Team GB's scrappy soccer just good enough to raise medal hopes
What has been startling about Great Britain is how it had followed the England template at major tournaments almost to the letter. Craig Bellamy and Joe Allen may have been GB's best players so far in the tournament, but the injection of Welsh blood hasn't been able to lift the cloud of past failure that dogs the English -- the sense of anxiety, of having to do everything quickly because to breathe is to think and thinking brings terror remains, even if this GB side seems more adept at holding possession than most England teams in recent memory.
The opening draw against Senegal, when GB looked to have the game wrapped up only to concede a late equalizer, was classic England. So too was the second game, when it stuttered alarmingly against UAE only to find two late goals, the second of them excellent, to win the game and change perceptions. And then, on Wednesday, came the dogged 1-0 win over an underperforming Uruguay. England's Euro 2012 group followed precisely the same pattern.
Great Britain's football has been scrappy for the most part but good enough in enough patches to raise hopes (better, certainly, than England's in Ukraine). People -- coaches, players, pundits fans -- have started talking about "momentum," that magic bean that can transform a mediocre side into tournament winners (see Denmark at Euro 92 or Greece at Euro 2004). Perhaps GB is good enough. After all, Spain and Uruguay are out and Brazil, for all its attacking ability, has looked leaky defensively. South Korea, whom GB will play in the quarterfinal, hasn't shown anything startling.
But then South Korea could say much the same about GB. There were, it should be said, moments when GB passed and moved neatly. Allen, Aaron Ramsey and Tom Cleverley linked well in the middle; Bellamy was a persistent threat on the right, largely because he was quicker than Ramon Arias, the left back for the first 55 minutes until Oscar Washington Tabarez swapped him over with the fleeter Alexis Rolin and switched to a back three. GB held possession well, frustrating Uruguay in the knowledge that a draw would be enough to take it through.
But equally there were ugly passages of the most basic hoofball, as though the exhausted survivors of some ghastly battle were desultorily firing their last mortars at each other. And in those spells, it was hard not to wonder whether GB had held the ball well for any other reason than that Uruguay was desperately out of sorts. After its impressive performances at the World Cup and the Copa America, and the South American Under-20 championship, the squad from which much of this side is drawn, there's something disconcerting about seeing a Uruguay side so flat, so devoid of energy.
Edinson Cavani was dreadful all tournament, looking uncharacteristically uninterested, desperate, perhaps, to avoid an injury that might disrupt the transfer away from Napoli that seems inevitable. With Gaston Ramirez as languidly frustrating as ever and Nicolas Lodeiro in one of his regular fits of anonymity, only Luis Suarez offered any consistent threat. The Ramirez drive that pinged the bar in injury-time came from nothing. When he did have chances, though, he was denied by Jack Butland. First, nine minutes into the second half, Suarez outmuscled Steven Caulker, dribbled into a shooting position only to be thwarted by Butland's pace of his line. The goalkeeper sprang to his feet and, with some help from Neil Taylor, blocked the follow-up. Then, 10 minutes later, Suarez cut in from the left and hit a low shot that Butland pushed away with an outstretched left hand.
The Birmingham City goalkeeper is only 19, but already he looks a potential England regular. He was probably the best goalkeeper in the Under-20 World Cup in Colombia last year, conceding just once in four matches. He is big, imposing, authoritative, reads the game well and has the reflexes to make sharp saves. For his age he seems extraordinarily mature, a big, composed presence who exudes confidence.
Of more concern is GB's defending. Twice Sebastian Coates was afforded free headers from set-plays in the first half, and there were a number of lapses of concentration in the second half. The lack of a natural ball-winner in midfielder -- where this GB side does differ from most England teams is in been packed with passers rather than tacklers in midfield -- perhaps exacerbates the problem and the fear must be that a more accomplished side than GB has faced so far may exploit that -- as, for instance, Senegal did in scoring its late equalizer in that opening game.
While GB may still be lacking cutting edge, some of the passing triangles were highly encouraging, not least because they seem so un-British. And it was GB's passing that brought the goal on the stroke of halftime. Scott Sinclair laid the ball in form the left to Allen, who checked back smartly and rolled the ball square for Daniel Sturridge to tap in from close range.
So GB roll on and optimism mounts, just as it did for England in the Euros. This side looks better than England did, and the opposition is weaker. England fans are used to counting back the 46 years of hurt since the 1966 World Cup success; for GB, the countback is 52 years on non-participation. With home advantage perhaps providing the much sought-after momentum, perhaps something remarkable is possible. But, if GB does get by South Korea, Brazil awaits. And that will be a far, far stiffer test than anything it has faced so far.