Great Britain vs. UAE: Bellamy, Giggs, Cleverley Inspire Hosts to First Victory
This was the victory a football-mad nation longed to see, the Olympic fire a patchwork national side simply had to find.
So now that the flame is lit, is this the squad that could set cold British hearts aflutter?
Great Britain won for the first time at the Olympics on Sunday, defeating a lively United Arab Emirates side 3-1 before a packed house at Wembley Stadium in London.
The final score will suggest a comfortable victory for Stuart Pearce and his men, and at the very end, that was what it came to be. For 13 agonizing second-half minutes, though, a familiar foe threatened to crash the party.
After a stirring opener from Ryan Giggs, UAE leveled deservedly through Rashed Eisa in the 60th minute, a quarter of an hour into a second half they had dominated until then.
Boos rained on the Wembley pitch, panic promised an appearance and UAE very nearly grabbed a second. Another lead had been lost, and for a team that is not entirely English, Great Britain looked entirely too doomed to experience that most characteristic of English football traits.
Team GB looking wonderfully English: play reasonably well, fail to put game beyond doubt, concede, panic.— James Tyler (@JamesTylerESPN) July 29, 2012
Then a series of strange things happened.
Pearce took off his goalscorer and replaced him with Scott Sinclair, a 23-year-old without a single senior England cap and a lifespan only marginally longer than Giggs' glorious career.
And with his first touch of the match, Sinclair put Great Britain ahead in the 73rd minute.
Craig Bellamy was the key, as he was throughout. The indefatigable Welshman sped down the right flank and crossed to the back post, where Sinclair was waiting to tap home the winner.
It was Bellamy's second assist of the game—another cross, this from the left, set up Giggs in the first half—and after his goal against Senegal in the opener, he must stand at the front of the queue for GB's best player so far.
And then, three minutes later, another funny thing happened.
Daniel Sturridge, who had replaced the impressive Marvin Sordell at halftime but had failed to replace Sordell's effectiveness up front, made it 3-1 with a cheeky chip past UAE keeper Ali Khaseif.
It was glorious and it was devastating. Suddenly, the match was all but over, the Brits were cruising and Pearce's men were the Group A leaders. Suddenly, optimism abounded, the squad oozed confidence and Pearce's every move looked a stroke of genius.
Both of Pearce's subs had worked, the defense had (mostly) held together and the home crowd had been won over.
And why not? There was plenty to like, and the heroes were many.
Bellamy, aged 33 and one of Britain's allotted three senior players, turned in a man-of-the-match performance, hurtling down both flanks for 83 thrilling minutes like some kind of adrenaline junkie on a grass-covered halfpipe.
Tom Cleverley, aged 22 and still without a senior England cap, impressed nearly as mightily in central midfield, moving forward and backward with ease and menace, spraying passes across the pitch and setting up Sturridge's tasty strike.
And Giggs, aged 38 and for ages the inspirational figure in Manchester United's midfield, hung tough with men younger than his salt-and-pepper stubble and memorably became oldest-ever scorer in the storied history of the Olympics.
At 38 years & 243 days, Ryan Giggs is the oldest player to score an Olympic goal.— Paul Carr (@PCarrESPN) July 29, 2012
With all that optimism and all the inspirational figures a dread-filled footballing nation can muster, Team GB now will face its most important match yet. It's a do-or-die match against a wounded Uruguay on Wednesday, and it will be as dramatic as it sounds.
After an opening 2-1 victory over UAE, the Uruguayans lost stunningly to 10-man Senegal on Sunday. Thus for both GB and Uruguay, tournament life itself will serve as motivation.
Pearce knows it. His players know it. The nation knows it.
Pearce: 'It's sudden death between us and Uruguay now'. #TeamGB— Henry Winter (@henrywinter) July 29, 2012
It's a daunting proposition, even after Uruguay's loss to Senegal. In Edinson Cavani and Luis Suarez, Uruguay have perhaps one of the tournament's two or three most potent attacking partnerships.
But Great Britain will have the momentum, the feel-good factor and, in a curveball of Olympic proportions, the benefit of performance-induced optimism. They'll also have the home-field advantage, but everyone already knew that.
For some time, what we didn't know was that this team might have the ability to inspire and excite. But after a stirring three-minute second-half sequence against UAE, that's sounding less like a starry-eyed dream and more like a reasonable rallying cry.
Now is the time we find out what Pearce and GB are made of. And now is the time for the host nation to get behind them.
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