ALL ROADS really do now lead to Rome.
England travel to the
Eternal City on Oct 11 knowing that a draw will take them into the
World Cup finals as winners of Group Two. Last night, inspired by Paul
Gascoigne, a man who knows Rome so well, England took full advantage of Italy's 0-0 draw in Georgia by overcoming Moldova, so overtaking Cesare Maldini's side at the top of the table.
It was Gascoigne's night. He teased
and tormented limited opposition,
creating one goal and scoring another, gloriously. If Gascoigne can stay fit, in mind as well as body, then he may have the ideal opportunity to impress the Roman public. England's other scorers, Paul Scholes and Ian Wright (twice), also confirmed that England will journey in good heart.
Moldova rarely threatened. Yet Gareth Southgate was excellent in defence, reading well the few attacks that came at him and also showing a commendable willingness to step into midfield. Gary Neville also shone in twin roles, as the right side of a back-three and auxiliary full-back, sweeping behind David Beckham and adding width when required.
If the dispatches from Tbilisi had put an extra spring in England's stride, so had the bulletin that David Batty had passed a rigorous fitness test on his foot complaint. Newcastle United's midfield battler stiffened central midfield, so allowing the busy Pauls, Gascoigne and Scholes, to push forward in support of Ian Wright and Les Ferdinand.
As the announcer introduced Glenn Hoddle's selections, each name was greeted with prolonged applause, the old stadium heaving with hopeful hearts. The pre-match tributes to Diana, Princess of Wales, were moving but never mawkish, starting with Candle in the Wind, which saw a hushed crowd stand as one, many holding candles aloft. Then came the minute's silence, so complete you could have heard a tear drop.
The tributes paid, England set about Moldova. The game-plan was simple, releasing Gascoigne through the middle or creating crossing opportunities. Although the latter approach produced Scholes's 29th-minute opener, the plan also to build through Gascoigne conjured up the early highlights (and also led to England's second).
The opposition were hardly world-class, more intent on prevention than invention, but one had to admire how Gascoigne tore through them, like a whirlwind dispersing autumn leaves. Looking fit and eager, the mercurial Ranger was everywhere, prompting and cajoling.
After 16 minutes he dribbled through,
ignoring several agricultural
challenges before sliding the ball wide. Without breaking stride, David
Beckham unleashed a shot which was deflected towards Wright. Again Moldova's blanket defending smothered the danger.
In between Gascoigne's mesmerizing moments, England were heading wide, high and handsome, crosses and corners raining in from the wing-backs, Beckham and Phil Neville. Scholes directed a header over, in what was to prove a sights-setting exercise, while Ferdinand brought a routine save from Denis Roumanenco.
Then it was back to the Gazza show,
the England No 8 humiliating his
opposite number with an outrageous piece of ball-control, heading off
towards goal while one very confused Moldovan tried to find his bearings.
Yet for all Gascoigne's inspiration
and trickery, the goal England so
desperately sought arrived from the flanks. Beckham was taking corners from both flags, curling them out from the right side and in from the left, that right foot for every occasion causing all manner of mayhem in Moldova's box.
His left-sided inswingers continually troubled Roumanenco, who elected to punch a 29th-minute Beckham special. The ball flew back to Beckham, who looked up, picked out Scholes and placed a lofted cross on to his club-mate's head. Beckham's role should not be underestimated but Scholes's finish was exceptional indeed, a diving header that raced from left to right across Roumanenco.
England were in the mood, their technical and tactical superiority confirmed moments after the break. The devastation that Gascoigne had hinted at was delivered here. Picking up possession from Wright 40 yards out, he swayed forward, gaining yards and all the while following Wright's run into the box. The ball was perfect, slid accurately for Wright to run on and beat Roumanenco with a powerful shot at his near post.
The points seemingly secure, England appeared to lose concentration, often conceding the ball when pressure was minimal. Beckham did manage to plant another ball on a colleague's head but Southgate failed to match Scholes's earlier mastery.
England needed shaking up. So on - briefly - came Stuart Ripley, replacing Beckham, who departed with praise ringing in his ears. Doubtlessly, there was also relief in the England camp that Beckham left the field without the booking that would have ruled him out of Rome.
Ripley, meanwhile, was immediately involved, dashing down the right in those straight lines of his. Gascoigne met one of Ripley's crosses, the ball thundering against the upright. The danger had not subsided as the rebound fell to Batty, who missed from seemingly unmissable range. That was, sadly, Ripley's last contribution as he pulled a hamstring shortly afterwards.
England had not finished. Again Wright
and Gascoigne combined to thrilling effect.
Gascoigne charged forward, exchanged passes with Wright before sliding
the ball past Roumanenco. Irrepressible to the last, Wright strode
though in the final minute to shoot
in England's fourth.
Beckham (Ripley 68')
Ferdinand (Collymore 83')
Ripley (Butt 76')
Wright 46', 90'
Ref: K I Nielson (Sweden).