England rue missed opportunities
INTERNATIONAL FOOTBALL: Reshaped side makes an accomplished start against high-quality opposition
New style, same old failing. But, while England were unable to find the goal against Croatia last night they discovered something more important - the confidence to play in an unfamiliar structure.
While England's repeated failure to score remains a concern - this was their third goalless draw in six matches and fifth under Terry Venables - they produced a far from sterile performance. There were chances galore - England had 14 shots and several scrambles. Had Robbie Fowler shown his usual touch in front of goal; had Steve McManaman enjoyed better fortune; or the Polish referee not been so sharp-eyed; England would have garnered the goals they deserved.
The new three-man defence, after some early jitters, worked well. The midfield was both inventive and disciplined while the forwards, though poor in front of goal, were lively around the box. There was promise aplenty.
Although Croatia appeared keener on securing a draw than risking a win, there was an edge about the game - four bookings were testament to that. Their quality was also in evidence.
England were thankfully back in white, the Croatians in chessboard red. The analogy was apt as the opening moments were as much chess as football, all angles and patterns as England settled into their new system.
There were teething problems. Robert Jarni went past Steve Stone on the right and Mark Wright had to make an important clearance; then Robert Prosinecki, given space 25 yards out, sent a dipping shot just over the bar.
Slowly England began to feel their way into the system and, after 11 minutes, started to explore its potential. Fowler stole possession, stepped into the area and curled an inviting pass behind the defence to Stone. Unfortunately, he scooped his shot over the bar.
In response Zvonimir Boban set up Dubravko Pavlicic who drove a low shot which David Seaman gathered at the second attempt.
Then England scored - twice, but neither "goal" counted. With 22 minutes gone Stuart Pearce crossed deep from the left, Teddy Sheringham challenged Marijan Mrmic and the ball spilled from the goalkeeper's grasp. Fowler tapped the ball in but Zbigniew Przesmycki had spotted Sheringham's arm across the goalkeeper's.
His linesman intervened six minutes later when Sheringham's cushioned header, from Stone's cross, found David Platt bursting into the box in typical fashion. Platt converted the chance but the flag was already up.
In between England had created a legitimate opportunity but Fowler was unable to direct his header, from Stone's cross, away from Mrmic. The goalkeeper remained busy as the half ended, pushing a Sheringham overhead kick past the post then blocking a close-range header by David Platt.
That chance had come, like so many others, from the right wing, Stone having released Gary Neville on the overlap with a neat reverse pass. It seemed, for all the new tactics and flexible thinking, that it was the old English strength, crosses into the box, which was their most potent line of attack. Stone, in particular, was having a fruitful evening. His opponent, Jarni, was as attack-minded as him, but less solid defensively.
McManaman had been less prominent and, in the second half, he came inside more often. There were early dividends as he linked with Paul Ince, then after 57 minutes, he almost hit the jackpot.
A sweeping move, beginning with Seaman, progressing through Gascoigne and Stone, took a fortuitous turn when Fowler failed to control Stone's pass and it ran to McManaman. He had only the goalkeeper to beat but Mrmic got enough of his body in the way to deny him.
Generally, Croatia were now defending full time. They were not helped by a series of substitutions - Terry Venables, tellingly, made none for the first time in his tenure.
He should have been rewarded with a goal. The most glaring miss was by Fowler after 70 minutes. Platt released McManaman on the left, his low cross came to Fowler who, six yards out, volleyed over.
McManaman then went even closer. After Sheringham laid a cross back to him he sent a hitch-kick volley against the inside of the post, the ball rebounded to Sheringham who put it wide. Croatia were briefly stirred and Prosinecki brought Seaman from his slumber with a testing shot.
Had it gone in it would have brought an undeserved victory - but it would have underlined the reality that, at international level, chances must be taken.
ENGLAND (3-5-1-1): Seaman (Arsenal); G Neville (Manchester United), Wright (Liverpool), Pearce (Nottingham Forest); Stone (Nottingham Forest), Gascoigne (Rangers), Ince (Internazionale), Platt (Arsenal), McManaman (Liverpool); Sheringham (Tottenham), Fowler (Liverpool).
CROATIA (5-3-2): Mrmic (Varteks Varazdin); Pavlicic (Alicante), Stimac (Derby County), Jarni (Real Betis), Bilic (West Ham United), Jerkan (Real Oviedo); Asanovic ((Hadjuk Split), Prosinecki (Barcelona), Boban (Milan); Suker (Seville), Boksic (Lazio). Substitutes: Stanic (Club Bruges) for Boban, h-t; Soldo (Croatia Zagreb) for Stimac, 57; Pamic (Osijek) for Boksic, 70; Mladenovic (Gamba Osaka) for Pavlicic, 73.
Referee: Z Przesmycki (Poland).
Home countries fail,
Last night's results, page 27,
Tottenham rights issue, page 21
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