On a feverish, sultry Roman night, England remained cool and composed in the face of a disappointingly uninventive and frustrated Italian team, now condemned to play off for their place, whose excesses provoked six yellow cards from the Dutch referee Mar io van der Ende (to England's four) as well as the sending off of Angelo Di Livio. "The referee was magnificent," the England coach, Glenn Hoddle, said. "The best performance I have seen for many a year."
England's performance was similar, one not just of grit, graft and discipline, but of tactical competence, technical progress and temperamental control that reflects Hoddle's stewardship of the team and especially their nous in away matches. Never before , in 15 previous attempts, have a team come to Rome and denied the Italians victory in a World Cup tie.
"The nation should be proud of the team but the hard work starts here," the ever pragmatic Hoddle said. "We have proved we have got a mean defence and this away record has been achieved with a squad that played nothing but home games for two years."
None typified England's resolve more than the captain, Paul Ince, who finished the match swathed in bandages around a cut forehead. At the hub of the three-man defence, Tony Adams marshalled the dogged Sol Campbell and Gareth Southgate majestically.
Ahead of them, Ince and David Batty negated the threat of the eventually substituted Gianfranco Zola, who played just behind a host of strikers introduced fruitlessly by the Italian coach, Cesare Maldini.
One of them, Christian Vieri, might have won the game at the last, but he headed Alessandro Del Piero's cross wide. It would have been an injustice had David Seaman's goal been breached.
For all the nerves that attended Italy's forays forward, the goalkeeper was rarely troubled, while at the other end Ian Wright might even have won the game in added time, clipping the outside of a post from an acute angle after dancing past Fabio Cannava ro and Angelo Peruzzi.
It was nevertheless ultimately the sticky night it always threatened to be. A running track may divorce the players from the clamour and tension of the tribunes, but the raucous support of 80,000 fans, nine to one in favour of Italy, reverberated around a stadium with as gladiatorial a feel as the Colosseum on which it was modelled.
In such an atmosphere, it was no wonder Hoddle wanted experience. The team duly contained old heads, save for Sol Campbell and - evidently recovered from his sniffles - Cold Spice David Beckham, both deemed wise, in footballing terms, beyond their years. In fact, after all the second-guessing and double-bluffing of the last week, it was more or less the side most had envisaged.
Needing to win the game to qualify automatically, Cesare Maldini sent out an attacking line-up containing two out-and-out strikers in Vieri and Filippo Inzaghi, with Zola just behind.
As spare man, Adams made some crucial early interceptions as England sought to douse the Italians' ardour and quell the tifosi with some possession football. On a night for discipline, his displeasure was apparent when Paul Gascoigne brought down Dino Ba ggio near England's byline to concede a free-kick.
The danger from Zola's kick cleared, Gascoigne began to concentrate his efforts further forward and one or two neat turns and passes helped England settle. After Campbell had been booked for a bad tackle on Inzaghi, Demetrio Albertini escaped when jumpin g elbows high with Ince, catching him above the right eye. Ince was off the field for eight minutes, as the wound was stitched, then returned - bloodstained shirt resembling a butcher's apron - and almost gave England a lead with the game's best chance s o far.
Teddy Sheringham touched a free kick to Gascoigne who ferried it on for Beckham to cross. It was met by Sheringham, who had ghosted into the area, and his knockdown was met firmly by Ince 10 yards out, only for Peruzzi to parry it away.
It was becoming a scrappy game with players frequently falling injured from spiteful challenges. Di Livio was booked for a bad tackle on Graeme Le Saux while the Italians' left wingback, Paolo Maldini, was forced from the field with what looked likea tu rned ankle after a fall.
Italy's best chance in the first half came from a foul by Adams on Zola, who touched the freekick to Albertini, whose 25-yard shot skidded a couple of yards wide off the defensive wall.
Enrico Chiesa replaced Inzaghi at the start of the second half, and immediately there was more cunning and pace to the Italians' play. After a neat ball played infield by Antonio Benarrivo, he fed Baggio for a shot that was not far over the England cross bar. Chiesa also turned Southgate cleverly before sending in a fierce cross shot that Seaman pushed away.
England gradually regained their poise with Ince and Batty calming matters down. Frustration was setting in for the Italians, Alessandro Costacurta, Benarrivo, Albertini and Zola's replacement Alessandro Del Piero - for diving in the penalty area - being booked in quick succession. Worse, Di Livio was given a second yellow card for a late tackle on Campbell, and was sent off.
Wright's late chance, matched by Vieri's, added more theatre to an already dramatic night when quality counted for less than the outcome. A lasting memory may again be of English fans again involved in running skirmishes with police. It should be ofInce 's bandaged head driving England on towards France.