Football: All eyes on man with Italian plan

Guy Hodgson hears how Arrigo Sacchi hopes to avoid the horrors of 1966
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1966 might have been a good year for English football; in Italy they think back 30 years and shudder. Indeed, if precedent at major football tournaments in this country is anything to go by, Arrigo Sacchi might as well prepare his resignation speech now.

Arriving in Teesside as one of the favourites for the World Cup 30 years ago, the Italians departed in disgrace after losing to North Korea in the group matches. They tried to sneak back home at night but were ambushed by supporters at Genoa Airport and pelted with tomatoes. The players were caught red-handed, red faced and just about red everything by the time the supply of missiles had been exhausted.

Sacchi hardly expects the tomato treatment again, although it can be assured that the Italians are more than delighted to be in the north-west for Euro 96 rather than the north-east of their 60s shame. Nevertheless, his position is less secure than you would imagine, considering he got the Italians to the World Cup final two years ago.

"The ability to invent has become a sin," one of his critics wrote recently. "Sacchi wants players to run and run all the time; the imaginative flair could be drowned in a glass of water."

So far that water has had a duck's back effect on the Italian coach, who declined to pick Roberto Baggio and Gianlucca Vialli for a group that also includes Germany, Russia and the Czech Republic. "This team can win the tournament," he said. "There is no doubt about that. But we are in a strong group and anything could happen."

Yesterday the Italian squad - all sharp clothes and sharper haircuts - was let loose for the media at the Alsager training ground in Cheshire. Or rather some of them were, the likes of Paolo Maldini, Dino Baggio, Fabrizio Ravanelli and Alessandro del Piero preferring to let others do the talking.

Instead Parma's Gianfranco Zola, the man credited with keeping Roberto Baggio out of the squad and the scorer of seven goals in the qualifiers, was left to do the duty. Of course he felt Italy would do well, he said, but his attention was on English football.

"I watch it every week on television," Zola, who was born the month following Italy's debacle in England 30 years ago, said. "When Faustino Asprilla came over here, I took a particular interest. I was keen to watch his progress."

He said he believed that Vialli would do well with Chelsea and even intimated he might follow his compatriot into the Premiership in a few years' time when his credentials were shot to pieces with a chance remark. Asked which English players impressed him - and it might have been the translator who let him down here - he replied: "I obviously know about Platt... but also Cantona."

The Juventus goalkeeper, Angelo Peruzzi, brought everyone back to reality with a crash, implying the Italians' opening match against Russia at Anfield on Tuesday might be less than a feast. "We will try to stop them with an offside trap," he said. "We want to stop them before they get near the penalty area."

That trap will receive its final honing against a team of Stoke City youngsters behind closed doors at the Victoria Ground tonight. Then it will be time for the Italians to justify their billing.

"We have not won anything since the World Cup in 1982," Milan's Demetrio Albertini said, "and people are impatient." No one is more aware of that than Sacchi.