Football: England in search for challenges: Glenn Moore on the pitfalls of the hosts' automatic place in Euro '96

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The Independent Online
SOMEWHERE in a European football federation the telephone rings. 'It's the English FA again,' says the secretary. 'Tell them I'm in a meeting,' comes the reply.

Like a man who has bought dodgy double glazing and wants redress, England are finding everybody's out when they call. The deal England bought from Europe's governing body, Uefa, always did seem too good to be true; not only were they given the world's second biggest football championship to play with they were given an all-areas pass to get into it as well.

That, it appears, was the catch. For although recent experience in qualifying competitions suggests it is churlish to moan, automatic qualification as hosts of the 1996 European Championship is proving a mixed blessing.

That was underlined on Wednesday night when England attempted to begin their preparation with a match against a side of minimal ambition and limited ability. Automatic qualification removes the need and opportunity for those backs-to-the- wall qualifying matches that develop a battle-hardened team for the real thing. Instead the Football Association is reduced to waving its wad around the world in the hope that someone might squeeze in a quick friendly.

Aside from playing volleyball on the beach and preparing for a role in Beverley Hills 90210, as Paul Caligiuri has been doing, the Americans clearly had not been engaged in very much, certainly not anything to do with attacking football anyway. However, England can do no more than defeat what is in front of them and that they did comfortably; only poor finishing, good goalkeeping and a linesman's error kept the score below four or five-nil.

And was it that different from what England would have experienced in qualifying? The match was not far removed from the qualifying games played by Belguim, Romania and Norway. The three, all World Cup finalists, each hosted opposition they were expected to thrash in Armenia, Azerbaijan and Belarus respectively. While the results went as expected the scorelines did not: Romania scored three; Belgium two; and Norway only won in the 88th minute. On each occasion it is a fair bet the visitors came with a packed defence and a lone forward.

The San Marinos and Liechensteins apart there are no donkeys in international football these days. There are also few outstanding thoroughbreds for England to run themselves against. Romania, next up on 12 October, were one of the World Cup's best sides and Nigeria, pencilled in for 16 November, one of the most exciting. They ought to be real tests but on both occasions, should England win comfortably, the reaction will be 'they were not trying'. Certainly the matches will lack the added adrenalin rush of competition, but that surely applies to England as well.

There are two further dates in the New Year and then a tournament in the summer, opposition is still being sought, though given the desire for European sides to experience English conditions in preparation for 1996 the summer opponents should not prove to be too elusive.

For now the England coach, Terry Venables, must concentrate on the Romanian game. His England team is likely to be familiar, with injuries the most likely cause for changes from Wednesday's line-up. Neither goalkeeper David Seaman nor the back four were seriously tested, the midfield - with Barry Venison making an excellent debut - were always in control, Alan Shearer took his goals superbly and, best of all, John Barnes finally hinted at realising his international potential.

One area of possible improvement was in central defence where neither Tony Adams nor Gary Pallister looked adept at coming forward with the ball, not that this is a common feature of English central defenders.

Qualifying is all about getting there, picking short-term teams for specific matches. Venables has the luxury of being able to work to a long-term plan. Maybe England's was not such a bad deal after all.

(Photograph omitted)

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