Manchester United's midfield starlet Tom Cleverley hasn't returned to the form he showed at the beginning of last season, but the Olympics could be exactly where he does. Here's why Cleverley is key to Team GB's hopes...
After the pomp and swagger of the opening ceremony choreographed by Danny Boyle, and the crushing disappointment of Mark Cavendish's failure to grab a medal in yesterday's cycling road race, Team GB will be back under the Olympic microscope this evening when Stuart Pearce's football squad take on the United Arab Emirates at Wembley stadium knowing that the wrong result could end their hopes of a medal just three days after their campaign got under way.
Pearce's team held on for a 1-1 opening draw against Senegal on Thursday night after allowing their opponents back into the game when Maccabi Tel Aviv striker Moussa Konate raced clear of Micah Richards and clipped the ball beyond home nations goalkeeper Jack Butland. But in truth a draw was the least Senegal deserved after harassing Great Britain - sometimes fairly, sometimes not so fairly - all night, and showing a great deal of quality when afforded time on the ball, which they were for large periods of the second half.
There were plenty of positives for Great Britain however. Looking far more assured than in their warm-up loss to Brazil, Craig Bellamy stood out as the Liverpool man combined superbly with fellow over-age player Ryan Giggs for the opening goal. That the goal and a good deal of what Great Britain did best came though the two oldest players in the squad at a tournament designed to showcase young talent has not escaped attention. To exacerbate that issue Senegal's grasp of the game came about at exactly the same time that Giggs, and to a lesser extent Bellamy, appeared to tire.
Ferguson publicly lamented Cleverley's loss through injury, stating that he was “probably the best midfielder in Britain”
It therefore seems likely that key to Great Britain's chances of success not just against the United Arab Emirates tonight, but also in the tournament as a whole, could well be Pearce's ability to get the best out of the younger midfielders supporting Giggs and Bellamy. Joe Allen displayed the kind of hard work and efficiency with the ball that have made new Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers so keen to be re-united with the young English (ahem, Welsh) midfielder at Anfield, but with Daniel Sturridge still seemingly yet to fully recover from a bout of meningitis, Marvin Sordell showing lots of running but little composure in front of goal, and Allen's Swansea teammate Scott Sinclair yet to make his Olympic debut, the team is crying out for a creative, goalscoring midfielder. Step forward Tom Cleverley.
When Paul Scholes announced his retirement at the end of the 2010-11 season, Sir Alex Ferguson seemed to have little doubt that in Cleverley he had a ready made replacement for his departed midfield maestro. After two impressive seasons on loan with Watford and Wigan respectively, Cleverley made his competitive Manchester United debut against Manchester City in the 2011 Community Shield, coming on as a half time substitute for Michael Carrick, and impressing with an exciting display which included laying on Nani's wonderful goal.
Such was Cleverley's impact that he was rewarded with a starting place in Manchester United's starting line up for their opening Premier League fixture at West Bromwich Albion, again drawing plaudits with a fine performance. Over the following weeks Cleverley became such an important part of the Red Devils team that when he was forced out of the side through injury Ferguson publicly lamented his loss, stating that Cleverley was “probably the best midfielder in Britain”.
Though such praise may have been a bit premature, it's easy to see why Ferguson was so impressed. In a squad chiefly composed of midfielders that could be considered either 'passers', such as Michael Carrick and the returning Paul Scholes, or 'runners' such as Anderson and Darren Fletcher, Cleverley offered a hybrid option; a creative midfielder able to carry the ball from deeper areas, crucial in translating defence into attack.
Sadly injury curtailed what was shaping up to be a hugely impressive breakthrough campaign for Cleverley. The hope for Manchester United fans is that he is now over his fitness issues, and can fulfil the potential he gave us all glimpses of last year. The hope for fans of the Great Britain Olympic team – and what a curious breed they seem to be – is that Cleverley can raise his game and drive his team forward to a victory tonight that would dramatically increase their chances of qualifying for the quarter finals.
"Tom is, without question, so good that he is the best young player at United since Ryan Giggs" - Eric Harrison, former Manchester United youth team coach
At times against Senegal - particularly in the second half - Allen and Cleverley were suffocated by the marauding Senegalese. The United Arab Emirates will certainly not be as physical, affording the British midfield more time on the ball. Such freedom could in turn give Cleverley the chance to put in the sort of showing that made Ferguson go weak at the knees nearly a year ago. With the strikers struggling to make an impression, and the opening fixture pointing towards an over-reliance on the over-age members of the squad, the time is right for someone like Cleverley to grab the bull by the horns and make an impression.
Ferguson is certainly not alone in his admiration of the youngster. Eric Harrison, the former Manchester United youth team coach who is widely credited with bringing through some of the club's golden generation of players has no doubt about Cleverley's quality, telling reporters earlier in the year that: “Tom is, without question, so good that he is the best young player at United since Ryan Giggs.” Curiously Cleverley may have to upstage his predecessor if he is to convince the rest of the world that Ferguson and Harrison are right. As for Pearce, he'll just be hoping that evidence to support those claims is on show tonight.
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