FOR THOSE looking for an outward sign to assess Bobby Gould's position as Wales manager, the aftermath of this match was heaven sent. Within minutes of the final whistle, Anfield's fire sirens went off and the ground had to be evacuated.
Alarms bells for Gould? The Welsh supporters would think so. They were chanting "We want Bobby out" from the moment Italy got their second goal and, more morbidly, a banner portrayed him as a hanging corpse.
Gould is English and for some Welshmen that is enough, but it was results, not nationality, that provoked the reaction. It is two years since Wales won a competitive match and already, after one game in Group One of the European Championship, their prospects of qualifying for Euro 2000 are diminishing. Home defeats do not normally augur well for finishing in the top two when Denmark, Switzerland and Belarus also lie in wait.
On the face of it Gould's prospects seem similarly precarious, which is deeply ironic given that Wales produced their finest performance on Saturday night since they lost narrowly to Germany in Cardiff in October 1995. The scoreline suggests a comfortable win for Italy, study of the play told another story.
Ryan Giggs hit the bar and Nathan Blake had a header that would have been a goal if it had gone almost anywhere else, while the first Italian goal was the result of a crass and needless error by Chris Coleman. You cannot blame the coach for mistakes like that, you can only judge him on the performance and the tactics and on that Gould was almost faultless.
Giggs was given a free role up front with Blake and Mark Hughes struck an attitude in midfield, but it was Gary Speed and Andy Johnson who were a revelation. The former looked as though the spirit of Bryan Robson had been transplanted into the anonymous figure who fills a Newcastle shirt, while it did not seem possible that this was Johnson's international debut.
"I can't fault any of my players," Gould said, "they were truly committed to the cause. We may have lost but we gave the Italians a bloody nose. They're third or fourth in the world rankings while we're 103 but there's no way you're telling me there's 100 places between them and us."
From the beginning it was clear the Italians were uncomfortable with Blake's physical presence. Fabio Cannavaro might be a pounds 20m defender in Gould's estimation but he is only 5ft 8in tall and was brushed aside as Blake got ahead of him to meet Darren Barnard's 10th-minute cross. The Bolton striker had no hope of directing his effort and was unfortunate that it hit Angelo Peruzzi rather than went past him.
That gave a hint of promise that was cruelly rubbished nine minutes later. Christian Panucci's pass was wholly innocuous as Paul Jones came to meet it but, inexplicably, Coleman intercepted and then surrendered possession to Diego Fuser, who rolled the ball into an empty net.
You could feel the hope evaporate in the crowd but after the initial shock Wales regrouped and were unfortunate not to equalise four minutes from half-time. Blake was fouled by Mark Juliano and Gigg's chipped free- kick beat Peruzzi only for the ball to hit the bar and bounce clear.
The second half could be summed up as a battle between Welsh will and Italian talent although that would neglect the match's outstanding piece of individual skill. Giggs had a fitful night, surrendering possession as often as he threatened, but his dart between Gianluca Pessotto and Juliano after 63 minutes was breathtaking. "If only he could have got a proper shot in..." Gould said, his thoughts tailing off in frustration.
The Welsh effort tailed off, too, as Roberto Baggio replaced the disappointing Alessandro Del Piero and picked up the conductor's baton. Within two minutes the Inter striker slid a pass through to Christian Vieri who lost his marker with a sharp turn and then chipped past Jones.
That was rather flattering to the Italians although Gould was irrepressible, drawing encouragement from a performance on what was a neutral ground. "The Swiss manager was here tonight and he will have gone away with something to think about," he said. "We can be very, very dangerous."
Did the crowd's reaction put pressure on the Welsh manager. "On me? No way, no way," he replied.
The supporters might think otherwise but perhaps they ought to weigh up their country's resources. When Gould looked for a substitute to turn the match in the closing stages he turned to Robbie Savage; Dino Zoff could summon Roberto Baggio.
Goals: Fuser (19) 0-1; Vieri (76) (0-2).
WALES (3-5-2): P Jones (Southampton); Williams (Fulham), Coleman (Fulham), Symons (Fulham); Robinson (Charlton), Hughes (Southampton), Johnson (Nottingham Forest), Speed (Newcastle), Barnard (Barnsley); Giggs (Manchester Utd), Blake (Bolton). Substitutes: Saunders (Sheffield Utd) for Blake, 64); Savage (Leicester) for Hughes, 80).
ITALY (4-4-2): Peruzzi (Juventus); Panucci (Real Madrid), Cannavaro (Parma), Juliano (Juventus), Pessotto (Juventus); Fuser (Parma), D Baggio (Parma), Albertini (Milan), Di Francesco (Roma); Vieri (Lazio), Del Piero (Juventus). Substitutes: Serena (Atletico Madrid) for Di Francesco, 84; Di Biagio (Roma) for Albertini, 66; R Baggio (Internazionale) for Del Piero, 74.
Bookings: Wales: Blake, Speed. Italy: D Baggio.
Referee: T Hauge (Nor).
Man of the match: Speed.Reuse content