Football: Home comfort for Hoddle

Ian Ridley hears the England manager warn about the fear factor
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If Alan Shearer is to be believed, tradition and reputations will mean nothing on Wednesday night; it is about the present not the past. England must be hoping that this is true of Italy but not of themselves.

The Italians come to Wembley for the crucial World Cup qualifying match soothed by their record against England in the modern era, having won four of the last six encounters, going back 21 years, and drawn another. England's only victory (2-0, courtesy of Keegan and Brooking) came from an academic exercise in 1977 when Italy had all but qualified for the succeeding year's tournament.

We are led to believe that this is a team desperately seeking to avoid decline after a poor Euro 96 where elimination led to the fall of Arrigo Sacchi as coach and the appointment of Cesare Maldini. England are in the ascendancy by contrast, having reached the semi-finals last summer and begun under Glenn Hoddle with three victories.

In reality, the two teams' recent records are remarkably similar. Both drew with Germany last summer, the Italians without the considerable advantage of a passionate home stadium. Both have three wins from three matches this season. In transition they may be, from Sacchi's 4-4-2 to Maldini's 3-5-2, and perhaps less fearsome than in the 1970s and 1980s, but any team that does not respect the Italians will end up sleeping with the fishes.

"There's not a lot between the two sides," is Hoddle's assessment. "They are an excellent side and we believe we can be an excellent side. If we make the players perform as well as they can within the team framework, then we will win. It's who is going to play in a relaxed manner with the right frame of mind."

Enter the Wembley effect. England have prospered greatly from it in recent years, sometimes being lifted to draws they may not have deserved. A vibrant capacity crowd can again be expected to do their bit, though the pragmatist Hoddle is wary. "We have to be excited but not too tense," he says. "We need steel and a positive frame of mind without going over that line where you freeze and there is too much fear. We need to use the support rather than let it overwhelm us. Sometimes the opposition can get too tense." It is hard, though, to see the Italians being overwhelmed; the best players should be inspired in such an environment.

"I think it's going to be a patient game at times, with their philosophy, but I don't think they will be ultra-defensive," Hoddle adds. "They will press and try to score goals. Sometimes it's easier to get three points away from home. But I thought the crowd were patient with England in the summer. I enjoyed being there and seeing that."

Under Hoddle's own astute counter-attacking philosophy, England have found it easier to get three points away from home, struggling against Poland at Wembley. The coach knows such a performance will be punished next time. "The players didn't play to instructions and I sensed we were battling with them right up to kick-off," he says. "It showed if you give them space, any international team will hurt you. It allowed me to say next game 'Hey, you didn't do it the way I wanted it done.' "

Much will depend on the composition of the two teams, a canny game of caginess right up to an hour before kick-off. Maldini is believed to be pondering a change in personnel rather than tactics, with his son Paolo possibly switching positions with Ciro Ferrara and becoming the sweeper. In addition, Christian Panucci could supplant Angelo Di Livio at right wing-back, who in turn could move infield to replace either Roberto Di Matteo or Dino Baggio, while up front, it is a question of pairing either Pierluigi Casiraghi or Fabrizio Ravanelli with Gianfranco Zola or Alessandro Del Piero.

Monday and Tuesday will be busy days for Hoddle as he surveys his walking wounded and ponders how best to combat the threat of a withdrawn striker, probably Zola over Del Piero, and, at the other end, cause maximum discomfort to the Italians' back three. David Seaman (knee injury), Tony Adams (ankle) and Alan Shearer (back) all seem certain to be fit; Paul Gascoigne (ankle) certain to be unfit. That leaves Paul Ince (thigh) as the main doubt.

Hoddle's selection should be a positive one, though, with the reward of three points a huge incentive, even if all is not lost with a draw or even defeat. England will clearly not wish to go to Rome in October needing a victory to secure the one sure qualifying place.

Steve McManaman, the wild card that concerns the Italians, will surely start, the main question being whether to partner Shearer with Les Ferdinand or employ the in-form Paul Merson more subtly. Whatever the systems and their components, it should still be a memorable night. You can't ignore them; tradition and reputations do count for something.

England (possible): Seaman; Southgate, Adams, Pearce; Beckham, Batty, Ince, Le Saux; Merson, McManaman; Shearer.

Italy (possible): Peruzzi; Costacurta, Maldini, Ferrara; Panucci, Albertini, Di Matteo, D. Baggio, Carboni; Casiraghi, Zola.