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Football: Ince handed three-match England ban

IT HAS long been customary before England games for the coach to be mugged into posing with an appropriate prop. Thus Glenn Hoddle has been snapped with a Mini, for the Italian job in Rome, a sombrero, for Mexico, and a pizza, for Italy at home.

Hoddle, understandably, has been trying to get away from this stereotype which is something of a relief because this afternoon's match against Bulgaria was testing everyone's imagination. With a cheap bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon ruled out ("no alcohol - unless they're sponsors"), a shot with Uncle Bulgaria, the patriarch of the Wombles, was emerging as favourite.

Needless to say it never happened but, should England lose at Wembley today, Hoddle might be looking for a bolthole on Wimbledon Common himself, though not one lined with old newspapers. As yesterday's computer-generated Sun back page picture of Hoddle in a strait-jacket suggested, the knives are out. A fourth defeat in five matches could lead to them being plunged in beyond even Eileen Drewery's reach.

With only two European Championship qualifiers played it would be premature to write England off if they lost but it would leave them with an immense struggle to qualify for the 2000 finals in Belgium and the Netherlands.

Their chances will not be helped by yesterday's decision by Uefa to ban Paul Ince from the March match against Poland as well as Wednesday's game in Luxembourg on top of the automatic suspension from today's game following his dismissal in Sweden.

Victory, by contrast, would reinvigorate an England side who could then be top of group five by Wednesday night. That is the importance of today's match, Hoddle's 26th and, yet again, another to be played with a reshuffled side.

As well as the suspensions to David Beckham and Paul Ince, Hoddle appears to have lost Tony Adams from his ideal side. Though Darren Anderton passed yesterday's fitness test on his thigh injury and is expected to play, Adams failed one on his back and ankle problem.

This is not the problem it might once have been as Gary Neville, Gareth Southgate and Sol Campbell have all been in excellent form and, given Adams' injury problems, may soon be the first-choice defensive trio anyway. It also gives Southgate the chance to fill his preferred central role.

"I'm comfortable playing in any of the three positions but centre is probably my strongest," said Southgate.

Anderton's recovery means Hoddle will not have to take a risk on David Batty's match-fitness and can instead play Rob Lee in Ince's holding role. Jamie Redknapp, Paul Scholes and Graeme Le Saux should make up the midfield quintet.

In attack Michael Owen will partner Alan Shearer with Teddy Sheringham, Ian Wright, Paul Merson and Dion Dublin providing contrasting alternatives should they fail to break Bulgaria down.

"Bulgaria's defeat to Poland was not a true reflection of their ability," cautioned Hoddle. "They were experimenting then, this time I expect them to be more like they were in the World Cup, an experienced team with talented, technical players. If you give them time and space they can cause you problems but you can dominate them. One of the ways we can win is by asserting our game on them early on.

"It is not a case of having to win but demanding, of ourselves, that we win. I expect them to defend deep because of Michael Owen's pace and that is something we can exploit, players like Jamie Redknapp are capable of scoring from 20-30 yards if they give him the chance."

So, too, is Hristo Stoichkov and Hoddle will be impressing on his players the need to avoid conceding free-kicks around the box. "They will probably be looking for a draw but that may be one area they think they can win it," he added.

That is something Bulgaria have yet to achieve in six meetings during which England have conceded just one goal. The most recent match, in the build-up to Euro 96, was won with a goal from Les Ferdinand but it is an earlier one Hoddle remembers best.

"It was a foggy night in 1979 and I managed to make one and score one on my international debut," he recalled. "It would stick in any player's mind and it'll always a special night for me, one I'll tell my grandchildren about one day."

We will soon know if today's game will be regarded as fondly. Wembley rose to him in 1979, their reaction today is less easy to predict. "I'll find out whether the public are behind me tomorrow," he said. "The main thing is they support the team like they have done in the past."

They should have no reason not to. Against a Bulgarian side in transition even a weakened England team should be good enough to put the Stockholm debacle behind them.



Aston Villa