Football: England's chance to experiment

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The Independent Online
Domestic football may be a marathon but the international game is a series of sprints. Its players, like racehorses and athletes, have to be coached to a series of peaks rather than cajoled into a steady consistency Having scaled one peak in Poland, England are now looking towards the ultimate one, next summer's World Cup in France.

It is with that in mind that Glenn Hoddle will approach tonight's international with Italy. The friendly, part of Le Tournoi de France, is a means to an end, not an end in itself. While winning is obviously desirable, for once it is not the only thing. England may be visiting Rome in October but, barring serious injury or a thrashing for one side or other, tonight's match is more relevant to next summer than that qualifying tie.

That reality was recognised by Paul Ince, a possible captain tonight, and as competitive a player as anyone. "We obviously want to win, but the win in Poland has changed everything," he said. "If we get beat experimenting, it does not really matter. Before Poland we felt that the nation was divided. Some people did not believe we could go there, win, and go on to do well in the World Cup, others did. Now we think people believe in us."

It was not, he admitted, just the public who had doubted. "We have young players and they read things and they are bound to doubt themselves. Now they believe as well."

Ince, being based in Italy, has a particular incentive to do well tonight. "They would have been gutted at our result in Poland," he said with glee. "They would have thought 'we got a draw there so there is no way England can win 2-0, they will probably lose'. I just wish I'd been there to enjoy it. After we lost at Wembley, they were full of it for weeks. Now they will be under pressure in Rome and they don't like that."

Hoddle's experiments may include playing David Beckham in central midfield, partly because, with Jamie Redknapp and Nicky Butt out of the squad and Paul Gascoigne (thigh) and Robert Lee (toe) struggling with injury, he has few options. He will have to adapt the counter-attacking style which has been so successful in away games as Italy are also away and thus under no onus to push forward.

"This is about finding things out" Hoddle said. "Tournament football is another aspect of the game. A coach can adjust his team but the players must be happy with it. I can find out what works and what needs working on." He may not want to risk Teddy Sheringham and Alan Shearer, both so vital to England, against Italian defenders. With Andy Cole suffering from a dead leg, that could mean a front pairing of Ian Wright and Paul Scholes, who combined well against South Africa.

The tournament is a good test for the 39-year-old Hoddle, who is matched against coaches of far greater experience and age. Mario Zagallo and Cesare Maldini are 65, Aime Jaquet is 55. Hoddle, who has visibily grown in authority and confidence since the weekend, did not seem perturbed. "You can't judge experience by grey hairs," he said. "What matters is what you have experienced in football. I'll enjoy pitting my wits against them."

Zagallo has coached Brazil to one World Cup and assisted in a second; Maldini was part of the coaching staff when Italy won the World Cup; Jacquet steered France to the semi-finals of Euro 96. Formidable pedigrees but, as Hoddle also noted, his youth gives him the advantage of being closer to players and their mentality.

While Hoddle is seeking to experiment, Maldini, according to the Italian media, intends to play the same team which defeated England at Wembley in February, with the possible exception of Paolo Maldini, who has a thigh injury.

Having said that winning is not vital, and noted that Rome will be very different, Hoddle then admitted: "Winning does breed confidence." As England have not beaten Italy in five games and 21 years, victory, indeed, would be a bonus.

ENGLAND (possible): Flowers (Blackburn); Scales (Tottenham), Southgate (Aston Villa), Campbell (Tottenham); P Neville (Manchester Utd), Ince (Internazionale), Beckham (Manchester Utd), Batty (Newcastle), Le Saux (Blackburn); Scholes (Manchester Utd), Wright (Arsenal).

ITALY (possible): Peruzzi (Juventus); Ferrara (Juventus), Costacurta (Milan), Cannavaro (Parma); Di Livio (Juventus), Di Matteo (Chelsea), Albertini (Milan), D Baggio (Parma), Maldini (Milan) or Bennarivo (Parma); Zola (Chelsea), Casiraghi (Lazio).

Referee: M Koho (Finland).

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