IN A PLACE forever associated with dramatic moments, auditions for parts in England's summer production concluded last night with Glenn Hoddle given much food for thought as he spends the weekend finalising his 22-man troupe for France. Some practice will be needed on the penalties as England, following failures by Robert Lee and Les Ferdinand, bowed out of another tournament on spot kicks.
There was plenty to occupy Hoddle's mind. On the positive side, Lee and Nigel Martyn strengthened their claims to a place in the World Cup party and Martin Keown confirmed his international calibre against a busy Belgian attack. Of more concern was the departure, early in the second half, of Paul Gascoigne, twice brought painfully to earth by Belgian boots. Of those needing to make a huge impression on Hoddle, Paul Merson and Les Ferdinand hardly improved their cases. Hoddle must also address the issue of why England offer greater threat after the break.
Although containing only four members of Hoddle's probable first-choice side, the line-up contained much of significance three days before the squad for France are announced. At 23, Sol Campbell became England's youngest captain since a 22-year-old Bobby Moore skippered his country against Czechoslovakia in 1963.
Campbell's club-mate, Ian Walker, surprisingly did not start, indicating that the chase for the third goalkeeper's place was shifting towards Nigel Martyn, who coped commendably with Belgium's first-half pressure. When Campbell lost control of the ball after 21 minutes, Martyn needed to show all his reflexes to thwart the lively Emile Mpenza, the only red-shirted player on view likely to make Georges Leekens' World Cup starting side.
The Standard Liege striker, full of pace and purpose, proved a handful throughout. Mpenza even lifted the ball over Martyn but the Leeds keeper leapt up to catch and curtail the danger.
Phil Neville, meanwhile, was settling in at left-back, which surely spells the end of Andy Hinchcliffe's French aspirations. Hinchcliffe, injured during training on Thursday, failed to make an 11-strong substitutes' bench.
If the identity of Hoddle's starters
here prompted much debate and
speculation, England's shape was also intriguing. Hoddle deployed his
players in 4-4-2 formation with Lee, on the right, and Graeme Le Saux
providing the width in midfield. Lee, in particular, enjoyed a lively start, linking well with his full-back, Gary Neville, and charging forward.
Such was Lee's energetic contribution,
it came as a surprise when he
misplaced a pass midway through the half. Lee, who missed the final cut at Euro 96, clearly knows he is a borderline case and responded with a healthy display here.
For all Lee's endeavour, England's
most creative first-half moments
emanated from the clever right foot of Gascoigne, again given another opportunity to sharpen up. Soon playing with a head bandage, following accidental acquaintance with Enzo Scifo's boot, Gascoigne showed his passing mastery in the 20th minute. Espying Les Ferdinand's run, Gascoigne delivered the perfect ball for the Tottenham striker. Unfortunately for Ferdinand, the referee's assistant flagged for offside, an erroneous decision, according to television replays.
As a low-key half drew to a conclusion, Gascoigne conjured up another fine pass, this time to Lee in the box. The move came to nothing but Belgium clearly recognised Gascoigne's danger; just before the interval, Gascoigne was challenged heavily by Vital Borkelmans, the F C Bruges defender. Gascoigne, clearly annoyed, appeared to be limping as he left the field at half-time.
Gascoigne lasted only four minutes
after the break, summoned to the
sidelines to be swapped for David Beckham. Hoddle had already introduced Michael Owen and Rio Ferdinand, who replaced the Neville brothers, as England reverted to a 3-5-2. Rio Ferdinand had an immediate impact, dummying Mpenza and carrying the ball briefly forward.
England, upset by Eric van Meir's late challenge on Owen, came alive on the hour. Le Saux, such an important contibuter to left-sided attacks, clipped the ball into the area, playing tip and run past a defender, before bringing a superb save from Philippe van de Walle. Beckham's ensuring corner caused problems for Belgium, who managed eventually to clear, but only to Merson. The Middlesbrough man, playing in midfield after Gascoigne's departure, saw his low shot blocked.
Merson appeared more confident in a central position, producing some driving runs forward and going close with a dipping volley, just over, after 70 minutes.
When Dublin replaced Campbell with 18 minutes remaining, England's back three consisted of Dublin, Rio Ferdinand and Keown, a line-up that was hardly expected in the aftermath of Rome.
The game was almost spared penalties
when Scifo let fly from range, only to be
denied by Martyn. The auditons were over. Now the wait for the nod from
Van de Walle
Verheyen (Claessens 62')
Goossens (M. M'Penza 45')
G. Neville (R. Ferdinand 45')
P. Neville (Owen 45')
Campbell (Dublin 76')
Gascoigne (Beckham 50')
Belgium won 4-3 on penalties
Ref: E L Arjoune (Morocco).