THESE are the learning days and Glenn Hoddle will be grateful for that this morning. England's first defeat by Chile will not cost them any points, just pride. But it should teach them a few things.
One is the value of finishing, Marcelo Salas, Lazio's new pounds 13m striker, gave a lesson to England aspirants and veterans alike with a stunning 45th-minute goal and a penalty, won by himself, after 79 minutes. Another is the need to have a balanced side. This one, top-heavy on forwards, lacked the creativity to open one of the World Cup's weaker defences.
Both defenders and midfielders also need to realise the value, nay, necessity, of staying on their feet. There is one other important lesson to be absorbed. The petulant elbow by Graham Le Saux on the shirt-tugging Moises Villaroel went unseen by the Polish referee but not by Sky's all-seeing cameras. Like the scything tackles from behind by David Batty and Paul Ince it would be punished with a sending-off if spotted in the World Cup.
On the positive side, Michael Owen had a promising debut in difficult circumstances. With Andy Cole suffering a thigh strain yesterday morning, he was paired with a fellow debutant, Dion Dublin, and Teddy Sheringham in a three-man attack. This is an unusual policy in international football and it is hard to imagine when Hoddle would use it in the World Cup.
Hoddle combined this with a defensive midfield in which Nicky Butt made his first start. This seemed logical at first sight, but it soon became apparent that craft had been sacrificed for graft. With Sheringham playing so far forward and neither Paul Gascoigne, David Beckham nor Ince present there was a lack of penetration. Instead of passing through their opponents, England soon succumbed to the twin temptations of playing over the top for Owen or in the air to Dublin.
Although Chile were impressive at times, notably when Salas scored, it was not what a 65,000-plus crowd, whose tribulations with the Tube had caused a 15-minute delay to the kick-off, had come to see and there were a few boos at the end.
They had loudly cheered Owen's inclusion in particular and those who were still walking from Neasden when the match finally began almost missed an early debut goal from the Liverpool teenager.
Barely six minutes had elapsed when Butt broke down the right, Dublin laid back his cross and Owen brought a fine one-handed save from Nelson Tapia with a first-time shot from the outside of his right boot.
Owen had settled well, setting up chances for Sheringham with crosses from each wing either side of his own effort and generally worrying the Chilean defence with his pace and mobility. Dublin also made a bright start, using the ball well and providing a focal point for the attack, but faded later.
Having survived the early assault, Chile began to show promise of their own. Jose Luis Sierra had a brace of shots before opening up the right flank of England's defence after 22 minutes with a pass inside Rob Lee from which Francisco Rojas brought a sharp save from Nigel Martyn.
Sierra was the passer England lacked and, as half-time approach, he showed his value. After an England corner broke down, the ball reached him just inside his own half on the left flank. His 50-yard pass dropped over Batty, on defensive duties following the corner, and was superbly cushioned on his left thigh by Salas. His next touch was a left-foot volley, which whipped the ball past Martyn.
Wembley gasped, in that instant we understood why Alex Ferguson had traversed the Atlantic in pursuit of the River Plate forward. He goes, instead, by private plane this morning to Rome where Lazio expect to complete his transfer today. At that moment he looked a bargain.
Hoddle's only half-time change was to replace Phil Neville with Le Saux on the left flank. Four minutes into the period Owen had another chance, a header during a goalmouth scramble, but was unable to get enough power. Chile continued to look the slicker side and should have sealed the match on the hour, when Rodrigo Barrera was released in the inside-right channel, Fortunately for England, he snatched at the chance and hit the side-netting.
Six minutes later England finally created another clear opportunity, the first since Owen's early shot. Batty broke down the right and his cross reached Le Saux on the far post, who drew another good save from Tapia with a first-time half-volley. The crowd, however, were already chanting "Shearer, Shearer".
Defeat loomed and Hoddle acquiesced. Shearer came on for Sheringham, giving England three out-and-out centre-forwards. For a moment one wondered if Barry Fry had taken over the home dug-out. Paul Ince was also introduced and, with 24 minutes left, tested Tapia with a diving header from Owen's cross.
England pressed but, with 13 minutes to go Sol Campbell, sluggish all night, brought down the twisting Salas in the box. Salas converted the kick himself, leaving England to go back to the classroom before the next lesson in six weeks' time in Switzerland.
ENGLAND (3-4-3): Martyn (Leeds); G Neville (Manchester United), Adams (Arsenal), Campbell (Tottenham); Lee (Newcastle), Batty (Newcastle), Butt (Manchester United), P Neville (Manchester United); Sheringham (Manchester United), Dublin (Coventry), Owen (Liverpool). Substitutes: Le Saux (Chelsea) for P Neville, h-t; Shearer (Newcastle) for Sheringham, 63; Ince (Liverpool) for Batty, 63.
CHILE (3-4-1-2): Tapia (Universidad Catolica); Reyes (Colo Colo), R Fuentes (Universidad de Chile), Margas (Universidad Catolica); Villaroel (Santiago Wanderers), Acuna (Universidad de Chile), Paraguez (Universidad Catolica), Rojas; Sierra (both Colo Colo); Barrera (Universidad de Chile), Salas (River Plate, Arg). Substitites: Carreno (Deportes Concepcion) for Barrera, 77; Valenzuela (America, Mex) for Sierra, 88.
Referee: R Wojcik (Poland).