Football: Zola threatens the English renaissance

WORLD CUP: Hoddle refuses to reveal results of fitness tests on Adams and Ince as he prepares for crucial qualifying match
Click to follow
The Independent Online
The extent of English football's renaissance will be tested tonight by an Italian side seeking to embark upon a rebirth of their own.

On a wet and windy Wembley night, far removed from the summer of lions, England will seek to revive the memory of Euro96 and Italy to exorcise it.

There is a sense that Italy, one of the few nations whose football pedigree surpasses England's, are vulnerable. Dispatched in the group stages in the summer, under new management, weak in core positions, they come to Wembley in a state of flux.

However, they also arrive bolstered by the knowledge that Juventus have twice outplayed Manchester United this season, that Gianfranco Zola is running riot in the Premiership, and that England are riven by injuries (although some of Machiavelli's descendants suspect a "smokescreen").

It could also be argued that their Euro96 departure was, at worst, unfortunate. Arrigo Sacchi's foolish team selections were compounded by a referee's cowardice in not dismissing Andreas Kopke in the crucial group game. Like England, Italy drew with Germany.

Sacchi has since gone and his replacement, Cesare Maldini, has had only a one-sided match with Northern Ireland with which to prepare. He is no novice, though. Watching a video of one of the great Italian performances, the 3-2 win over Brazil in the 1982 World Cup, one sees a man in a white jacket leap from the Italian bench to embrace Paolo Rossi at the final whistle. That man was Maldini, a part of the Italian national coaching set-up since before Glenn Hoddle even played international football.

Maldini arrives at Wembley, where he captained Milan to a European Cup win over Benfica 34 years ago, with a strong hand. Fabrizio Ravanelli, Enrico Chiesa and Alessandro Del Piero make a pounds 30m front three which would match most in the world. Yet all could be on the bench. Luca Vialli and Beppe Signori are not even in the squad.

Yet Italy, as Don Howe explains inside, are vulnerable in the key positions of goalkeeper and sweeper. England, depending on who is fit when the smoke finally clears, also have rare riches. Les Ferdinand, Robbie Fowler, Ian Wright and Steve McManaman could be on the bench.

One hopes McManaman plays, ideally in a refurbished Christmas Tree formation. That would have him and Paul Merson roaming behind Alan Shearer, who is fit after his back injury responded to spells in traction. David Beckham and Graeme Le Saux, two ball-playing athletes and excellent crossers, will patrol the flanks. Between them David Batty and Paul Ince would anchor the midfield.

However, Ince looks even less likely to overcome his thigh injury than Tony Adams, the other major doubt, his ankle problem. If both have failed yesterday afternoon's fitness tests - Hoddle was not revealing the results - it will prove he was not laying a false trail, not that vindication will give him any satisfaction. "They are no more than 50-50," Hoddle said.

If Ince is absent, Jamie Redknapp may be a better replacement than Paul Gascoigne. He is fitter, more disciplined and rarely wastes a pass. Gascoigne could still have a part to play. Introduced after an hour, when the game has slowed to his pace, he could be devastating.

The back three are likely to be Sol Campbell, Gareth Southgate and Stuart Pearce, one of whom may track Zola. While this is a departure from standard practice, the alternative is to have three men marking Zola's partner while the little Sardinian floats behind him.

David Seaman is fit to keep goal and his experience could be crucial. "There is not much between the sides," Hoddle said. "Each have individuals who can unlock doors. It will be tight and it might come down to a lack of concentration in defence."

Hoddle added that European football has "respect for English players now". Up to a point. Italian press compliments have been back-handed. "Fistfights, beer, drugs and jail: yes, we're English" ran one headline in the Turin daily La Stampa as it listed the squad's past misdemeanours. Hoddle was praised for turning "a bunch of drunkards, pub brawlers, and drug addicts into one of the best national sides England has ever seen."

McManaman's efforts to change people's perception of him, which he spoke about in The Independent on Monday, appear to have been startlingly successful. La Repubblica described the contrast between him and Gascoigne thus: "On the one hand Gazza, who represents the England of beer, the inner cities, pubs, darts and tits on page three of The Sun, the sort of washed-up character you'd find in a Ken Loach film; on the other Macca, who is all afternoon tea, cashmere, the City and stiff upper lip; he could be played by Hugh Grant in a Merchant-Ivory production."

Hopefully they will thus be celebrating with, respectively, a bottle of Newky Brown, and a cup of Earl Grey tonight.

Hoddle stressed that "a draw would not be a disaster" but it would leave England struggling to earn automatic qualification for France '98.

England have not beaten Italy in four games and 20 years. It will be difficult and tense but they now have the quality and confidence to do so.