Sunday, July 29, 2012
Substitutes keep Team GB on track
John Brewin, Wembley
Football still sits uneasily as part of London 2012 but it will greatly help the Olympic tournament that the host nation is still alive and kicking. For periods, it looked as if Team GB had amalgamated the deficiencies of the 'home nations' and might even lose to the United Arab Emirates but two substitutes spared British blushes.
A draw in Cardiff in the next match against what looks a defensively vulnerable Uruguay should be enough for progress. Get past that, and Team GB's hopes of 'medalling', to use the required verb of a modern Olympiad, might be lifted to the usual stratospheric levels that the English national team must face.
The amazing exit of the Spanish after their loss to Honduras might yet open a window of opportunity but for now, the heat is off Stuart Pearce, who remains downbeat about his team's hopes.
"I've not seen anything to disprove my belief that any team who beats Brazil will win the final," said Pearce after a game "we certainly made hard work for ourselves".
Victory may have been secured in front of what Pearce said he believed was the highest attendance for an Olympic football game, but sporting eyes are fixed - for once - in other directions than soccer.
Monday's headline makers in UK newspapers will be an exclusively feminine club of cyclist Elizabeth Armisted, who gained the first medal - silver - for an increasingly worried host nation, Rebecca Adlington for her swimming bronze, Paula Radcliffe, for the ultimate collapse of a lifelong Olympic dream and there will no doubt be pictures of the shapely charms of a victorious Women's Beach Volleyball pair. Only by losing to the United Arab Emirates could Stuart Pearce's charges swing the news agenda back to the chaps.
There were moments of discomfort, and the male version of Team GB has made noticeably less comfortable progress than their female counterparts, who were through to the last eight by Saturday afternoon, but Pearce can be happy enough, and Wembley was too.
Group A will go down to the last game. Ten-man Senegal pulled off a surprising yet deserved win against Uruguay and now have to play UAE. Daniel Sturridge's strike for GB's third supplied a three-goal advantage on the Uruguayans after their defeat to Senegal. The west Africans' performance and victory even had the effect of retrospectively lifting the difficulty level of the hosts' opening match.
A reminder of Premier League passions sounded as Luis Suarez was booed throughout the earlier game at Wembley. In Metz's Sadio Mane, Senegal had a player whose attacking qualities overshadowed the Liverpool man, as his runs terrorised the Uruguayans while Maccabi Haifa's Moussa Konate's two goals dwarfed the contribution of Edinson Cavani, the striker with the £50 million price-tag. It served as further confirmation that the Olympics is often a place where heroes and heroines often arrive from the ranks of the previously unsung.
Speaking of unsung, on the evidence of Old Trafford and now Wembley, the public is yet to find a vocal means by which to get behind Great Britain. The "GB" chant that follows a handclap sounds weak, had few subscribers and was outdone by a small pocket of visitors singing "UAE" in English. "Rule Britannia", despite its rather totalitarian overtones, or perhaps even because of them, would surely get the crowd going far more.
Friday saw Britain's athletes enter the Olympic Stadium to David Bowie's reminder that they can be heroes, and that one day might just be enough to achieve that. Ryan Giggs, a hero to millions for over 20 years, bucked that idea when he nodded GB into the lead.
After a typical Giggs surge, Tom Cleverley's driven pass allowed Bellamy time to find his Welsh compatriot and with a deft flick, Giggs added to his status as great Briton. The crowd hailed the maestro throughout, and applauded him with a standing ovation as he departed for what would prove to be a key substitution.
"He brings respect," explained Pearce. "It's a word that gets used cheaply these days but this gentleman has the respect of the group here."
The first half should have taken the game beyond UAE. Cleverley, not yet as famous as he might like to be one day, narrowly failed to augment his brand when striking the post. Prior to that Marvin Sordell, lesser starred but clearly fitter than the omitted Daniel Sturridge, had shown promise, his bulk causing problems and his shooting warming the hands of UAE goalkeeper Ali Kaseif.
Many have doubted Pearce's football coaching credentials but by contrast to at Old Trafford, he made a series of coherent and cogent football selections to produce the result he needed. Micah Richards played as a full-back, with Steven Caulker at centre-back instead. This time, only Aaron Ramsey was given an unfamiliar role. The right wing clearly did not suit him as GB went sloppy in the second half.
But when UAE opened up serious doubts with a solo goal from Rashed Eisa and a series of passing moves that had Jack Butland looking jittery in the GB goal, Pearce became a lucky manager. Scott Sinclair, on for Giggs, tapped in with his first touch after Bellamy was again creator from the left and keeper Khaseif had placed the ball at Sinclair's feet.
Sturridge had replaced Sordell at the break, and looked as leggy as he had on Thursday before then rediscovering his touch with a marvellous chip laid on for him by another pearling pass from Bellamy.
Bellamy's performance and trio of assists served as further vindication for Pearce when some may have questioned the wisdom of selecting a player whose troublesome knee would hardly seem to make him ideal for tournament football.
Three days is not long to rest for the two Welsh veterans, and in Cardiff younger legs may have to carry them through but their impact and influence is clear. "If you're not sure how to conduct yourself as a player, then take a look at those two," offered Pearce.
For now, the relentlessness of the Olympics, and the ever shifting focus on a range of sports from badminton to boxing, from cycling to women's weightlifting will provide an additional layer of comfort.
Cardiff, and a Uruguayan team that Pearce said he believes are "still favourites", are the next stop on a novelty journey that may just be gaining some momentum.