ENGLAND bade farewell to Wembley
with a performance that did not
encourage visions of glory in France next month. This failure to beat one of the more obscure of the 32 finalists who will contest the 1998 World Cup could be excused, perhaps, by the need to experiment; but the display was flawed enough to make any thoughts of actually winning the tournament seem fanciful.
After a bright start, England gradually
became horribly disjointed and
disappointingly ineffectual. Even in their better moments, their finishing was poor in the extreme; but that was only half of a rather worrying story. In Sayeed Al-Owairan and Sami Al-Jaber, Saudi Arabia had a high-class attacking partnership that constantly exposed the frailty of England's defence.
Hoddle could hardly have picked a stronger side from the players available to him. Only Paul Ince and Graeme Le Saux, both of whom are recovering from injury, and Paul Gascoigne, who is said to be still 40 per cent short of full match-fitness, would have made it much stronger. As it was, Gascoigne had a place among an impressive array of talent on the bench.
No doubt the fans of Arsenal and Tottenham would also put up an argument for Martin Keown and Sol Campbell respectively, but, essentially, this was something close to the team England are likely to begin with in France. It also, of course, gave Hoddle the opportunity to look at a couple of players, in Andy Hinchcliffe and Darren Anderton, who needed a game in England colours.
Rather surprisingly, Wembley was not packed for the national team's final home game before the finals; but the crowd was still big enough to provide a lively atmosphere and a real sense of occasion on a cool, grey afternoon. The spectators, overwhelmingly English, certainly warmed to the dangerous attack England put together after only two minutes of play.
Hinchcliffe, positively steaming in at the far post, headed over the bar from the deep cross Anderton delivered from the right. The move had been made possible by the quick exchange of passes between the Manchester United pair, David Beckham and Paul Scholes, which suddenly opened up a Saudi Arabian defence which had begun the game with a look of immovability.
Interestingly, England were operating with Anderton out wide and Beckham playing in the central midfield position many believe to be his best. Those of that persuasion would have been pleased to see the cross field pass Beckham drilled, almost through the referee, to Hinchcliffe. The Sheffield Wednesday man responded with an equally excellent centre that Mohammed Al-Daye, the Saudi Arabian goalkeeper, plucked off a couple of English heads.
Beckham, in the thick of things from the start, also hammered a shot over the bar when Scholes headed the ball back to him. Scholes, too, was prominent in that early phase of play, as he showed when he unleashed a shot Al-Daye was glad just to beat away. Even Gareth Southgate got in the act, sweeping Alan Shearer's deep centre against the legs of Al-Daye.
Southgate's foray upfield was not the only one by an England defender. Tony Adams, too, showed a real sense of adventure by running on to a cleverly-disguised return pass from Teddy Sheringham. Sadly, though, his control let him down once he had got clear. All this gadding about also left England a little vulnerable at the back.
David Seaman had to move quickly to stop the shot Al-Jaber tried to curl past him after an exchange of passes with Al-Owairan had stripped England bare in defence. More worrying than that, in its way, was the shot Seaman had had to tip over the bar when Al-Owairan, the 'Desert Pele' as he is known, was allowed to run at goal by a well stocked England defence.
More worrying still was the ease
with which Al-Jaber turned Southgate
inside the England penalty area before striking a shot Seaman could only parry. Al-Owairan steered the rebound into the net with a deliberate pat of his left hand and was rightly booked for trying to become the 'Desert Maradona'. Yet the caution could not disguise the magnitude of the threat from the Saudis.
Left-back Hussein Solaimani underlined it nine minutes before half-time by tricking Anderton out on the left and delivering a low centre that Al-Owairan turned into the side-netting. That said, England ought to have scored themselves when Beckham's long ball released Shearer and his diagonal pass offered Sheringham a clear shot that Al-Daye saved with his left leg.
England continued to waste scoring chances at the start of the second half. Shearer failed to beat Al-Daye with a header from a Beckham chip after the referee, wrongly it seemed, had refused to give a penalty for a mistimed tackle by Abdulla Zebramawi that swept Scholes' legs from under him. Then Scholes himself miscued horribly after exchanging passes with Shearer.
Given all that, and the further save
Seaman had to make from Al-Jaber
following more clever interplay with Al-Owairan, it was no surprise when Hoddle tried to liven things up with a double substitution on the hour. Gascoigne, to great cheers from the crowd of 63,733, replaced Beckham in central midfield, while Ian Wright was sent on to take over from Sheringham up front.
Disturbingly, the changes had little or no effect. England could not match the menace offered by Saudi Arabia whenever Al-Jaber or Al-Owairan had the ball. The two strikers combined beautifully again after 62 minutes, and only Hinchcliffe's timely intervention stopped Ibrahim Sweid Al-Shahrani scoring at the far post.
Further substitutions, Les Ferdinand
and Phil Neville for Shearer and
Hinchcliffe, hardly helped the cohesion of the side, though one incisive
through pass from Gary Neville did enable Wright to go clear and strike a shot that the reliable Al-Daye saved with his legs. Gascoigne, too, went close with powerful shot on the run, but it was not to be his day, or England's.
Hinchcliffe (P. Neville 74')
Beckham (Gascoigne 60')
Shearer (Ferdinand 74')
Sheringham (Wright 60')
Amin (Al-Dosary 78')
S. Al-Owairan (Al-Temiyat 78')
Ref: D Z G Jol (Netherlands).