Montella silences out-of-tune England

England 1 Italy 2
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The Independent Online

The lone trumpeter in the main stand was not the only one playing duff notes at Elland Road last night. Few of Sven Goran Eriksson's World Cup aspirants found the right melody either as Italy silenced the Three Lions' roar with a performance of customary poise.

The lone trumpeter in the main stand was not the only one playing duff notes at Elland Road last night. Few of Sven Goran Eriksson's World Cup aspirants found the right melody either as Italy silenced the Three Lions' roar with a performance of customary poise.

Wayne Bridge, whose 86-minute contribution was England's longest, will be happiest with his efforts. The debutant Ledley King and Robbie Fowler, who came off the bench to lead England and score their 62nd-minute goal, will also remember the night with affection. Having made his goal Joe Cole would do too, were if not for his being at fault when Vincenzo Montella equalised four minutes later. With the Roma striker adding a second, from the penalty spot, in injury-time, Italy went on to inflict the second defeat of Eriksson's reign.

Given the experimental nature of Eriksson's team it would be wrong to read too much into this match. Though he had said he would start with his best team rather then pander to local sensibilities he included Danny Mills, of hosts Leeds United, at right-back at the expense of Gary Neville. This reduced the number of players likely to open England's World Cup campaign against Sweden in June to four: David Beckham, Michael Owen, Emile Heskey and either Sol Campbell or Gareth Southgate. By the end of the match, England having made 11 changes, that tally was down to one, Gary Neville.

The Italian XI always looked stronger, despite Christian Vieri failing a fitness test they still fielded six first-choices and were able to bring on players of the class of Montella and Demetrio Albertini.

This disparity was soon evident as England struggled to make inroads into a classically drilled defence. With Beckham drifting inside in search of possession there was little width on the right while Trevor Sinclair's need to move the ball onto his right foot reduced his ability to stretch Italy on the left.

With the central routes also blocked, neither Michael Owen nor Emile Heskey being able to escape their markers, and the midfield squeezed, England too often resorted to the long ball from the back. Alessandro Nesta, who was being watched by Manchester United, dealt easily with these.

England's best first-half opportunities thus came from set-pieces. After six minutes Nicky Butt, who showed as much enterprise as anyone, was brought down on the right flank. Beckham's delivery brought Gianluigi Buffon flapping unconvincingly from his goal but Frank Lampard and Sinclair got in one another's way as they sought to take advantage.

Though Beckham whipped another free-kick over the bar two minutes later it was not until the 25th minute that England pressed again. Heskey, taking possession on the left, was dragged down by Nesta as he cut in. Beckham's free-kick fell to Owen, whose mis-hit shot was diverted by Campbell to bring a sharp save from Buffon.

By then the visitors had stirred. Gianluca Zambrotta, released inside Bridge by a sublime ball from Francesco Totti, forced a corner from which Butt recovered well to block Totti's shot. Butt celebrated with a shimmy on the edge of the box which left two opponents floundering. Risky, and completely out of character, but it was England's only genuine moment of joy in an opening period which the Italians finished the stronger with Nigel Martyn denying Zambrotta and Totti.

The interval brought a swathe of changes with Eriksson bringing on nine substitutes. Only Bridge and Sinclair survived, though the latter moved to the right.

Owen Hargreaves and Danny Murphy were paired in central midfield with Joe Cole on the left. Ledley King became the 12th new cap under Eriksson and his 42nd player in 12 matches.

England Reserves, surprisingly, quickly clicked with Cole prominent. Bridge, attacking the space vacated by Sinclair's switch, linked well with him after 54 minutes to deliver a cross which Italy just cleared. Then King tested Buffon with a strong drive after a Hargreaves free-kick fell to him at the edge of the box.

The greater enterprise and drive shown by this young side paid off after 62 minutes when Cole, pursuing a lost cause, robbed first Nesta, then Mark Iuliano. He then slipped a pass through to Fowler, played onside by Christian Panucci, and the poacher delighted his home crowd with a neat finish.

"Cole for England?" Enter the evidence for the prosecution. Four minutes later he was caught in possession by Zambrotta. Albertini moved the ball to Montella and, as Ugo Ehiogu stood off, the substitute curled a superb shot past David James.

Eriksson's pre-match comment ­ "I'm glad Montella is not playing" ­ soon proved even more prescient. Twice he found space to bring saves from James but still England let him drift. They paid in injury-time when Hargreaves and Phil Neville gave the ball away at a throw-in. Montella released Massimo Maccarone and the striker, who scored for the Under-21s on Tuesday, was brought down in the box by David James as he stepped neatly around him. The penalty was cooly dispatched.

Italian pride, dented in the Champions' League, had been restored. Unbeaten in England since 1977 it was not hard to see why, at 6-1, their World Cup odds are half those quoted against England. Last night proved the bookies' reasoning.

England 1
Fowler 63

Italy 2
Montella 67, pen 90

Half-time: 0-0 Attendance: 36,635

ENGLAND (4-4-2): Martyn (Leeds United); Mills (Leeds United), Campbell (Arsenal), Southgate (Middlesbrough), Bridge (Southampton); Beckham (Manchester United), Lampard (Chelsea), Butt (Manchester United), Sinclair (West Ham); Owen (Liverpool), Heskey (Liverpool). Substitutes: James (West Ham) for Martyn, h-t; P Neville (Manchester Utd) for Mills, h-t; Ehiogu (Middlesbrough) for Southgate, h-t; King (Tottenham) for Campbell, h-t; Murphy (Liverpool) for Beckham, h-t; Cole (West Ham) for Lampard, h-t; Hargreaves (Bayern Munich) for Butt, h-t; Vassell (Aston Villa) for Heskey, h-t; Fowler (Leeds) for Owen, h-t; Sheringham (Tottenham) for Sinclair, 71; G Neville (Manchester United) for Bridge, 86.

ITALY (4-4-1-1): Buffon (Juventus); Cannavaro (Parma), Nesta (Lazio), Materazzi (Internazionale), Panucci (Milan); Zambrotta (Juventus), Di Biagio (Internazionale), Zanetti (Internazionale), Doni (Atalanta); Totti (Roma); Delvecchio (Roma) Substitutes: Montella (Roma) for Totti, h-t; Iuliano (Juventus), for Materazzi, 56; Gattuso (Milan) for Di Biagio, 56; Albertini (Milan) for Zanetti, 56; Coco (Barcelona) for Panucci, 74; Tomassi (Roma) for Doni, 74; Maccarone (Empoli) for Delvecchio, 74; Adani (Fiorentina), for Nesta, 82.

Referee: H Fandel (Germany).

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