Football: World Cup - Hagi's class ruled England

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The Independent Online
ENGLAND'S LIMITATIONS were exposed by Romania in Toulouse.

There can be no doubt now that, for all his mind games, Glenn Hoddle is not the tactical genius that he believes himself to be.

Romania will never win the World Cup. Nobody thought they would, not even patriotic Romanians. But England's hope that they would be the champions is an illusion that can now be dispelled.

The Romanians, experienced World Cup warriors, gave England a football lesson. First, the most important thing in football is possession of the ball. Second, passing and movement win you games at this level. So does talent. Tactics matter, psychology is essential to the business.

But the priority that Hoddle has placed on tactics and playing games with the media, worse still with his own players, will be exposed in this tournament.

The most important lesson Hoddle could learn from last night's match is that talent matters above all else.

Gheorghe Hagi is richly gifted. At 33, his legs don't cover the ground the way they used to. But he has that little touch of class that matters in a match.

England set out to bully him, Paul Ince being delegated this task. Three minutes into the match Hagi had a go at Ince. Just to let the Liverpool player know he wasn't going to be intimidated.

ITV's commentators, Brian Moore and Kevin Keegan, soon began to take the piss out of Hagi, whose shots at England's goal flew high and wide in the early stages. The thought occurred that the little Romanian would only need to get lucky once.

England were aggressive, Romania technically accomplished. Translated, that means that England ran a lot while Romania controlled the movement of the play. Hagi continued to spray shots into the stand high above England's goal.

On the half-hour David Beckham replaced the injured Ince in midfield. England at this stage badly needed a touch of creativity. Alan Shearer looked frustrated. His body language was telling. England were fortunate to be level at half-time.

Two minutes into the second half Romania gained the lead they deserved. The circumstances seemed innocuous, a throw-in on the right 20 yards from the byline. Hagi slipped his marker (Graeme Le Saux) and gained a yard, which was enough. A delicate touch lofted the ball over Adams' head to Viorel Moldovan who crashed a volley past Seaman. Wily old Gheorghe has never lost it. One touch of class is worth 10 gallons of sweat. ITV had stopped taking the piss.

Hagi, Adrian Ilie, Moldovan and Dan Petrescu all featured for Romania. However, less familiar names should also figure on the roll of honour. Constantin Galca, Dorinel Munteanu, Gheorghe Popescu and the centre-back Liviu Ciobotariu (who comprehensively won his battle with Shearer) all contributed significantly to a very dominant Romanian performance.

The English fans began to chant for the introduction of Michael Owen, Liverpool's astonishing youngster. At 18, some feel Owen is too young for World Cup football.

Others believe if you're good enough, you're old enough. With 20 minutes left, Hoddle succumbed to the terraces, also perhaps to his own football sense.

Owen was introduced to a huge cheer. As Kevin Keegan commenting on ITV said: "40,000 people can't be wrong!'' That's why Kevin is managing Fulham! He was wrong about the numbers as well; only 20,000 English fans packed the terraces.

Anyway. Kevin and the 40,000 people who couldn't be wrong were proved to be right: with seven minutes left Owen scored a wonderful opportunist goal.

Watching this on ITV was a joy. The English with their backs to the wall are funny.

Brian Moore is funny anyway. Kevin Keegan is a howl. They were up and down all night like a whore's drawers. One minute laughing at Hagi, the next admiring his silken touch. With two minutes left and England pressing forward it seemed that something had been salvaged for Hoddle and his team. And the 40,000 who couldn't be wrong. Then Keegan ruined everything: "Only one team can win now," Kevin suggested. He didn't need to say which team. "I hope I'm not tempting divine providence," the great man added.

Those words were still resonating when divine providence did what many ITV viewers have wanted to do for a very long time: screw Keegan.

After 89 minutes Le Saux made another mistake. Le Saux is good going forward with the ball at his feet. His problem is that yard that matters at this level.

This time he allowed his Chelsea colleague Petrescu to gain the slightest advantage which Petrescu translated into victory. Keegan and Moore were down again.

And England, poor England were, well, not going to win the World Cup anyway, even if Owen popped up again to hit a post with a stinging shot from 20 yards in the last minute.

As for Anderton? He played okay but England should play Beckham out wide and Owen at centre-forward. That's the way ahead.

But don't miss Keegan on ITV if you want to enjoy your football. Talking of a Romanian player who'd changed clubs, he remarked: "He's left Barcelona for 'pastors' new.'' Surely, he meant pastures. Although with Keegan you never know.