Italians deliver a bolt from the blue

England can draw comfort from touch of Fowler and tenacity of Cole but Eriksson's experimental side squander chances to shine
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The Independent Football

Joe Cole and Robbie Fowler were the authors of what seemed sure to be the sweetest moment of a night made to see off all but the most dogged insomniacs. But they should have known it is a dangerous thing to flaunt a touch of class in the presence of any Italian team, even one as lightly motivated as that broken open by Cole's control and bite and Fowler's clinical finish.

Cole fashioned the goal, Fowler deliver the coup de grâce, and you had every reason to believe that was that.

But even before the possibilities of such a combo had properly registered with their coach, Sven Goran Eriksson, the Italian riposte had arrived with the passion of a Sicilian thunderbolt. Roma's Vincenzo Montella's beautifully flighted shot left David James rooted to the spot. It was a moment of surreal skill in a game filled with routine trial and error.

For Cole, particularly, it was a little unfortunate that the spell cast of that burst of English creativity was so swiftly broken, and that he made a direct contribution when surrendering the ball to Gianluca Zambrotta. But Eriksson is sure to have filed away the more positive moments. Cole certainly brought a degree of commitment and originality which did more than enliven an exercise which had been consumed by futility. It was an encouragement that might just have softened Montella's second strike of the evening, from the penalty spot.

Not too many other reputations were enhanced when Eriksson rolled some of the last of the selection dice but at least one was confirmed.

It was that of arguably the most rancid section of fans in all of English football. The Italian national anthem was booed, which was commonplace at Wembley before England took to the road, where the habit seemed to have been blown away as if it was some sulphurous cloud. That it should reappear over the ground of Leeds United was perhaps not the greatest surprise. It was here, after all, where the first witty lyrics were composed in commemoration of the Munich air tragedy of bitter rivals Manchester United.

After the controversy of Jonathan Woodgate's exclusion, it was thus some relief that Eriksson was not considered worthy of another burst of workaday bile.

Perhaps he saved himself from such unpleasantness by his choice of Danny Mills at right- back in a team which saw nine changes at half-time. Eriksson had said pointedly that it was not his job to pick lots of Leeds players in order to sweeten local sensibilities, and there was no whiff of appeasement about the choice of the Leeds full-back or, of course, the new entrenched Elland Road favourite Fowler.

Mills produced what Eriksson has come to expect, a rampagingly aggressive style, but not one always supported by the surest of defensive judgement. Whether the Italians might have exploited this was just one of many unanswered questions. Mills was removed at half-time, unlike his full-back partner Wayne Bridge.

The Southampton man demanded a longer look with the authority of his defence and his willingness to go forward with some well-judged adventure. For Eriksson, Bridge might be one of those contenders with the nerve to produce a convincing end run into the serious reckoning. He has the touch of someone comfortable at the higher levels of the game. So, too, does Cole. His wit and his skill showed up here in not the most promising of situations.

In the end, however, you were left with a reminder of the frustration Eriksson so regularly feels when he is obliged to make a team out of fragments of time and contact. Cole may, though, have shown the character and the touch to accelerate the process. Certainly, his nerve and his persistence made Fowler's goal almost a formality. Such a smooth liaison is bound to linger in the coach's mind.