RIO DE JANEIRO: Neymar scored twice, including the fastest goal in Olympics history, as Brazil coasted into Saturday’s gold medal football match with a 6-0 thrashing of Honduras at Rio’s iconic Maracana.
The hosts now have the chance to ease some of the pain caused by a 7-1 humiliation at the hands of Germany on home soil at the 2014 World Cup by delivering Brazil’s first football gold medal.
A mouth-watering rematch with the Germans is in store should the world champions see off 1996 winners Nigeria in Wednesday’s other semi-final, later in Sao Paulo.
Neymar had been much criticised for his lacklustre displays in two 0-0 draws to start the tournament, but his transformation back from the nation’s whipping boy to golden boy was capped by his determination to open the scoring after just 15 seconds.
The Barcelona star hounded defender Johnny Palacios to rob possession on the edge of the Honduras box and goalkeeper Luis Lopez’s attempt to atone for his teammate’s error only ricocheted the ball off Neymar’s midriff and into an empty goal.
For a moment, Neymar’s bravery looked like it may have come at a cost as he had to be stretchered off after being winded in the challenge.
However, there was no repeat of his tears of anguish when carried off with two broken vertebrae in his back that ended his World Cup participation in a brutal quarter-final against Colombia two years ago.
The 24-year-old was soon back terrorising the Honduras defence as he teed up Luan for an effort Lopez managed to repel, before Bryan Acosta and Allans Vargas were booked for taking their uncompromising attempts to stop Neymar too far.
– Frenzy –
However, it was Manchester City’s new £27 million ($36 million, 31 million euros) wonder kid Gabriel Jesus who piled on the pain for Honduras with two more goals before the break.
Luan’s lovely through ball was prodded past the helpless Lopez by Jesus for his second goal of the tournament on 26 minutes.
Nine minutes later, Neymar turned provider with a precise pass down the left that Jesus burst onto before crashing the ball into the roof of the net.
Neymar was even whipping the near capacity 78,000 crowd into a frenzy as he uncharacteristically crashed into tackles, with Brazil relieved from the burden of expectation that appeared to weigh heavy on the young squad early in the competition.
Luan missed a huge chance at the start of the second period when he fired straight at Lopez with Jesus waiting for a tap-in to complete his hat-trick.
However, Brazil didn’t have long to wait for a fourth when Paris Saint-Germain defender Marquinhos took advantage of some awful Honduras marking to sweep home a corner six minutes into the second-half.
Fittingly, in their best performance of the tournament, Luan converted a fine team goal for Brazil’s fifth as Gabriel Barbosa slipped in Felipe Anderson to cross low to the far post.
And Neymar capped a fine display with his second of the afternoon from the penalty spot in stoppage time.
Victory also guaranteed Brazil a fourth Olympic men’s football medal, but after bronze in 1996 and 2008 and the shock of losing to Mexico in the London 2012 final, only gold will suffice for an expectant nation back at the Maracana on Saturday.