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Reality hits home for Team GB
IT'S a good job our cyclists and rowers are half decent.
Less than a week before they kick off their Olympic campaign with a group game against Senegal at Old Trafford, Great Britain's footballers were given a stark illustration of just how difficult it will be to claim a gold medal at London 2012.
Last night's 2-0 defeat to Brazil at Middlesbrough's Riverside Stadium was even more emphatic than the scoreline suggests, with Stuart Pearce's side struggling to match their illustrious opponents, who on this evidence are deserved favourites to claim the Olympic title.
Sandro and Neymar scored before the interval as Brazil's star-studded attack ran riot, and while Team GB will not face anyone of a similar standard in the early stages of the Olympic competition, they will surely have to improve to survive a group that will also see them play UAE and a highly-rated team from Uruguay.
As the rest of the country gears itself up for Olympic fever, you can always rely on the footballers to bring things crashing to earth with a bump. The only difference this time was that the disappointment came wrapped in the Union flag of Great Britain rather than England's St George's cross.
Perhaps the fact there is a GB side to watch at all should be interpreted as a success given the political bartering that preceded the creation of the first unified team since the 1960 Olympics in Rome.
While Stuart Pearce's first selection as Great Britain boss did not contain any Scottish or Northern Irish players, there were four Welshmen in the starting line-up to supplement a core of Englishmen who had played with the former full-back at under-21 level.
There was also a County Durham-born goalkeeper, with Middlesbrough's Jason Steele initially preferred to Jack Butland, even though his rival had been drafted into England's European Championships squad as a late replacement last month.
Steele had spoken prior to kick-off about his pride at being involved in such a high-profile occasion at the Riverside, but his call-up was always going to be something of a double-edged sword given the quality of Brazil's attacking line-up.
While the Olympic football competition has traditionally been seen as a sideshow in this country, it is regarded as something of a Holy Grail in Brazil given that the national side has never claimed a gold medal to go with its numerous World Cups and Copa Americas.
There is huge pressure to ensure that the drought does not continue, hence the presence of Hulk, Neymar and Chelsea-bound Oscar in the current Olympic squad, an attacking triumvirate that is worth around £90m.
With Stuart Pearce fielding Craig Bellamy and Tom Cleverley as support to lone striker Daniel Sturridge, the imbalance between the two attacks was obvious from the outset.
Neymar should really have scored as early as the sixth minute, but after outpacing James Tomkins to reach Leandro Damiao's knock-down, the Santos striker blazed wastefully over the crossbar.
No matter. The attacks kept on coming, and six minutes later, Brazil claimed the lead. Neymar floated over a free-kick from the right edge of the penalty area, and Tottenham midfielder Sandro peeled off to the back post to angle a header back across goal beyond Steele.
Despite their aerial advantage, the British back four were susceptible to crosses all night, and after Manchester United full-back Rafael Da Silva created space on the right-hand side shortly before the half-hour mark, Leandro Damiao should have done better with a close-range header that looped over the top.
Team GB's first-half attacking was practically non-existent, with Sturridge often lacking support as Bellamy peeled away to the right and Spurs' Danny Rose providing precious little penetration from the opposite flank.
The hosts' only opportunity before the interval saw Micah Richards nod Ryan Giggs' free-kick towards goal, but Brazil skipper Thiago Silva was on hand to hack clear from the goalline.
Richards was the most controversial of Pearce's three over-age selections given his refusal to go on England's Euro 2012 standby list, and the Manchester City defender hardly covered himself in glory as Brazil doubled their lead ten minutes before the interval.
Having pulled on to the wrong side of Hulk as he raced into the area, he halted the Porto attacker with a desperate hack. Neymar stepped up to take the spot-kick, and while Steele guessed right, he was unable to get a hand to the 20-year-old's strike.
The Newton Aycliffe -born shot-stopper fared rather better two minutes later, keeping out a fierce Neymar strike with his legs, but the fact that he was Team GB's busiest performer in the first half underlined the extent of the Brazilian barrage.
He was replaced by Butland at the interval, and the Birmingham shot-stopper had to be at his sharpest from the outset as he made smart saves from both Oscar and Leandro Damiao in the opening ten minutes of the second half.
Team GB enjoyed more possession after the interval, and while Bellamy had already been flagged offside when he drew an excellent point-blank save from Rafael Barbosa, at least the introduction of Scott Sinclair and Aaron Ramsey provided a modicum of attacking impetus. Butland was forced to produce three more fine saves to deny Neymar and Pato though as Brazil's superiority remained intact.