Anything the Team GB women’s team can do, the men can do too, if with a good deal less style. After his side’s 1-0 win over Uruguay yesterday, the Hope Powell of men’s football, Stuart Pearce, declared that they had played some “outstanding football” to clinch a quarter-final place. Pearce’s eyesight must be a good deal better than mine, but however hard it was to watch as a football match, Britain’s win – of both match and group – was worthy and deserved. The two GB teams find themselves in almost identical situations, with winnable quarter-finals, a very likely semi-final against the tournament hot favourites and a medal a very real prospect. Despite the lack of style, the men’s achievement is probably the greater, given the preparation Pearce was afforded and Pearce himself is doing his international management prospects no harm whatsoever.
The decision to rest Ryan Giggs was a credible one given the way the first two games panned out, although Giggs’ big game experience isn’t an asset to leave in reserve lightly. And Pearce didn’t let the context – Giggs leading Britain out in front of a Welsh crowd at Wales’ national stadium – deflect from the task In hand. Pearce was helped by Uruguay’s continuing mediocrity. And when La Celeste Olimpica finally decided to put as much effort in as Arevalo Rios and Luis Suarez, Pearce was helped by the “new Joe Hart” in the shape of goalkeeper Jack Butland. A Peter Shilton/Ray Clemence selection dilemma faces England’s Roy Hodgson and his successor(s) if Butland continues the form he’s shown since (and including) that long-ago friendly against Brazil. Two outstanding saves from Luis Suarez kept Britain alive, although Suarez could have made the closer-range effort of the two unstoppable. And a repeat of the second-half performance in that friendly would give Britain a chance against the favourites, if they get that far.
Team GB remain defensively prone to schoolboy errors. Micah Richards was said to be “moving into the centre-back position” before the start of the Uruguay game, which some may think was a journey he started last Thursday when he was walking across Britain’s back line while Senegal were busy scoring. But that point against Senegal has looked an increasingly well-gained one as the young Lions of Teranga have progressed. Their 1-1 draw with the UAE was a curiosity in that it was UAE’s worst display yet best result. They certainly rode their luck. And they scored, as I often say in such circumstances, not so much against the run of play as the laws of physics. Moussa Konate has taken the plaudits because he’s scored all their goals (as good a reason as any, that). But a number of the Senegalese have grown into the tournament. A concurrent and welcome improvement in the timing of their tackles has combined with greater attacking cohesion. Names such as Papa Souare, Mohamed Diame (of Wigan Athletic) and Sadio Mane could become familiar between now and the next World Cup finals. Mark Bright did note that Senegal have “a team which looks like it could go on for years.” But this is hardly an exclusive, given that the Olympic tournament rules require at least eight of the team to be 23 or under.
Bright didn’t quite marvel at how young a team they were, which is why I still possess an intact television set. And fortunately I only had a pen to throw at the set when Mark Lawrenson asked: “Do Uruguay have an under-20s team, then?” He said this out loud too, which suggested that he had no idea quite how this question exposed his journalistic failings. Indeed, Uruguay played in last year’s Under-20s World Cup finals as any pundit who had done the tiniest bit of research would have known. They weren’t very good in that tournament. And they weren’t very good in this one either. So they won’t be missed. It is hard to gauge whether Team GB now face the weaker of the two teams to qualify from the Group of Deadly Dull football. Mexico’s 1-0 win over Switzerland provided the only goal of the four games which took place at teatime yesterday. Two wins and no goals against suggests that their quarter-final with Senegal will be a clash between two in-form teams.
South Korea, however, had much the better of their 0-0 draw with Mexico and while they disappointed in getting the same result against an injury-ravaged and ultimately under-achieving Gabon, they have proved capable in possession and well-enough organised to make matters difficult for Team GB on Cardiff’s slow and slowly disintegrating surface on Saturday. If Gabon’s exit was sad, Switzerland’s was not. On the pitch and off it, the Swiss have been scruffy. And this was taken to extremes by Michel Morganella, who first attracted attention with his Travis Bickle haircut and ‘combative’ attitude to match. There was a temptation to joke about this, until news came through of the comments he tweeted about the Koreans and he was despatched home early – or a week late, you might believe. On the pitch, the Swiss have been an integral part of a poor tournament for the European sides, not least of course Spain, who failed even to score. They had their usual quota of chances against Morocco. But their only medal prospect is in the “what on earth was that?” category – the commentary box words which greeted Adrian’s late attempt to round the keeper with a ghastly mix of shot and dink (‘shink’ seems about right).
The Moroccans will feel a touch hard done by to have played well and not really got near qualifying, certainly while the equally-impressive Honduras qualified for the knock-out stages of a major international tournament (at any age group) for the first time ever. This part-explained La Bicolor Olimpica’s reluctance to engage Japan in a meaningful game of football, even though a quarter-final against Brazil was the ‘prize’ for a draw, and a win would see off any challenge posed by a Morocco win over Spain. The Hondurans were also missing the influential and suspended Roger Espinosa. And Japan were largely missing… full stop, resting almost enough players to be named a “Japan XI” in the style of the pre-season friendly at which tempo the match was played.
It wasn’t far from being a ‘Brazil XI’ which overcame New Zealand to win their group. Players such as Lucas and Alex Sandro were given the stage – with mixed results. Lucas was a constant attacking threat. Alex Sandro was sent-off – booked for ‘simulation’ in the penalty box having already seen yellow. Right in front of the referee too, which makes it all the more galling that he actually was fouled before he threw himself theatrically to the Newcastle turf. This turned Brazil boss momentarily into Arsene Wenger, as his bottle of water hit the deck with a thump and a splash. It was a rare show of emotion for a stroll of a match, best summarised by Brazilian left-back Marcelo miscontrolling a pass because he was looking over his shoulder to chat to centre-back Juan…yet still finishing the conversation AND keeping possession. Brazil’s goals were nifty. But otherwise, file under zzzz…
The good news from this group was that Egypt overcame their yips in front of goal against the Oly-Whites to entertainingly despatch Belarus – the other European team to disappoint. Egypt took a while to get going. But by the final whistle they’d created what looked like about one chance for every twenty spectators rattling around Hampden Park. Mohamed Salah appeared able to create chances for himself and others almost at will. And the prospect of Egypt and Brazil re-making their acquaintance in the final is a mouth-watering one – their meeting in Cardiff last Thursday remains the tournament’s best game. Each quarter-final has a quality however. Tottenham’s Mexican “misfit” Giovanni Dos Santos is forming an increasingly dangerous looking strike pairing with Oribe Paleta, who grabbed the winner against Switzerland. And they’ll test whatever physical challenge Senegal’s defence presents.
With Espinosa back in their engine-room and an in-form striker in Jerry Bengston, Honduras won’t fold in front of the Brazilians as meekly as New Zealand and, to a lesser extent, Belarus. And both Japan and Egypt possess neat-passing, creative styles which ought to be at the very least pleasant on the eye and could produce a classic if they want to go out and win the game. And Britain against South Korea? It’ll be a tight one, with only three goals conceded between them. The Koreans’ ability to keep the ball is not quite matched by their ability to put it in the net, which is something of a mirror image of Stuart Pearce’s still-rapidly improving set-up. It could go to extra-time and…you know the rest. So on whatever pitch Hope Powell’s Team GB are currently practising “kicks from the penalty mark”, as they are formally known, Stuart Pearce’s squad might be well advised to do the same at the other end.
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