Football: England's world of doubts

World Cup countdown: Finishing a worry as Hoddle's hopefuls suffer an afternoon of Arabian frights
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England 0 Saudi Arabia 0

Half-time: 0-0 Attendance: 63,733

IN FOOTBALL it's not how you start but how you finish, and Glenn Hoddle can only hope that England improve on the beginning of his intensive build-up in time for their opening World Cup finals match against Tunisia in Marseilles in 23 days' time. Finishing, in fact, was the main problem.

At first all youthful energy and invention, England eventually petered out yesterday in their last home match before France 98. Wembley sent them on their way with a warm reception but one clearly not as optimistic about their chances as it might have been. And no wonder. They were wasteful in attack and porous in defence, the gap between back and front too wide.

The consolation for Hoddle was that England created some good chances in an open - too open - game that remained defiantly and curiously goalless. The drawback was that they also conceded some better ones to a Saudi Arabian team well coached by the Brazilian World Cup winner Carlos Alberto Parreira.

"I'm disappointed with the result. We had enough chances to bury them," said a clearly unhappy Hoddle. "We can improve, I'm absolutely sure of that. We only played half of the game, the half when we had the ball. As a team we didn't defend well. We had a 'friendly' head on when it should have been more competitive."

Hoddle left Paul Gascoigne on the bench, preferring to give David Beckham the creative role in the centre of midfield that has often seemed to be his international destiny, and sending Darren Anderton out in the right wing-back role with a chance to prove his fitness for inclusion in the final 22.

Initially they linked well, with Paul Scholes also a vibrant force alongside in midfield and Teddy Sheringham forming a potent Manchester United triumvirate. At one point it occurred that we might be witnessing the end of Gascoigne's tenure in the team, with his presence on the substitutes' bench and the team moving swiftly and smoothly.

Instead, after the refreshment of a fortnight's rest since the end of the club season had given way to ring-rustiness, Beckham was replaced by Gascoigne and Sheringham by Wright. The pattern was barely interrupted, both players going close, and Gascoigne in particular conceding possession too cheaply.

In the end, it said something that David Batty, who was sometimes caught upfield joining in the party while the defence was left exposed, was made man of the match. England's back-line, in which Gary Neville replaced Sol Campbell, will no doubt welcome the return of the protective Paul Ince.

"He did some good things but he also gave the ball away too much," said Hoddle of Gascoigne's half-hour. "It was 50-50 for him. But he put in a stint and he'll be fitter down the line." Perhaps Hoddle was more pleased with Anderton, who came through comfortably enough after a series of injuries this season, despite the jeering of a section of the crowd.

The Saudis, who will play in France in a group with the hosts, Denmark and South Africa, were hardly top-drawer opposition but had some worryingly clear chances fashioned by Sami Al-Jaber and Sayeed Al-Owairan, scorer of a wonderful solo goal against Belgium in the last World Cup finals and who has since served six months in jail, along with an 18-month ban, for drinking alcohol. It may have been a desert mirage, but Gazza did seem distinctly uneasy in his presence.

It was Sayeed, indeed, who provided the game's first shot on target when David Seaman turned his curling shot over the bar but either side of it, England played some pleasing attacking football with Beckham, Scholes and Sheringham linking well and Anderton also picking up the pace and intentions of the three as the game developed. Andy Hinchcliffe, deputising for the injured Graeme Le Saux, also delivered some piercing crosses so that Alan Shearer had more to feed on in half a game than he had in half a season with Newcastle.

First Beckham and Scholes linked to give Anderton room for a cross which Hinchcliffe headed over the bar, before Beckham drove too high after Scholes had headed down to him. Then Scholes sent in a shot which Mohammed Al-Daye beat out.

The goalkeeper showed himself to deserve his preceding good reputation by then keeping out with his right leg Gareth Southgate's shot after Shearer had crossed from the right, followed by Sheringham's shot with his left foot.

On the break, Al-Jaber turned Southgate neatly before firing in a shot which Seaman pushed out, Sayeed touching the rebound in with his hand and duly being booked. He then turned just wide Hussein Solaimani's low cross from the left.

How the game remained goalless at half-time was a mystery. Shearer had a splendid chance when Beckham crossed from the right and Scholes flicked it on, only for his first touch to let him down and a snatched volley to fly over the bar.

The second half began similarly. Scholes robbed Khamis Al-Owairan and played a one-two with Sheringham before the ball broke to Beckham for a cross which Shearer headed too close to Al-Daye. Alarms continued at the other end too, and Sayeed's backheel sent in Al-Jaber for a shot which was straight at Seaman. Al-Jaber's trickery then beat Tony Adams and Neville and Hinchcliffe had to kick away Sayeed's goalwards shot.

The crowd's demands for Gascoigne were duly answered but reality was always unlikely to match the hope and hype. A couple of shots were not too far wide, as was one by Ian Wright who also headed just over the bar but the rhythm of the game was by now lost in the mess and mass of substitutions. The Saudis might even have sent England to embarrassing defeat but Ibrahim Sweid Al-Shahrani shot wide.

Hoddle insisted: "We have defended well in World Cup qualifying games and will do again once we get to the finals." After two games in Casablanca this week, against Morocco and Belgium, he and we will know more about whether the end is going to be better than this beginning.

Norman Fox, page 27