Football: Italian press impressed by the new England

It was a chastened Italian nation that reflected on Saturday's goalless draw against England. Not only had their football team failed to deliver the win they needed for automatic qualification for the World Cup finals in France, they had failed to provide it against a side that had been considered inferior by one and all.

"Perhaps we underestimated the strength of the England team," was a common remark in the newspapers and among television commentators. There was widespread admiration for the English midfield, in particular, and special respect reserved for the captain on the night: Paul Ince, once of Internazionale.

But - this being a country that loves to indulge in self-criticism - there was a hefty dose of teeth-gnashing, too. The Rome newspaper Il Messaggero lambasted the national team for a disappointing performance. Corriere della Sera - and it was not the only one - accused the coach, Cesare Maldini, of coming up with a "useless strategy".

His biggest sin? Taking Gianfranco Zola out of his usual striker position and asking him to lend support, first from the left and then from the right, to Christian Vieri and Filippo Inzaghi. Zola himself complained that he had been misused in a position he had never played before. The commentators asked themselves if they had seen him at all during the hour- plus that he stayed on the pitch.

Maldini insisted he had nothing to reproach himself for, that everyone had done what they could. Il Messaggero's commentator, Piero Mei, recalled the Italian proverb: "He who makes do with what he's got is a happy man" - and he added: "How untrue can a proverb get?"

But it was Gazzetta dello Sport which led the plaudits: "Italy today are inferior to England, they don't have their sense of security, of their mastery of the game and not even - listen to this - their adaptability.

"The lions who once only knew how to punt the ball forward and run after it, and tackle, cross and get stuck in, are now showing refined ball skills, taking control of the game, winning possession with elegance, and looking for the moment to make a winning strike."

Corriere delle Sport said England were a "real team, one that was better organised than ours and one that came closer to scoring than an Italy side who in 90 minutes used up three generations of strikers."

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