Table Tennis: England's gamble fails

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ENGLAND'S men, widely regarded as their best for 30 years, yesterday failed to achieve what their female counterparts have managed, when they were beaten in the semi-finals of the European Super League by Belgium, the world bronze medallists, at Mansfield yesterday, writes James Leigh.

Tomorrow, the women play in the final of the European League for the first time in the first leg against Germany at Crewe. Yesterday the men faced an uphill task to overturn a 4-2 deficit from their semi-final first leg and were eliminated when Belgium established a 3-1 lead in the second leg.

England gambled on having two of the matches they had to win in the first three in the playing order. Their No 1, Chen Xinhua, came up with the goods with a patient if laboured 20-22, 21-10, 21-17 victory over Philippe Saive, but as soon as Matthew Syed had failed to overcome the Austrian Open champion, Thierry Cabrera, the outcome was almost settled.

Syed has beaten Cabrera before, but this time the notoriously temperamental attacker - who sometimes has a psychologist at the side of the court to help calm him - was full of steadiness and good sense. A mixture of slow and fast top- spins broke down the Oxford University student's defence.

Cabrera's victory put Belgium 2-1 ahead. Earlier, Carl Prean, the English national champion, had lost in straight games to the world No 1, Jean- Michel Saive. The elder Saive and Cabrera then beat Prean and Alan Cooke in the doubles and it was all over. Eventually England recovered to win the second leg 4-3, but Belgium had already reached the final with a superior sets average.