Football: Stand-ins stand out for England

England 2 Czech Republic 0
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The Independent Online
ENGLAND'S SUPPORTERS passed their own comment on Glenn Hoddle's England last night as they stayed away from Wembley in their thousands to record the lowest home crowd of the national coach's 28-match reign. The 35,535 who did keep the faith on a chilly night were rewarded with short queues, two goals and an entertaining match. The goals, well taken by Darren Anderton after 22 minutes and Paul Merson after 39, gave England the confidence to produce their best performance since the heady days of the World Cup summer.

While it did not bring them any European Championship points it should provide a valuable lift before the resumption of the qualifying programme in March. However, their rediscovered but fragile self- belief will also have to survive the February visit of France, the world champions, if this victory is to have any lasting value.

For two substitutes the night was especially significant. Robbie Fowler made his first international appearance since suffering a serious leg injury almost a year ago and Lee Hendrie made his debut. The Aston Villa midfielder became Hoddle's 10th new cap and the first since February. He might even have added the gloss of a goal with a late effort.

There was a sense of what might have been about the night. Two years ago everybody wanted to see England play the Czechs, for they were the prospective final opponents when England met Germany in that fateful Euro 96 semi-final.

The Czechs, though they subsequently failed to qualify for the World Cup, retain much of the same team, only the back three being newcomers to English audiences. However, with only Patrik Berger and, briefly, Karel Poborsky having played here they still had a low profile.

Yet with players drawn from the leagues of Spain, Italy and Germany they were not to be underrated and their pedigree was quickly evident. Jiri Nemec had already wasted a clear opportunity, gifted to him by Anderton's miskick, when Radek Bejbl released Vladimir Smicer through the inside- left channel. Pavel Kuka broke off him, losing Rio Ferdinand in the process and, after Smicer picked him out, the Nuremburg striker drifted a delicate chip over Nigel Martyn and on to the crossbar.

It was a warning to England of the perils of their halfway-house defending. Though nominally England's sweeper, Ferdinand was often to be found marking and the team defending square rather than deep. On the plus side he had already made a classic sweeper's contribution in attack, striding past a series of challenges in the sixth minute to the edge of the Czech box. Having drawn three defenders, he fed Merson only for the Villa player to put his cross behind the goal.

Dion Dublin had previously put a fierce volley over and as the Czechs' early enthusiasm evaporated, England began to dominate. The Manchester United pair of David Beckham and Nicky Butt, starting together for the first time in the England midfield, were prominent and it was Beckham who began the move that led to England's first goal.

He found Ian Wright on the left and after appearing to mis-control the ball, Wright found the space to send in a cross which was deflected into the path of Anderton, arriving late at the far post. The Tottenham player coolly drilled it inside the post for his seventh goal in 26 internationals.

Wright may have had a penalty when he appeared to be pushed as he went to meet Dublin's lay-back after 35 minutes but it mattered not as England increased their lead four minutes later. Wright was again the provider as England took further advantage of Poborsky's poor positional discipline as the Czechs' right wing-back. Fed on the left flank by Merson, Wright had time to pick out Dublin, whose measured flick-on was gleefully thumped in by Merson for his third international goal.

England now rolled forward with a confidence not seen since June and twice in the opening minutes of the second period Petr Kouba was forced into athletic saves to deny Graeme Le Saux, set up by Dublin, and Beckham.

Belatedly Martyn, too, was given a chance to impress, leaping rapidly to save a sharp shot from Vratislav Lokvenc as the Czechs made a brief sally forward. The match quickly swung back to the Czechs' penalty area, with Kouba saving from Wright and Anderton heading just wide.

England's mix of old heads and young bloods remained in command much to the relief of Hoddle, who knew the match was far more important to his team's self-belief than he would admit. That it was achieved without the established spine of David Seaman, Tony Adams, Paul Ince and Alan Shearer made it all the more encouraging even if there are tougher tests to come.

ENGLAND (3-4-1-2): Martyn (Leeds); Keown (Arsenal), Ferdinand (West Ham), Campbell (Tottenham); Anderton (Tottenham), Beckham (Man Utd), Butt (Man Utd), Le Saux (Chelsea); Merson (Aston Villa); Dublin (Aston Villa), Wright (West Ham). Substitutes used: Fowler (Liverpool) for Wright, 70. Hendrie (Aston Villa) for Merson, 77.

CZECH REPUBLIC (3-5-2): Kouba (Victoria Zizkov); Novotny (Sparta Prague), Votava (Sparta Prague), Repka (Fiorentina); Poborsky (Benfica), Bejbl (Atletico Madrid), Nemec (Schalke 04), Berger (Liverpool), Latal (Schalke 04); Kuka (Nuremburg), Smicer (Lens). Substitutes used: Lokvenc (Sparta Prague), Baranek (Sparta Prague), Vonasek (Lokeren), Kotulek (Olomouc) for Latal, Novotny, Nemec, Smicer, all h-t; Sloncik (Banik Ostrava) for Kuka, 74.

Referee: U Meier (Switzerland).

Republic beaten, page 30 Results, page 31