Venables has a glimpse of the real thing

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The Independent Online
reports from Wembley

England 1 Portugal 1

Draws everywhere, Paris, Wembley, Birmingham. So far, they have not been kind to England.

After their daunting World Cup draw yesterday afternoon, and a frustrating footballing one last night, England will hope for better fortune in the European Championship lottery on Sunday.

One thing they will be sure of, they will not wish to encounter Portugal in their group, this is a fast-maturing team brimming with talent. Terry Venables, in his post-match comments, described them as second only to Brazil among the teams England have played under him.

Neither, however, will Portugal hope to be paired with England. The hosts, though not as effervescent as they were against Switzerland last month, again showed they will be hard to beat.

At half-time England looked to have the game won. The Portuguese, having started brightly, had gradually been forced back. When Steve Stone scored after 44 minutes they looked to have lost interest. But, having mentally regrouped at the interval and introduced fresher, keener legs, they gained a deserved equaliser through Paolo Alves after 59 minutes. Even then, had the crossbar not denied England's own fresh legs, the debutant substitute Gareth Southgate, England would have won.

Venables later professed himself pleased with the forward combination of Les Ferdinand and Alan Shearer but it is never wise to pay too much heed to his immediate post-match comments. He is too wise a PR man to criticise his players in public.

The pairing lasted only an hour, the unfortunate Ferdinand suffering yet another groin strain. It had not been a particularly promising hour. Ferdinand was involved in the goal, but that seemed as much by accident as planning, and it did not involve Shearer. As individuals both have plenty to offer, Ferdinand showed a greater aerial threat than Shearer usually does, but as a partnership they appear too alike for international football. In time they may combine better, but time is one commodity Venables does not have.

They were not helped by a return to the midfield diamond. It gave England numbers in the middle but deprived them of width. While Nick Barmby formed the apex of the diamond, Paul Gascoigne was at its base. If Barmby was a bold selection Gascoigne, given his penchant for provoking danger in both penalty areas, was a risky one.

While England eased their way into their new shape, the Portuguese made the early running with Folha chipping wide and Sa Pinto toe-poking a 20- yard shot into David Seaman's arms. With Steve Stone and Dennis Wise tucked in, England, initially, attempted to find Ferdinand and Shearer with early balls rather than get behind the Portuguese. These were easily dealt with and, though the busy Barmby and Stone showed good movement around the box it was more than half an hour before Neno was called into serious action.

Then it was Tony Adams, barnstorming his way through, who threatened. Neno was out bravely to smother but the captain's example had lifted England. Three minutes later Ferdinand, Barmby and Gascoigne combined before Stone crossed from the right. Neno, under pressure from Ferdinand, clattered into his right-back, Secretario, who fell, bloodied, to the turf. He soon returned, swathed in bandages.

England were now looking sharp and Neno had to turn a Barmby cross over then watch, relieved, as a Ferdinand header flashed over his bar. Then, with a minute to go before the break, Stone struck. Barmby laid a throw- in back to Stuart Pearce whose cross was laid off, rather inadvertently, by Ferdinand. Stone, running in, drove it low past Neno from 25 yards.

After Stone's goal Sousa seemed to lose interest and he, like Figo, did not re-emerge after the interval. Their replacements, Jose Dominguez and Paulo Alves, were playing for their places and were thus more enthusiastic. Fourteen minutes into the second period they combined to force the equaliser. Dominguez, the former Birmingham City winger, ran at the defence, Sa Pinto dummied his pass and Alves thumped it past Seaman first time. The movement would have beaten better defences than England.

The goal had been threatening. Though England had had more possession, Folha and Dimas had gone close for the visitors.

Steve Howey and Jorge Costa were booked as both sides looked for a win but, though the quicksilver Dani shot wildly over, and Southgate headed against the bar, neither could claim it. If they are drawn together on Sunday they will start as equals.

ENGLAND (4-3-1-2): Seaman (Arsenal); Neville (Man Utd), Adams (Arsenal), Howey (Newcastle), Pearce (Nottingham Forest); Stone (Nottingham Forest), Gascoigne (Rangers), Wise (Chelsea); Barmby (Middlesbrough); Shearer (Blackburn), Ferdinand (Newcastle). Substitutes: Beardsley (Newcastle) for Ferdinand, 65; Southgate (Aston Villa) for Stone, 80; McManaman (Liverpool) for Barmby, 80; Le Saux (Blackburn ) for Wise, 80.

PORTUGAL (4-1-3-2): Neno (Vitoria Guimares); Secretario (Porto), Fernando Couto (Parma), Jorge Costa (Porto), Dimas (Benfica); Helder (Benfica); Figo (Barcelona), Sousa (Juventus), Folha (Porto); Sa Pinto (Sp Lisbon), Joao Pinto (Benfica). Substitutes: Dominguez (Sp Lisbon) for Sousa, h- t; Alves (Sp Lisbon) for Figo, h-t; Dani (Sp Lisbon) for Joao Pinto, 61; Pedro (Sp Lisbon) for Folha, 68.

Referee: R Pedersen (Norway).

Last night's results, page 25