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Saturday, 23 February, 2002, 03:52 GMT

Form favours the favourites

BBC Sport ice hockey commentator Bob Ballard looks ahead to the men's ice hockey semi-finals in Salt Lake City

What was I saying about Sweden v Belarus being the easiest of the four men's quarter-finals to call?

Hands up, it's a fair cop, although I don't believe even the most patriotic Belarus fan really believed they could beat Sweden, the form team of the competition up to that point.

But in a men's event that has produced no end of shocks, that's precisely what they did with a stunning 4-3 triumph.

Swedish net-minder Tommy Salo, who had kept impeccably up to that point, had a game he will want to forget quickly, including the game winner that defelcted in off his helmet.

So Belarus, who lost 5-0 to the Canadians in the quarter-finals at Nagano, now meet them a round later in Salt Lake City.

Belarus v Canada

Will Mario Lemieux's team win? Of course they will, logic tells me that, but since February 9th, that has counted for little, as the early departures of Slovakia and Switzerland demonstrated.

Canada won't make the same mistakes Sweden did, I'm sure of that.

Whilst Belarus will make it difficult, and goaltender Andrei Mezin probably has another outstanding game in him, the firepower of the Canadians will prove too strong.

So, if that prediction comes true, we're halfway towards completing the final I forecast in my preview before the Games began.

USA v Russia

Not wanting to change horses in midstream, I have to stick by my original hunch that the US would make it through to the final on Sunday.

As coincidence would have it, the second match up between the host nation and Russia in less than a week comes precisely 22 years to the day since the "Miracle on Ice" in Lake Placid.

The man in charge then is leading the Americans once more, Herb Brooks.

His 2002 team has done little wrong so far, but their sternest test came in that breath-taking 2-2 draw with the Russians last Saturday.

As for the Russians, their 1-0 quarter-final win over the Czechs was another stale and tepid affair, like the 1998 final in Nagano.

If Viacheslav Fetisov's team play like that in this semi, there will only be one winner, and it won't be the Russians.

I expect the USA to emerge victorious, but they may have to be patient.

Nikolai Khabibulin, or 'The Bulin Wall' as he is known, had an exceptional shut-out against the Czech Republic and won't give up goals easily.

If all of the above turns out to be true, we'll be set for a US v Canada final, just as in the women's competition.

That would not only be one of the highest rated sports events ever seen on television in North America, but potentially the greatest ever match.

In over 20 years of watching this great sport, I've never been so excited at the prospect of an ice hockey match.

Let's hope for sports fans everywhere, the greatest players in the world deliver what they promise.

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