Football: Eternal optimists arrive in Eternal City

The England players have arrived in Rome full of confidence for Saturday's crucial World Cup qualifier against Italy. However, Ian Ridley finds some old hands are cautioning against complacency.

England have sometimes arrived in Italy in the past on a wing and a prayer. Last night they landed in Rome with wing-backs and a certainty in their ability to secure at least the draw they need to reach next summer's finals from Saturday's crucial World Cup qualifying match at the Olympic Stadium.

The theme of the week so far seems to have been how confident English players are now, given the showing of Euro '96, the gradual improvement during their Group Two qualifying matches and recent results in European club competition, notably Manchester United's victory over Italian champions Juventus last week. Eternal optimism for the Eternal City.

There does seem a brashness and absence of fear within the England squad, notably among the younger players. David Beckham, one of United's tiros, went even further, believing that expectations of victory are not far- fetched. "We are not scared," he insisted. "At United, Alex Ferguson breeds us to win.

"I think there is a new feeling, not just in the players but through the country with the fans who have been watching us for the past couple of years," he added. And the prospect of playing as right wing-back and confronting Paolo Maldini? "Great player, but I don't fear anyone."

The experienced England watcher always bristles at such hostage to fortune stuff, which recalls the opening titles of Dad's Army and that triangular Union Flag snapping defiantly at the Continent before withdrawing. From the comfort of one's own country, crowing does come easy. Once there, the size of the task suddenly becomes apparent.

It has been left to some of the older heads to counsel against confidence turning to complacency. Paul Ince, veteran of two seasons with Internazionale, has already spoken this week of how dangerous the wounded Italians will be now that they need victory to go through automatically. The England goalkeeping coach, Ray Clemence, believes that silencing the crowd will be the important initial task.

"The Italians will believe they can win this game, but because they are a very proud nation, if it doesn't go right for them, the crowd can turn on the players quite quickly," said Clemence, who returned to Rome to win the European Cup with Liverpool in 1977 having lost 2-0 with England the previous year in an equally epic encounter.

"If you can turn the crowd on their own team, you are heading in the right direction to get a result. The atmosphere will be electric and it will be about players who have played big games for their clubs and know how to handle the situation," Clemence said.

Temperament will thus be important, and Beckham believes his will stand the test, having re-examined himself after his suspension from the summer game against Brazil and having spoken to his club manager after the recent United game against West Ham when, for a while, it was clear that taunts about Beckham's girlfriend, Spice Girl Victoria Adams, had upset him.

"The manager has spoken to me about playing my game and the opponents, not the fans but I don't think there is a problem there really. It's going to be really hyped up on Saturday and hard to control your reaction but it's England here, not a Sunday league team so I have got to control myself," he said.

Hoddle clearly believes he will and believes, indeed, that Beckham and his young United team-mates are more than capable of meeting the challenge. "The United players are certainly in advance of their years as footballers, that's for sure," he said.

He preferred, too, to cast out the past mistakes of England in Italy, or indeed in not qualifying for previous World Cup finals. This year and next will be pivotal years for the English game, the Football Association's new technical director, Howard Wilkinson, said last week and Hoddle agrees.

"This game is all about the future," he said, although he shrugged off questions about it being a turning point in English football's development. That, he said, has been a gradual process. "If we change the structure and concentrate on the youngsters, I can see us getting better tactically and technically," he added.

"The long-ball game had some success because of the rigid 4-4-2 system. That's what was so sad about our football. I always thought that if ever I was a coach I would do it differently. In the last five years since we have changed the shape of the pitch, as I term it, with sometimes three at the back and sometimes one up front, we have been catching up with Italy, Spain and France. It was only mentally that you had to break down barriers with our players.

"We now have the defenders who can play in a back four or a three and strikers who can drop into midfield. We have more agility on our defensive side. Sol Campbell, for example, has got that mobility and I think we will get better once we change the thinking right through from eight to 15-year-olds. We will see in 10 years' time."

There was a conviction to Hoddle's words, which is clearly matched by his players - and it had nothing to do with the Italian photographer seeking compensation from Paul Gascoigne after a court case in Rome and whom England's security presence was seeking to avoid as the squad was last night whisked to its training complex just outside the city, where it will spend the next three days. They had, it seemed, shed the excess baggage of the past.

Ciro Ferrara's condition has improved and the defender is now considered likely to start against England. Ferrara strained a hamstring in a league match with Juventus on Sunday.

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