England ready for revenge

France 0 England 1
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The Independent Online
reports from Montpellier

France 0 England 1

And so to Paris, to face Brazil. Even in mid-winter, following a run of defeats, it would be an enticing fixture. In summertime, after six wins on the trot, it is one to savour.

England are understandably buoyant after Saturday's 1-0 win over France here. "Keep your feet on the ground". "Maintain a level head". These are the mantras Glenn Hoddle and Alan Shearer are repeating and the players affect to listen. In a game ridden with cliches, "you haven't won anything yet" comes to mind.

But they have, they have won match after match, the best run since 1986. On Saturday, after their first success over Italy in 20 years, and in Poland in 31, England gained their first victory in France since 1949. Even the phlegmatic Shearer must now be tempted to dream of another June fixture in Paris, a year's hence, a (whisper it quietly) World Cup final.

Of course, we must not get carried away. Things can change very quickly in sport. Brazil may expose England's flaws and pretensions just as they did in the Umbro Cup at Wembley two years ago. England improved from there to reach the last four of Euro 96 and their continued progress suggests that, whatever tomorrow night's result, they will be formidable opposition in a year's time.

Chelsea's Franck Lebouef, who sat in the stands at Wembley when England lost to Italy in February, and on the French bench on Saturday, said: "England's players have learned a lot over the last year, especially tactically. They improve every game. In February there was a big difference between Italy and England, last week - I watched on TV - England played the same Italian team and were much better."

Saturday showed a different side of England's game, the ability to eke out wins without playing particularly well. They were not poor but they must now be judged by the standards they set against Italy and by that mark they disappointed.

The impressive elements were the defensive strength, the ability to recover from a poor start, and the thoroughness of the preparation. Whatever you think of the tactic of attempting to hit Ian Wright and Alan Shearer over the top ("predictable" is one view) it was calculated to test a square French defence unused to playing together. Had Wright finished better after Shearer and David Beckham set him up, it would have worked after 41 minutes.

A further 44 minutes later it did, though only after becoming more sophisticated. Paul Gascoigne showed the way, passing along the ground to Beckham, breaking from midfield after 73 minutes. Then he and Shearer released Teddy Sheringham on the right and his cross, fumbled by Fabien Barthez, was touched in by Shearer.

Sheringham's arrival increased the options, Shearer and Wright had been hitting each other's space and testing the impressive French defence only on the topic of offside. Hoddle, Terry Venables and Graham Taylor have each tried to pair Wright and Shearer and each failed. In six hours and 21 minutes together, against seven different teams, the partnership have managed one goal. The Shearer/Sheringham combination has produced 16 goals in 17 hours and 42 minutes. Wright has a role to play in this squad, but it is not alongside Shearer.

So Hoddle has learned that. He may also have accepted that Gareth Southgate is still some way from being a Continental-style sweeper. Until one emerges, or Jamie Redknapp is given the chance to convert, the fitness of Tony Adams, who makes up in presence for what he lacks in finesse, will be closely monitored.

On the left side Sol Campbell, after an uncertain start, was excellent, his strength and mobility make him ideally suited to the marking role with only his concentration a concern. "He was not at the races to start with," said Hoddle, "but we got messages on and he turned things around. He did not crumble and that's a good sign in a youngster. He still has a lot to learn and he will get better."

England defend well as a team, though their crude early tackling prompted reservations. France, short of inspiration and finishing, were only ever going to score from a header - and they were not allowed to cross from the byline - or a shot following a knock-down. David Seaman underlined his importance with a save from such a situation.

England did have imagination, with both Beckham and Gascoigne playing good passes, though the former gave the ball away cheaply and the latter dallied. Of Beckham Hoddle said: "He hit the wonder ball but he has to learn at this level it is three [safe passes] to one [risky one]." With Graeme Le Saux and others also playing early passes this did mean England wasted possession.

Gascoigne sometimes waited too long and one missed opportunity had Le Saux fuming. He did enough, especially in view of recent injuries. A respected Brazilian journalist I spoke to yesterday insisted Gascoigne would get in the Brazilian team. "He is crazy but brilliant," he said.

Surprisingly, given that England have met Brazil four times since he began his England career, Gascoigne has never started a match against the World Cup holders. England have minor concerns over Shearer (ankle), Rob Lee (foot), David Batty (groin), Paul Scholes (hamstring) and Martin Keown (arm) but Gascoigne, for once, is fit. Tomorrow gives us a chance to compare the man, and his team, with the masters of the art.

Goal: Shearer (85) 1-0.

FRANCE (4-4-2): Barthez (Monaco); Thuram (Parma), Blanc (Barcelona), N'Gotty (Paris St-Germain), Laigle (Sampdoria); Deschamps (Juventus), Djorkaeff (Internazionale), Vieira (Arsenal), Keller (Karlsruhe); Dugarry (Milan), Ouedec (Espanyol). Substitutes: Loko (Paris St-Germain) for Ouedec, 62; Zidane (Juventus) for Dugarry, 75; Lizarazu (Atletico Bilbao) for Laigle, 82.

ENGLAND (3-5-2): Seaman (Arsenal); G Neville (Manchester United), Southgate (Aston Villa), Campbell (Tottenham Hotspur); P Neville (Manchester United), Gascoigne (Rangers), Batty (Newcastle United), Beckham (Manchester United), Le Saux (Blackburn Rovers); Wright (Arsenal), Shearer (Newcastle United). Substitutes: Ince (Internazionale) for Batty, h-t; Lee (Newcastle United) for Beckham, 75; Sheringham (Tottenham) for Wright, 79.

Referee: S Belquola (Morocco). Bookings: England: Batty, Beckham, Le Saux.

Man of the match: Campbell. Attendance: 25,000