Football: England must battle against history and histrionics

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After 13 months and 6,000 miles, England's journey to France 98 and the 16th World Cup has reached a crucial stage. If they avoid defeat against Italy tonight, they will qualify for football's biggest tournament for the first time in eight years. If they fail, they will have to face a play-off. From Rome Glenn Moore, our Football Correspondent, assesses their chances.

The last time England played a World Cup tie in Italy, the result was immaterial. When they meet tonight, the result will be everything.

The last encounter, at Italia 90, was the unloved third place play-off. With both countries still shattered by losing semi- finals on penalties the game was an irrelevance, memorable only for being unusually open.

Tonight's game is unlikely to be anything like as watchable but an 83,000 crowd, and millions of television viewers in both countries, will be consumed by it. Individual and national pride are at stake, personal and professional fortunes hang in the balance.

The winner has the ultimate prize, a place in next summer's World Cup finals in France. It is a bigger prize than winning the competition itself - for the ignominy, for two such proud footballing countries, of not even being there is immeasurable. It was bad enough for England in 1994, when the finals were in America. Imagine missing out when they are just across the Channel, or, for Italy, just over the Alps

True, there is a second chance. If the runner-up in the group does not qualify as the best second-placed finisher, they will still have a two- leg play-off. The Italians are more confident than the English of passing such a test but, with strong sides like Croatia, Russia and Yugoslavia among possible opponents, neither can be sure.

England's task is simple - they need a point. But it is not easy, Italy have played 15 World Cup ties in Rome dating back more than 60 years and won them all. England have not won in Italy since 1961 and, four years ago, lost to the Netherlands in Rotterdam when faced with an identical assignment.

They were a little unlucky that night and will need fortune as well as resilience, skill and nerve this evening. If they have fortune, they could make one. Qualifying for the World Cup will be worth, according to the Football Association's marketing chief, pounds 100m to English football. Some of this will filter directly to the players, up to pounds 200,000 per man.

Even by today's standards this is a tidy sum but Phil Carling, the FA promotions director, is correct when he said the motivation in the Stadio Olimpico will not be the money. The chance to play at the pinnacle of the game will be the factor that will encourage players to keep making the tracking runs, to put a head among flying boots and, hopefully, to assume responsibility.

Of England's present squad only Paul Gascoigne, the inspiration in 1990, has played in a finals campaign. Like Paul Ince, who was yesterday named captain, Tony Adams, Teddy Sheringham and Ian Wright, Gascoigne knows he may not get another opportunity. If he and Ince, the two Serie A veterans, can gain control in midfield England ought to succeed. If they do not England, with fitness doubts surrounding central defence, may become over- dependent on David Seaman.

The portents are mixed. "Put them together and you have the ideal midfielder," said Glenn Hoddle, "so they are a well-balanced pair." Technically, maybe, but not always temperamentally.

Gascoigne, according to Hoddle, is maturing fast, but not so fast that he was prepared to risk exposing him to the combined wiles of the English and Italian media. "He can get too tense," admitted Hoddle, "I will be sitting down and chatting to him."

Hoddle, presumably, has no such worries over Ince, having chosen him to be captain ahead of Adams. "Paul is made for this game, he is coming back to somewhere where he has a lot of respect and did extremely well," Hoddle said. "Tony is still on his way back to full fitness. He has been out a very long time and, if he starts the game, I want him to be 110 per cent focused on his performance. To give him the responsibility of captaincy may hinder that."

Given that Adams has coped with the captaincy of Arsenal and, periodically, England, for more than a decade despite suffering "donkey" abuse, alcoholism and imprisonment, this seems unlikely. However, Hoddle insists that Adams struggled to combine both roles in Arsenal's recent match at Chelsea and he would not want a repeat. Besides, said Hoddle: "Ince will definitely start."

Adams is one of three fitness concerns, Gareth Southgate and David Beckham being the others. While Hoddle's worries over Adams are about his general physical and mental sharpness, the others are specific. Southgate has a stiff thigh while Beckham has a cold. Both are rated 50-50, but, judging by their condition at training last night, are unlikely to play.

The final selection is still such a mystery. Apart from the fitness doubts, the big debate is whether to play Steve McManaman, and at whose expense, and who to play wide left. Given England need a draw David Batty is likely to keep McManaman out in a five-man midfield, although on both previous times Hoddle has met Italy he has played one striker up front with two forwards (McManaman and Matt Le Tissier at Wembley, Sheringham and Paul Scholes in Nantes) tucked in behind. On the left Graeme Le Saux may just see off the challenge of Phil Neville (also Beckham's understudy on the right) and Andy Hinchcliffe.

The Italians, who have named their team, will be without Ciro Ferrara. Alessandro Costacurta will sweep behind a back three while Christian Vieri has won the nod to partner Gianfranco Zola.

While England have failed to qualify for three of the last six World Cups, Italy have not been absent since 1958. At least three of tonight's team played in the last final, when Italy lost to Brazil on penalties. England's task is formidable but achievable.

ITALY (1-3-4-2): Peruzzi; Costacurta; Cannavaro; Nesta, Maldini; Lombardo, Albertini, D Baggio, Di Livio; Zola, Vieri.

ENGLAND (Probable, 3-5-2): Seaman; G Neville, Adams, Campbell; Beckham or P Neville, Gascoigne, Ince, Batty, Le Saux; Sheringham, Wright.