Football: Gascoigne's change of focus sharpens England's sights

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With three days to go to England's final World Cup qualifier in Rome, the spotlight is inevitably being turned on Paul Gascoigne. Will his return to Rome, where he played for Lazio, end in joy or tears?

Problems may await Gascoigne, but Glenn Hoddle, the national coach, believes he is bound for glory. Glenn Moore was at Bisham Abbey to hear him explain why.

According to the Italian press, if Paul Gascoigne returned to play for Lazio tomorrow they would sell 40,000 season tickets overnight. According to some of the English press, it is not only his former fans who are awaiting his return to Rome today - a photographer armed with a writ over an alleged assault and the Italian tax office also have a reputed interest from Gascoigne's Roman period.

Glenn Hoddle whose preparations have already been disrupted by Les Ferdinand's withdrawal with a recurrence of his stomach muscle injury, refused to discuss either matter yesterday, saying: "They are private." It is clear, however, that he is anxious that Gascoigne is not distracted.

In the past, the 30-year-old has had a habit of becoming over-hyped for key matches, notably the 1991 FA Cup Final which ended with him in hospital, and they do not get much bigger than a return to Rome for a World Cup qualifying decider.

As Paul Ince noted: "He missed a lot of games in Italy and he will be anxious to show what he can do." So far, however, Gascoigne has seemed calmer and Hoddle wants to keep it that way.

"I made sure we had a good chat when he arrived on Sunday to talk about the Moldova game. The way he approached that game was different, I'd not seen him prepare like that before. He was more focused, quieter - a lot quieter - and then he performed. He has learned a lot from that.

"Even the reaction after his goal [against Moldova], and the interview he had after was not the normal Gazza. I think it was the Gazza that is needed at this stage of his career and I think that will help in preparing for this game. I don't think he will get too carried away with the hype - he knows if we are going to get a result it will be a team effort."

As if to underline this, Gascoigne was not one of the players whose exuberance led Hoddle to cut short Monday's training session.

"He was playing with his head, not his heart," Hoddle said. "I think he is understanding that has reached a stage where, if he adapts, he can add something to his game.

"He was a great runner with the ball, still is at times, but the balance now involves playing some excellent one and two-touch football. He is doing that more and more in training and it will make him an even better player.

"The injuries have changed him, and he has grown up. People do. The chats we had had over a period of time have sunk in. He was always going to need time, but he is now learning about himself and being a footballer.

"I'm a firm believer that if you look after body and mind, you can play until you are 35 or 36 - if you adjust your game. One point is that this is his longest period of time in many years without a major injury. In the past he nearly always joined England when he was recovering from an injury."

This, of course, presumes that Gascoigne will play in Rome. Given Hoddle's support, it is hard to imagine he will not, although David Beckham or Steve McManaman could be handed the role of midfield creator.

Neither seems likely, although Hoddle did caution "if selected" when asked if he thought Italy would man-mark Gascoigne. He added: "Not if they play the midfield I expect them too, though in a way, I hope they do." Was this mind games for the Italian press corps, or was it based on solid tactics?

Hoddle has the same quandary over Gianfranco Zola as Cesare Maldini, the Italian coach, has over Gascoigne and he said: "To man-mark you have to reshape the team and I don't want to do that, but whether Zola is playing well or below par, you always feel that he can turn a game with a moment of magic. In a game that I don't think will see many chances, he is obviously a major threat.

"But we also have players who can create magic - Gascoigne, Steve McManaman, Paul Scholes, Ian Wright... It is hard to stop because often the player doesn't even know how they do it. It is instinctive, you can't coach it. It is whether you can bring it out of them at the moment it is needed."

Hoddle, who still has 23 fit players, will not replace Ferdinand, who was sent back to Tottenham after a scan revealed further problems with his ongoing stomach injury.

The club will then decide whether he needs another operation or further rest. "It's a blow," said Hoddle but, in truth, it is more of a blow to Gerry Francis, the Tottenham manager. Ferdinand does offer England a different option, but he would only have started on the bench on Saturday. "I'm happy with what I've got," Hoddle said.