down the right, and Carlos Soler crossed for Mikel Oyarzabal to equalise with a stunning left-footed volley at the far post.

The initiative was now with the Spanish. Right-back Oscar Gil hit the bar with a mishit cross. Substitute Bryan Gil rattled the bar with a shot full of intent from the edge of the area, and into extra-time we went.

This time, unlike Brazil’s semifinal against Mexico, no one was playing for penalties. On went the ebbs and the flows of two teams searching for a winner, but it was Spain’s third consecutive extra-time, and this tipped the balance. Brazil withdrew Matheus Cunha, not fully fit after the injury picked up in the quarterfinal, and they introduced Malcom — an extra winger. Spain knew that the battle would be fought down the flanks with Brazil launching their counterattack, and they changed both full-backs to have some fresh legs dealing with the threat.

It did not work. The decisive moment came with 12 minutes to go. Malcom was played into space on the left, he powered past Jesus Vallejo and, with Simon perhaps diving the wrong way, he steered his left-footed shot towards the far corner. Simon got a foot to the ball, but the only alteration in the trajectory was upwards, inside the top corner. Spain had little left, and the gold went to Brazil.

Does it matter? The celebrations at the final whistle showed that it certainly does, but in the cold light of day it is surely the case that the most important conclusions are those that can be brought to bear in the context of the senior national side.

And here, too, the news for Brazil is positive. Some of these players will surely be on duty in the World Cup at the end of next year. They will be better for the experience — or, in the case of 38-year-old Alves, for showing that so much experience is not yet an impediment to operating at the top level. Midfielders Douglas Luiz and Bruno Guimaraes formed an impressive partnership, but most of all there is Matheus Cunha.

Amazingly, centre-forward has been a problem position for Brazil for more than a decade. In this summer’s Copa America there was a glaring lack of a back-to-goal centre-forward able to force the defensive line deep and open up space for Neymar. That is a role that would seem to be made for Matheus Cunha. And so if Tokyo helps Brazil play to potential in Qatar, that may well be more important than the colour of the medal.

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