England avoid banana skins

Moldova 0 England 3
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Moldova rolled over? Not exactly. It was simple enough in the end, if unspectacular, but for 20 nervy minutes there was the prospect of a nightmare start to Glenn Hoddle's reign. The Moldovans, with just one win in 11 matches, caused a few scares around the English penalty box before two goals in as many minutes settled the visitors.

The match, played in a low-key atmosphere, was unexceptional. The performance, apart from a cluster of highlights, workmanlike. But the points were the thing and England have got the first three of Group Two. By the time they play Poland at Wembley on 9 October Italy will have been here and, after their summer miseries in Manchester and Atlanta, you never know.

Nick Barmby, after 23 minutes, and Paul Gascoigne after 25, scored the goals that effectively sealed the match. Alan Shearer celebrated his new rank of captain with a third on the hour. Moldova kept working and were almost rewarded for their labours when the Finnish referee gave them a very harsh penalty after Stuart Pearce inadvertently handballed with three minutes left. Justice, of sorts, was served when Ion Testimitanu struck the bar.

England had, by then, settled for 3-0, the same scoreline Germany and Bulgaria achieved here en route to qualifying for Euro 96.

England's long road to France 98 started in a considerably less intimidating venue than feared. After two relatively comfortable days in their hotel, England arrived at the modest Republican stadium to find the grass had received a welcome cut and the crowd was both smaller and quieter than anticipated. The noisiest pocket was an impressively large band of fans who had made the long trek from England.

The only thing to disturb England's equilibrium had also come from home - by fax. The Sunday papers contained a candid rear view of Paul Ince and unexpected criticism of Hoddle's methods by his predecessor.

Both items will have left him disappointed rather than angry. Ince's unintended over-exposure brought no official censure but possibly a quiet reminder about behaviour for the culprit - Paul Gascoigne. Terry Venables' description of Hoddle's tactics as defensive (for using full-backs rather than wingers in the wide role) probably brought the response - "give me a bit of time to see what's going on before you start criticising".

Hoddle is considering following Venables' lead but with Darren Anderton and Steve McManaman injured and a tricky away qualifier to play it was only natural he should stick to his tried-and-tested.

The chief beneficiary of Hoddle's formula was Andy Hinchcliffe, who was given a first cap on the left flank. He had not even been in the squad when it was first chosen and he seemed unnerved by the speed of his elevation.

He did not do anything wrong but that was largely because he spent most of his time concentrating on not making mistakes rather than being adventurous. He did mark his man assiduously and produced a couple of crosses that paid testament to the quality of his left foot.

One surprise was the decision to play Gary Pallister, rather than Gareth Southgate, as sweeper. That may change later on. It did not stop Southgate making a series of incursions into the Moldovan half.

Shearer's first act as England's 100th captain was to win the toss and elect to play with the sinking afternoon sun behind David Seaman's goal. His next was to head David Beckham's sixth-minute cross on to Gascoigne only for the Rangers midfielder to find himself just inches too short to take advantage.

That attack augured well for England but it quickly became apparent that Moldova's defensive naivety was counter-balanced by an inventive attack.

Alexandru Popovici manouvered himself into a good position on the edge of the box only to scuff his shot, then, after Beckham gave the ball away, Iuri Mitereu shot more powerfully into the side netting. Pallister was skinned in the next attack, then Seaman had to be alert to deny both Popovici and Mitereu.

England were wobbling with both defence and midfield uncertain as to their positioning. Fortunately, sanctuary was close at hand, in the form of two goals.

The first featured both debutants. Beckham released Hinchcliffe, whose curling cross reached Gary Neville. He picked out the unmarked Barmby, who nonchalantly volleyed home. Two minutes later Ince drove into the Moldovan defence, exchanged passes with Barmby and toe-poked the ball to Gascoigne, who looped a clever header over Romanencu.

The Moldovans started the second half as they had the first but Shearer's 11th international goal, after good work by Southgate and Neville, ensured their would be no nasty surprises.

There was one late sting, however, with a needless booking for Ince, gratuitously fouling in midfield. With seven matches to come England will hope he has no cause to regret it.

Goals: Barmby (23) 0-1; Gascoigne (25) 0-2; Shearer (61) 0-3.

MOLDOVA (3-5-2): Romanenco (Zimbru); Secu (Tiligul), Nani (Go Ahead Eagles), Testimitanu (Zimbru); Gaidamasiuc (Tiligul), Epureanu (Agro), Curteanu (Zimbru), Belous (Tiligul), Clescenco (Go Ahead Eagles); Mitereu (Zimbru), Popovici (Tiligul). Substitutes: Sischin (Constructorul) for Belous, 58; Rebeja (Zimbru) for Mitereu, 61. Substitutes not used: Ivanov (Tiligul), Tverdohlebov (Constructorul), Pogorelov (Tiligul), Culibaba (Zimbru), Suharev (Zimbru).

ENGLAND (3-5-2): Seaman (Arsenal); Southgate (Aston Villa), Pallister (Manchester United), Pearce (Nottingham Forest); G Neville (Manchester United), Beckham (Manchester United), Ince (Internazionale), Gascoigne (Rangers), Hinchcliffe (Everton); Barmby (Middlesbrough), Shearer (Newcastle United) Substitutes: Le Tissier (Southampton) for Barmby, 80; Batty (Newcastle United) for Gascoigne, 80. Substitutes not used: Walker (Tottenham), Campbell (Tottenham), Draper (Aston Villa), Stone (Nottingham Forest), Ferdinand (Newcastle).

Referee: I Koho (Finland).

Bookings: Moldova: Clescenco. England: Pearce, Ince.

Man of the Match: Ince Attendance: 15,000

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