Football: Criticism for victors and vanquished

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Italy 1

Russia 0

Italy win 2-1 on aggregate

Cesare Maldini admitted his team have to improve if they are to make any progress at next year's World Cup finals after qualifying for France '98 by grinding out a 1-0 victory over Russia on Saturday.

Pierluigi Casiraghi's 53rd-minute strike earned Italy an aggregate win but it was not an inspired performance, and the Italian press were calling for changes yesterday morning.

The Italian coach, who claims never to read the papers, dismissed the criticism, saying: "All I know is that we've qualified for the World Cup finals. I don't want to make any predictions about what we could do there, but I realise that we have to improve.

"My experience of the World Cup is that they are 15 to 20 days when you have to aim for everything, hope that no one gets injured and accept the fact that things can go well for you and that they can go wrong."

Aside from the embattled Maldini, the happiest man in Italy on Saturday night was undoubtedly Casiraghi. He got his goal when dashing through to fire a long ball from Albertini past the helpless keeper.

Maldini said he expected Italy to play two friendlies before the finals. "I think we'll try new things in these two matches, we'll change some of the players," he said.

"For example, we could use [Diego] Fuser, [Luigi] Di Biagio, [Sandro] Cois in midfield and have [Enrico] Chiesa or [Alessandro] Del Piero supporting the strikers."

And he has not forgotten Chelsea's Gianfranco Zola, who missed both the play-offs against Russia after a below-par performance in the goalless draw against England.

"Zola is a very valuable player. A very important member of the squad," Maldini insisted. "But we have to make decisions based on players' physical condition, and we thought that Fabrizio Ravanelli's was better."

Russia's state news agency, Itar-Tass, heralding what could be a major shake-up in Russian football, savaged the national side and their coach for failing to reach the finals.

In a strongly worded and rare commentary on the 1-0 defeat in Naples, Tass condemned the coach, Boris Ignatyev, for failing and said he would lose his job. The virulent attack, on a day when Russian newspapers are not printed and television made little comment, may presage a major shake- up not just in the national side but across the upper reaches of the sport, where rival officials have already been engaged in public dispute.

Even the Kremlin has made clear its displeasure with poor international results. "Chief coach Boris Ignatyev, who had plenty of time to study his opponents, could not find the keys to their goal," the official news agency said, noting Ignatyev's contract was due to expire.

President Boris Yeltsin found time in the midst of a government crisis on Saturday to send the team a telegram assuring them he was confident of their success. While Italian commentators praised the resilience and midfield cohesion of the Russians, few of Yeltsin's compatriots shared his confidence.

Ignatyev's replacement would be the fourth national coach in just over three years. Poor showings at the 1994 World Cup finals and Euro 96 claimed the jobs of Pavel Sadyrin and Oleg Romantsev.

The present Russian squad contains several Ukrainians and Georgians who threw in their lot with Russia after the collapse of communism. They and players for the 14 other independent teams that replaced the Soviet Union can reflect on what might have been next summer. Not one will be going to France.

Goal: Casiraghi (53) 1-0.

Italy: Peruzzi; Ferrara, Maldini, Cannavaro, Costacurta, Pessotto (Nesta, 77), Baggio, Albertini, Di Matteo, Casiraghi, Ravanelli (Del Piero, 77). Substitutes not used: Buffon, Fuser, Conte, Chiesa, Zola.

Russia: Ovchinnikov; Nikiforov, Kovtun, Onopko, Popov, Radimov (Semak, 68), Alenichev, Yanovski (Simutenko, 59), Khokhlov, Yuran, Kolyvanov. Substitutes not used: Cherchesov, Solomatin, Chugainov, Tikhonov, Beschastnykh.

Referee: M Serge (Switzerland).

Bookings: Italy: Casiraghi, Nesta. Russia: Kovtun, Onopko, Nikiforov.

Man of the match: Casiraghi.

Attendance: 75,000.