The Emperors of Rome
ENGLAND reached the finals of the
1998 World Cup with real
authority. It hardly mattered that they did not manage to beat Italy in
Rome: they more than proved their right to be among the 32 finalists by becoming the first team to stop the Italians winning a World Cup game in their capital city.
Italy had triumphed in the previous 15 ties, but not this time. The resilient organizational spirit and skill of Glenn Hoddle's resurgent England was enough to gain them the point they needed to top Group Two and progress automatically to the finals in France next year.
Italy, on the other hand, are now condemned to the lottery of the play-offs, the draw for which takes place tomorrow. When the pairings are made, they could find themselves having to play two extra games against some of the stronger teams in Europe.
After the smokescreen of tactical mind games and suspected infirmity had finally cleared, Hoddle fielded the team just about everyone had predicted. That is to say, there was a place in defence for Gareth Southgate, who had been doubtful all week because of a thigh problem, and at right wing back for David Beckham, who had been struggling to shake off a chest cold.
The sight of David Batty and Paul Ince providing muscular assistance for Paul Gascoigne in central midfield also suggested that the England coach had rejected the option of trying to catch Italy cold with an unexpected attacking ploy. Instead, the formation indicated an intention to resist the Italians' attacking inclinations and then try to respond on the break.
Any remaining doubt that Italy would come at England with all guns blazing was dispelled by their choice of three strikers, Christian Vieri, Filippo Inzaghi and Gianfranco Zola. Rather surprisingly, Inzaghi was preferred to the Juventus magician, Alessandro Del Piero, who was among the substitutes just in case any more firepower was needed.
It was hardly surprising, then, that
England spent most of the opening phase of the game on the back foot. There
was briefly the hint of a
misunderstanding between the two Arsenal colleagues as Tony Adams came across to sweep away a Paolo Maldini centre from in front of goalkeeper David Seaman, and a needless foul by Gascoigne on Dino Baggio was another illustration of the tension the England players were feeling on a warm, muggy, Roman night.
The only worthwhile attack England mounted in the first 15 minutes saw Teddy Sheringham try unsuccessfully to find Ian Wright with a headed pass from a Beckham cross as the three of them moved the ball sweetly up the right-hand side of the field. The respite was brief, though, especially since England found themselves reduced to 10 men for eight minutes of the first half because Ince needed stitches in a head wound sustained in an aerial clash with Demetrio Albertini.
England suffered a wound of another kind when Sol Campbell was rightly booked for bringing down Inzaghi in full flight. It was the talented young Tottenham defender's second caution of the qualifying tournament, which means he will be unavailable for his country's first match in the World Cup finals.
Gradually, however, England took the sting out of Italy's attacks and worked their way into the game as an attacking force. Indeed, they were certainly very unlucky not to score after 29 minutes from what looked a well-rehearsed free kick. When Sheringham headed back Beckham's flighted ball, Ince met it so fiercely on the volley with his right foot that goalkeeper Angelo Peruzzi was glad just to fist the missile away.
England would not have been too disappointed, either, to see Maldini, Italy's world-class defender and the son of coach Cesare, limp off after 31 minutes and be replaced by Antonio Benarrivo. Angelo Di Livio's booking for a foul on Graeme Le Saux was another sign of the Italians' growing frustration at not being able to take complete control of the game.
Even when they won a free kick in a promising central position some 25 yards out, Italy could not make it pay. Surprisingly, Zola, the great free kick expert, did not try to find the net himself, but tapped the ball sideways to Albertini, whose low shot was deflected well wide of goal by Southgate, the last man in England's defensive wall.
Hoddle's team certainly had the last say in the first half, Beckham very nearly scoring at the end of a wonderful move through the middle begun on the left by Le Saux. Sheringham exchanged passes with Beckham before cutting the ball back for his young Manchester United colleague to side-foot a shot inches over the bar.
Although Italy sent on Enrico Chiesa and then Del Piero as substitutes in the second half for Inzaghi and Zola, the changes were unable to give their attack the cutting edge it lacked.
With Ince a blood-stained and bandaged figure continuing to play heroically in midfield, England resisted all of Italy's attempts to get the goal they needed, a task made even harder for them when Di Livio was sent on with 14 minutes left to play for a second book able offence - a dreadful lunge on Campbell which might have deserved a red card on it own.
Chiesa and Southgate were both booked
when they clashed during the closing stages, before Wright almost snatched
victory, but he put his shot against the post after rounding the keeper.
The last word nearly belonged to Vieri, but he put his header over the
bar from close range.
Maldini (Benarrivo 32')
Zola (Del Piero 63')
Inzaghi (Chiesa 46')
Di Livio (77')
Gascoigne (Butt 89')
Ref: Mario Van Der Ende (Holland).