Football: Vieri seals Welsh fate

Wales 0 Italy 2 Fuser 20, Vieri 77 Attendance: 23,160
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The Independent Online
WALES HUFFED and puffed, and Anfield roared. But when it came to the kill on Merseyside last night there was no slaying by the underdog dragons. Instead, Bobby Gould's boyos were cut down by an Italian team sharpened by a new man at the hilt and by the painful memory of its last battle on a foreign field.

Wales were left licking the wound of a Euro 2000 qualifying group match defeat that was partly self-inflicted. Some slapstick defending by Chris Coleman - Keystone fashion, in front of the Kop - gave Dino Zoff's Azzurri a 19th-minute lead, courtesy of Diego Fuser. The outcome was settled, 13 minutes from time, when Roberto Baggio, on the field for just two minutes as a substitute, slid the ball through for Christian Vieri to score a second goal for Italy. Having succeeded in borrowing Liverpool's ground, it was a pity that the Welsh FA could not borrow Liverpool's team as well - or even just the boy who forged his reputation as Owen the goal in his schooldays on Deeside.

It was at Anfield, of course, that Italy's last challenge for the European championship effectively came to grief. The 2-1 defeat inflicted by the Czech Republic in Euro 96 signalled the beginning of the end, too, for Arrigo Sacchi. Two years, three months and two coaches later, the Azzurri returned to Liverpool in the hands of Zoff. Whether they are a safe pair of hands, however, remains to be seen. Zoff arrived on Merseyside disavowing the catenaccio caution that ultimately brought the sack for Sacchi's successor, Cesare Maldini. He also ditched six of the men who fought in Maldini's last stand, Italy's World Cup quarter-final defeat on penalties against France in Saint Denis. Mark Juliano and Eusebio di Francesco were called up for national service for the first time but Alessandro del Piero survived the cut.

The start of the Serie A season still being a week away, catching the Italians cold always seemed likely to be Wales's best chance of an upset, though their cause was hardly helped by the Savage goings on within their camp before kick-off. Robbie Savage had been sent home by Gould at breakfast time for what the Wales coach described as "disrespectful behaviour" - disdainfully tossing aside Paolo Maldini's shirt in a televised interview - and then recalled in early afternoon. The Leicester midfielder was on bench duty, wearing the red No 17 shirt, when his more respectful colleagues squandered their early chance to besmirch Italy's reputation.

Darren Barnard's left-wing cross found Nathan Blake unmarked on the edge of the Italian six-yard box in the 10th minute. The Bolton Wanderer's diving header did not lack power but failed to find the direction it needed to beat Angelo Peruzzi. Thereafter, for all the central midfield toil of Gary Speed, Mark Hughes and Andy Johnson, Wales were forced on to the back foot. They very nearly toppled after 17 minutes, when Del Piero fired narrowly wide. Then, two minutes later, the Welsh defence slipped up big time.

Controlling a lofted ball from Panucci on the left edge of the Welsh six-yard area, Coleman attempted to pass wide to Barnard. The Fulham defender merely succeeded in finding Fuser, who curled a low right-foot shot around Paul Jones and into the on-loan home goal. It could have been worse for Wales, as Dino Baggio sent a right-foot drive rasping past Jones's left- hand post. To their credit, though, Gould's men regained their composure as half-time beckoned. They could hardly have come closer to regaining parity, either, Ryan Giggs crashing a long-range free-kick off the top of Peruzzi's crossbar.

The respite for the Welsh defence was merely temporary, however. Twice in the opening 10 minutes of the second-half the Italians seriously threatened to extend their lead. A second goal for Italy seemed an inevitability and it duly arrived, in the 77th minute, in the wake of Roberto Baggio's introduction. Savage made a late appearance too, but not in time to save his manager from a savaging. "We want Bobby out," was the Welsh wail at the end.