Football: Pointers in Palermo of no value

Italians illustrate international football is a different game, says Ken Jones
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After Glenn Hoddle watched Italy play Northern Ireland in a friendly match two weeks ago, it was reported in some quarters that he had spotted weaknesses in their system.

England's coach did not enter into specifics, but apparently he saw one or two things that encouraged him. The truth, of course, is that no team in history, not the great Brazilian lineup of 1970, nor Real Madrid when they were rampant in Europe, has been perfect.

The trick is to get your own house in order when it comes to selection and strategy. Injuries made Hoddle's task difficult; no Tony Adams, no Teddy Sheringham, no Paul Gascoigne and then the late blow of losing his goalkeeper, David Seaman, who has become something of a talisman following his efforts in Euro 96.

Maybe Hoddle came across something in Palermo that persuaded him to take a chance on Matthew Le Tissier, whose performances for Southampton range between sensation and nonexistent. Who knows what is going on in Hoddle's mind but, when the team was announced shortly before the kick-off, Le Tissier was in and inevitably the subject of much speculation. Would he light up Wembley, or go walkabout?

It was felt that a rare opportunity in an England shirt might encourage Le Tissier to rise to the occasion, as Alan Hudson did when called upon against West Germany at Wembley many years ago.

A couple of excellent passes early in the match suggested that this might be the outcome but, apart from a header that went just wide, very little else came from him. The gamble did not come and 15 minutes after half- time Le Tissier trotted off to be replaced by Les Ferdinand. This gave England a more conventional look - two strikers operating in tandem rather than Shearer up on his own.

By then it was beginning to look as though England would not have anything to show for their efforts. The policy, understandable in the circumstances, had become a familiar one - get out wide and put in as many crosses as possible. In this respect, and on the basis of their commitment in the second half, England could not be faulted. But, when it came to technical accomplishment, they were inferior to the opposition.

A problem for England managers, and therefore the teams they select, is that a great deal of quite ludicrous expectation builds up around them. This has been especially so since proceedings last summer when England reached the semi-finals of Euro 96 without playing as well as some people, many in fact, seem to have imagined.

The truth is that football at this level is different to playing in the Premier League. Alan Shearer is a constant threat to Premier League defences and scores consistently. Last night, policed by Fabio Cannavaro, he was ineffective, failing to get in one clear shot or header.

Something similar could be said about Steve McManaman, whose dribbling got him nowhere against defenders adept at closing down and timing their tackles properly. When McManaman stepped into Italy's 18-yard box with the ball at his feet in the first half, the move had penalty written all over it and would probably had led to one in domestic competition. However, the Italian defenders stayed on their feet and snuffed out the danger.

Unfortunately for England, it was a step back in time rather than a step forward.