ENGLAND'S planning for the finals
of the 1998 World Cup remains
firmly on track. Glenn Hoddle's men had more to spare last night than
the excellent goals by Paul Scholes and Robbie Fowler as they won with some comfort the first of the six friendlies they will play before going to France next summer. Without doubt, they were decidedly superior to Cameroon, one of the African qualifiers.
To be honest, Cameroon were something of a disappointment in what proved to be a rather patchy game. Nowhere near as talented, individually or collectively, as their illustrious predecessors, the Indomitable Lions, as they are known, proved all too easy to overcome. Nevertheless, Cameroon's failings should not be allowed to detract too much from another convincing England performance.
There were several impressive displays in a much changed side. Prominent among them were the scoring contributions of Scholes and Fowler, who showed Hoddle that he has ready made replacements for Teddy Sheringham and Ian Wright. Hoddle probably guessed that already in Scholes's case, but Fowler's performance was a bonus, especially as there is no guarantee Alan Shearer will be fit in time.
No-one could accuse Hoddle of wasting this opportunity to experiment. Altogether, there were six changes from the side that had qualified for the World Cup finals by holding Italy to that stirring goal less draw in Rome a month previously. Nigel Martyn, Andy Hinchcliffe, Phil Neville, Steve McManaman, Scholes and Fowler were asked to replace David Seaman, Tony Adams, Graeme Le Saux, David Batty, Sheringham and Wright.
There was little or no change to
the system, however. Hinchcliffe, for
instance, simply slotted in on the left side of the back-three, while Southgate switched to the vacancy in the middle left by Adams' injury. Likewise, Scholes was asked to operate behind Fowler in the deep-lying, second striker role normally undertaken by Sheringham.
The choice of both McManaman and Paul Gascoigne, the only survivor in both teams from England's 3-2 and 2-0 victories over Cameroon in 1990 and 1991, gave the midfield a very attacking look, and it was not long before the home side were pushing forward, against their African opponents' typically sketchy sweeper system, in search of a goal.
It looked as though they had got one as early as the eighth minute. A cross from the left, curled in wickedly by Hinchcliffe, was pushed out by the diving Cameroon goalkeeper, Vincent Ongandzi, to Scholes. The Manchester United man and Fowler ran the ball back into the net between them, but a linesman's upraised flag denied them a goal for offside against Fowler.
The Liverpool striker, who had not pleased Hoddle by dropping out of the squad for the World Cup qualifier in Poland and Le Tournoi de France during the summer in order to have a nasal operation, seemed determined to make up for lost time. Every time England built a dangerous attack, it seemed, the little Liverpool striker was critically involved.
One lovely chipped pass from the left put Neville in position to find Scholes with a cross to the far post. Unfortunately, the left wing-back found the goalkeeper's hands instead. When Fowler himself delivered a similar centre a few minutes later, the ball beat Ongandzi, eluded Scholes' straining leg and drifted just wide of the far post.
It was Fowler, too, who delivered England's first real shot. Set up nicely by an incisive move through the middle initiated by Paul Ince after 20 minutes, Fowler struck a firm, right-footed and deflected effort that Ongandzi did very well to push away as he dived full-length to his right. That, though, proved to be the end of England's first-half dominance.
There were one or two anxious moments
in front of England's goal as
Cameroon at last began to attack with some of the enthusiastic athleticism for which they are famous. A deep cross from the right by Rigobert Song, pulled back by Patrick Mboma, ought to have been made more of by Joseph-Desire Job; similarly, another opening was wasted by Pierre Wome's poor pass to Job.
The Africans' pressure also cost England a defender after 39 minutes. Gareth Southgate was injured so seriously in one aerial challenge that he had to be carried off with his right leg heavily strapped. An X-ray later revealed the Aston Villa defender had strained ankle ligaments and, fortunately, there was no break. However, his departure on a stretcher was rather worrying at the time, though it did open the way for the introduction of the highly-rated Rio Ferdinand.
Not that the West Ham youngster had much to do initially, since England dominated the remaining six minutes of the half so completely that they scored twice in as many minutes. First, Scholes again demonstrated his coolness in front of goal by chipping the ball over the onrushing Ongandzi when a tackle by two Cameroon defenders failed to disposess the stocky Manchester United player.
No doubt Scholes, however, would have been the first to admit that he owed the chance to Gascoigne's marvellous driving run through the middle. Taking on men just like he used to do when he was in his prime, the Glasgow Rangers midfielder weaved his way past three opponents before releasing the ball to Scholes in the inside-left position.
The Africans were still recovering from the effects of Gascoigne's virtuosity when England hit them again in the last minute of the half. This time, David Beckham's cross from the right picked out Fowler in a crowded goalmouth, and the Liverpool man headed the ball down and past Ongandzi.
England simply took up at the start of the second half where they had left off at the interval. Ongandzi had to save at the near post from Scholes, then dived to save the header with which an otherwise subdued McManaman met a centre from Phil Neville. Poor Neville had recovered by then from the embarrassment of running on to a Scholes through pass and misqueuing his shot as horribly as Geoff Thomas once did here against France. Cameroon had another escape, too, when Ince clipped the bar with an acrobatic volley.
Chris Sutton, earning his first cap as a replacement for Scholes, could then have capped his first appearance with a goal had Fowler been more precise with an attempted crossfield pass as he bore down on goal.
However, he played the ball too near to Ongandzi, who was able to collect at the feet of the Blackburn Rovers striker.
At the other end Martyn was a virtual
spectator and it was not until the 85th minute that he was called into
meaningful action when he dealt with a low effort from Njitap.
Southgate (Ferdinand 38')
Gascoigne (Lee 73')
Scholes (Sutton 79')
Mboma (Njitap 75')
Etame (Olembe 73')
Ipoua (Billong 46')
Ref: T Hauge (Norway).