Merson saves experimental England from embarrassment
GLENN HODDLE has been struggling
with a bout of flu and his
players were certainly caught cold by Switzerland last night, only Paul
Merson's second-half equalizer rescuing England at the Wankdorf Stadium.
Hoddle had said that the performance was more important than the result but there was little inspirational about this display. Only Paul Ince, such a ceaseless worker in midfield, emerged with reputation improved.
Merson's goal, however welcome and a deserved reward for a player who has turned a troubled life around, could not disguise England's failings. Too often they gave the ball away and failed to deal properly with the high-class movement of Ciriaco Sforza and Stephan Chapuisat.
Martin Keown, who spent most of the game attempting to tame Chapuisat, was probably England's best defender although Rio Ferdinand was not far behind. In midfield, Steve McManaman failed to impose his obvious talent although Hoddle will at least have learned that the Liverpool player operates best when the ball is funnelled through him.
England's line-up had certainly lacked nothing in adventure with Ferdinand sweeping, Paul Merson and Steve McManaman introduced to breath some invention into midfield while Michael Owen partnered Alan Shearer in attack. Tim Flowers and Martin Keown made welcome returns. It was the first time England had played without any Manchester United representatives since Mexico visited last March. The way the Swiss controlled the first half, building attacks through the excellent Sforza, England could have done with some of their Old Trafford regulars.
Switzerland, buoyed by the excellent performance of their under-21s the night before, used a sweeper, VfB Stuttgart's Murat Yakin, for Gilbert Gress's first match as coach. Yakin was quickly to the fore, meeting Sforza's corner with a header held by Flowers.
England had been warned. The Swiss had the upper hand in the first half, building neatly through Sforza in the middle and always looking for Chapuisat's purposeful runs in from the left, one of which was ended only by Ince's timely intervention.
Switzerland were getting closer as England struggled to close down their moves at source. Yakin swept a ball wide to Sebastien Fournier, who was busy ensuring McManaman was always on the back foot. Fournier's cross was met by David Sesa but Gareth Southgate rescued the situation. After 35 minutes, Johann Vogel released Sforza and England were again grateful to some last ditch defending, this time by Ferdinand.
Switzerland's momentum, their enterprising attacking, was soon rewarded. Eight minutes from half-time, England's rearguard was finally undone when Sesa curled the ball towards the penalty spot and Vega, rising above Martin Keown, guided a clever header between Flowers and the upright.
England could not complain. They
were defending too deeply, looking
disjointed and tired, in need of someone like Paul Gascoigne to hold on to the ball or at least not it. Owen ran willingly up front, attempting to create something for Shearer but a couple of dashes apart, Owen was blotted out in the first half by Yakin, Vega and Stephane Henchoz.
Owen's colleague, McManaman, was
having no joy out wide, where
Switzerland's attacking brio meant he could not venture forward. Little was also seen of Merson, who was similarly engaged in resisting Swiss surges. England's one moment of real first-half promise came when Ince volleyed powerfully goal wards only to see his effort blocked.
It was very frustrating for the England fans to behold. England had enough quality out there, just not the requisite chemistry to blend them together. A catalyst was needed, someone to turn a group of talented professionals into a potent unit. As the first half wore on, with England looking as barren as the pitch was patchy, the mind again turned to Gascoigne, who will today be unveiled at Middlesborough. Timing was always part of Gascoigne's game.
The only real entertainment England's
fans experienced came at half-time when a few of them ran on the pitch
to take pictures of each other. The security was as inadequate as the stadium;
one England fan managed to warm up with Hoddle's substitutes at half-time.
Maybe the Swiss, such hospitable hosts, simply do not understand the different
mentality of England's
In a desperate attempt to find some penetration from midfield, to bridge the obvious gap between midfield and attack, Hoddle switched Lee and McManaman, allowing Liverpool's free spirit a greater licence. England, after withstanding a sustained Swiss barrage, eventually looked livelier with Hinchcliffe at last providing some width.
As the game passed the hour mark,
England were beginning to stretch the Swiss defence. Merson was beginning
to become more involved and a rising drive just over indicated the danger
that exists in those colourful boots. After 69 minutes, Merson ended England's
embarrassment with a superbly taken goal, beautifully created by Shearer.
The Newcastle striker, seizing the ball on the edge of the area, weighed
up his options and saw Merson unmarked to the left. Merson controlled Shearer's
pass with his right foot and then swept
in a shot which flew past Joel Corminboeuf.
Still danger lurked within the Swiss ranks, particularly when the ball was at Chapuisat's clever feet. The tall Swiss striker almost scored but Keown and Flowers combined to block the danger.
England, such an improved force,
almost took the lead when Shearer threw himself at the far post but was
denied by smart Swiss defending.
Sesa (Kunz 88')
Wicky (Lonfat 81')
Merson (Batty 81')
Owen (Sheringham 69')
Ref: P Garidian (France).