Football: Merson rescues disappointing England

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Switzerland 1 England 1

FOR the second international in succession the World Cup hopefuls sitting at home resting their injured limbs in front of the television will have felt a lot happier about their chances of spending the summer in France than the men who were actually playing.

At least England did not lose to Switzerland last night as they had to Chile last month, but they were fortunate to escape with an undeserved draw after a scrappy and disjointed performance. Behind to a header by Tottenham's Ramon Vega after 38 minutes they were handed a goal when Joel Corminboeuf, the Swiss goalkeeper mis-hit a clearance which struck Sheringham on the heel and rebounded to Alan Shearer. With probably England's only decent pass of the night, he picked out the unmarked Paul Merson, who scored his first England goal for six years.

There was little else to warm the soul on a bitterly cold night. England defended well enough most of the time, but the midfield was unable to hold possession and the often isolated attack was ineffectual. Of the World Cup hopefuls, Merson may have scored but he did little else of note, while Steve McManaman was only fitfully involved and Michael Owen was starved of possession. Rio Ferdinand did impress, but as a conventional defender rather than as a sweeper.

Before the match Glenn Hoddle said the home defeat by Chile was a blessing in disguise as it tempered the rising expectation that England would romp the World Cup. This will further deflate the national mood, but Hoddle was less sanguine this time with his immediate feelings evident from the way he walked out of a snap post-match television interview.

Hoddle had calmed down when he met the written press although, understandably, he was still far from chirpy. "Off the back of our first-half performance we have learned we are capable of turning the game around," Hoddle said. "It was a fair result in the end. We didn't keep the ball well but it shows the character we have got."

One mitigating factor was yet another poor pitch. Like the ageing and dilapidated stadium it was badly in need of renovation. The most alarming aspect was the presence of two sprinkler heads poking out of the turf which England had to get covered with earth before the game but the rest was little better with patchwork repairs making it uneven and bobbly. It was hardly the surface England's passers and ball players would have wanted for their World Cup trial and it continually betrayed their efforts.

Hoddle had sprung a surprise by leaving out David Batty to include both Merson in a floating role, and McManaman wide on the right. It did not work and, after half an hour, McManaman was moved inside and Robert Lee sent to the wing.

By then England, having started brightly with Owen winning a corner after linking with Shearer, were under heavy pressure. Murat Yakin had brought Tim Flowers into action in the eighth minute after beating Ferdinand in the air at a corner. Then David Sesa shot wide from 22 yards.

Switzerland continued to dominate possession with England finding it difficult to string together more than a couple of passes. The through ball to Owen, who was twice wrongly called offside, was their only attacking option and while McManaman's move made them more dangerous with the ball it made them even less capable of winning it.

That, and Switzerland's policy of playing three attackers meant that Ferdinand-as-sweeper experiment was not really working. Although he was doing the bread-and-butter defending well - notably with an excellent tackle on Ciriaco Sforza - he had no opportunity to step forward with the ball.

Seven minutes from half-time Switzerland's dominance brought reward. Stephane Chapuisat crossed from the right and Vega got in front of his north London rival Martin Keown to glance a header inside the far post. It was probably Keown's only blemish.

Hoddle made no major changes in personnel or formation at half-time but England did emerge looking more compact and focused. Owen and Shearer combined well without result in the opening minute of the second period and both Andy Hinchcliffe and McManaman got into crossing positions without troubling the Swiss. The home side were still the more threatening, however, with Keown making a vital interception and both Ince and Southgate making important blocks.

With an hour gone, England had still failed to manage a shot but a minute later Merson whistled a 30-yard drive just over. Five minutes later there was a foretaste of the England goal as Corminboeuf hit a clearance to Owen and, although Yakin stopped his progress, McManaman chipped just over from the loose ball.

Then England scored; Merson's goal was six years to the day after his only other England strike. The Swiss responded well with Chapuisat having to be denied by an excellent Keown tackle and a brave Flowers save. Hoddle, eager to avoid the stigma of overseeing the first successive England defeats for five years, now brought on Batty and gave Merson's role to McManaman. He had one dribble but the game drifted to a draw.

There was one encouraging aspect. Segregation appeared to have broken down all around the ground but there was no trouble with the substantial England support. With both Fifa, the sport's world governing body, and Uefa, its European authority, just around the corner the Football Association will be happy with the evening even if their most noted employee was not.

SWITZERLAND (3-4-3): Corminbouef (Neuchatel Xamax); Vega (Tottenham Hotspur), Yakin (VfB Stuttgart), Henchoz (Blackburn Rovers); Vogel (Grasshopper Zurich), Wicky (Werder Bremen), Sforza (Kaiserslautern), Fournier (Servette Geneva); Sesa (Servette Geneva), Grassi (Cannes), Chapuisat (Borussia Dortmund). Substitutes: Lonfat (Sion) for Wicky, 81; Kunz (Werder Bremen) for Sera, 87.

ENGLAND (3-5-2): Flowers (Blackburn Rovers); Keown (Arsenal), Ferdinand (West Ham United), Southgate (Aston Villa); McManaman (Liverpool), Lee (Newcastle United), Ince (Liverpool), Merson (Middlesbrough), Hinchcliffe (Sheffield Wednesday); Owen (Liverpool), Shearer (Newcastle United). Substitutes: Sheringham (Manchester United) for Owen, 69; Batty (Newcastle) for Merson, 80.

Referee: P Garibian (France).