Football: England must strike without mercy

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The Independent Online
ENGLAND have never played San Marino. Come to think of it, they have never played Borneo, Curacao or Gozo, but if they did you would expect them to win by a few goals. Failure on these occasions has nothing to do with losing. You have to score goals, lots of them, because when it comes to the end of the year all that may matter in World Cup Group Two is who were the most merciless.

Managers, especially international ones, hate to talk about targets. Even when the opposition contains only two regular professionals, and one of those plays in a sort of Italian Fiat Conference league, the idea that four or five goals should be the minimum to aim at, and 10 (the number Norway scored against San Marino) should be possible, would cause Graham Taylor to prevaricate madly.

Targets, he would say, cause unnecessary pressure. Guarding against the unthinkable, Taylor, like all other national team managers, keeps telling us that these days there are no easy international matches. So we should not expect a team containing Paul Gascoigne, John Barnes and David Platt (total transfer value around pounds 10m) to do a demolition job. Why not?

Even weight of numbers suggests some disparity: San Marino, 1,033 registered players; England, 2.25 million. Sepp Blatter, the general secretary of Fifa, who admittedly tends to put his foot where his mouth is, thinks teams of San Marino's strength should go through a pre-qualifying World Cup competition for the weaker countries.

So England had better take advantage of a situation that may not exist in future. This is a match with one simple requirement: a lot of goals. But would you put your son's new pounds 27.99 England replica shirt on it? Probably not, because successive managers have cajoled us into the belief that if 11 Wembley security men were told to stop England scoring, it would still be a problem. At times, that was not far off the truth, but an England containing what Taylor calls the most talented two players produced in the country for the past 15 years (Gascoigne and Barnes) should only be denied a big, big win if the security men refuse to open the gates of the stadium.

Never mind the absence of Alan Shearer, there can be no excuse for not taking San Marino for six or more. Chauvinism? Not at all. The England team Taylor hopes to name should contain at least five players who badly need to score the required bagful of goals. Barnes insists that he still wants to be seen as an attacker who scores rather than a provider.

His international future has been saved by his own determined comeback from a dreadful injury and the fact that Taylor is one of his loyal fans (rightly). Barnes came in for some criticism for his performance against Chelsea in midweek, but that was churlish nonsense. There was not another player on the field who could hold a candle to his skill and originality. He missed a couple of opportunities while the rest simply failed to see or create any of comparable quality.

Gascoigne and his Lazio manager, also the club president, not to speak of his agent/minder, have all insisted that there is no question of his leaving Italy. So something must be amiss. A few showy goals on television at Wembley would not do him any harm. Similarly, David Platt has struggled all through this season and after his injury needs to put on an exhibition of his true worth. With Alan Smith unavailable, Les Ferdinand will be left to take on the same sort of responsibilities. Taylor likes to see Smith holding the line and this is a task Ferdinand, on his club form this season, is capable of.

And it goes without saying that Wright himself cannot remain a credible international striker if he continues to make holes in the wall around the target. Provided he can overcome the injury suffered in the final moments of Arsenal's match yesterday - and the Arsenal manager, George Graham, said last night that Wright was desperate to play for England - the San Marino game offers him a chance to fill the abyss that Gary Lineker has left behind. At the same time it would be reassuring to see him control the ball more cleanly when it first arrives and subdue his pompous celebrations until he scores against a proper international defence.

So what can we expect from San Marino? Going down by 10 in Norway must have been embarrassing even to a team always destined to be bottom of the group. Only St Vincent (11-0 against Mexico) have had a worse defeat in the qualifying competitions so far. Their ambition at Wembley will be to achieve a measure of respectability in the scoreline. The situation is one England have faced many times before and rarely enjoyed. This time, though, they have a player whose greatest delight is to poke fun. What Gascoigne did to Turkey he should be able to do with impunity against San Marino.

The Gascoigne-Barnes partnership ought to be good for both of them and offer England the opportunity to get the quantity of goals they need, though whether Barnes can be seen as a longer-term member of the side has yet to be decided. Age (29) is against him. What Taylor needs to know is whether Barnes has it in him to take a Gascoigne role and dominate a match. Only another game without Gascoigne will answer that and, for all his skill, Barnes has rarely shown that he can be commanding on the international field.

Taylor's priority is to form some continuity after the successful performance against Turkey. That victory was a welcome turn of events after the disappointments of the European Championship finals but it contained the warning that England's form is now dependent on Gascoigne. Although now as fit as he has ever been, Gascoigne has not had all that many outstanding performances against the tight marking of Italian defences, leaving a troublesome doubt that will remain no matter how many goals are scored against inferior opponents.