With a considerable helping hand from Georgia more than 1, miles away in Tbilisi, England took a substantial step towards the World Cup finals last night.
While the Georgians did more than expected against Italy, England and their fans did what was required. The supporters rose to the special circumstances with impeccable behaviour, while the team ensured there were no hiccups against a limited but determined Moldovan side.
The result in Tbilisi meant England only need a draw in Rome next month to qualify automatically for France. It was greeted by a huge cheer which set the tone of the night. Although the playing of Elton John's "Candle In the Wind" tribute and the minute's silence were accorded due solemnity it was a football night, not a night of mourning. In a small way it was an indication that the country is getting back on its feet.
England sensed the mood and responded with a largely measured performance interpersed with moments of magic and occasional sloppiness. Ian Wright, who seemed to be blinking back tears during the minute's silence, went on to score two well-taken goals to underline his continued potency.
Paul Scholes scored the crucial first to underscore his priceless ability to steal goals. The magic, however, came from Paul Gascoigne, who capped a fine performance with a magnificent individual goal.
The detractors may argue that it was no wonder he looked at home - it was just like playing for Rangers, who thrash moderate opposition every week. That may be true, but you can only beat what is put in front of you and Italy struggled twice to break down the limited but obdurate Moldovans.
Glenn Hoddle, for the first time, began with a back four. David Batty sat in front of them and Scholes played behind Wright and Les Ferdinand, allowing David Beckham and Gascoigne to break from midfield.
It was soon evident that Moldova were poor. A series of heavy tackles, one of which brought Alex Curteanu an early booking, could not compensate for slowness of thought and a lack of organisation. A couple of challenges from Ferdinand and Southgate quickly revealed the goalkeeper, Denis Romanenko, to be no happier in the air than Icarus.
However, they had plenty of bodies back to get in the way and England took a long time to test him. Beckham put a free-kick over, Ferdinand hit the top of the bar with a cross and Wright twice failed to get the telling touch on a couple of half-chances. At the other end Curteanu, Moldova's only football export, threatened to take advantage of a coupe of lapses in concentration with some thoughtful and adventurous passing.
Twenty-nine minutes had gone and a mild sense of unease was creeping in. Then a corner was half-cleared, Beckham whipped the ball back in and up popped Scholes to put a flame-haired head among the flying boots and steer the ball in.
"Are you watching Italy?" was the chant now but, though Southgate and Gascoigne floated headers past the post, England failed to score again before the break. A half-time statistic of two shots on target told the tale.
It did not take long to improve that figure as, two minutes after the break, Gascoigne burst through on the left and picked out Wright in the inside-left channel. The Arsenal forward did not even break stride as he drilled his first goal in 3 days inside the near post.
England, the game won, eased down and Moldova, showing the technical skills typical of the region, briefly enjoyed a period of ascendancy. England, piqued, stirred for a bracing finale.
Stuart Ripley came on for Beckham and made an immediate impact, swinging in a powerful cross to Gascoigne, whose header hit the foot of the post. It came back for Batty, who contrived to shoot over and wide from six yards. However, seven minutes after he came on, the unlucky Ripley was off again, pulling up with a hamstring injury as he went down the right.
With nine minutes left Gascoigne scored his brilliant solo goal. Taking possession just inside the Moldovan half he carried the ball, surrounded by opponents, for 3 yards before playing a sweet one-two with Wright, wrong-footing the goalkeeper and sliding the ball past him. Then Stan Collymore, briefly introduced, fed Wright with an angled through ball and he advanced alone to score.
In between Campbell was booked for a tackle which could cause problems if repeated in Rome. Not that the yellow card could dampen England's spirits.
This was their biggest win in 34 matches, since the dark days in early 1994 when England knew they would not be going to the World Cup finals. There is still a difficult game to go but, this time, they can look towards the quadrennial extravaganza with hope.
ENGLAND (4-3-1-2): Seaman (Arsenal); G Neville (Manchester United), Southgate (Aston Villa), Campbell (Tottenham Hotspur), P Neville (Manchester United); Beckham (Manchester United), Batty (Newcastle United), Gascoigne (Rangers); Scholes (Manchester United); Wright (Arsenal), Ferdinand (Tottenham Hotspur). Substitutes: Ripley (Blackburn Rovers) for Beckham, 68; Butt (Manchester United) for Ripley, 76; Collymore (Aston Villa) for Ferdinand, 82.
MOLDOVA (3-4-1-2): Romanenko; Fistican, Stroenko, Testimitanu; Spinu, Culibaba (all Zimbru Chisinau), Siskin (Constructorul Chisinau), Rebeja (Zimbru Chisinau); Curteanu (Widzew Lodz); Miterev (Zimbru Chisinau), Rogachev (Olimpia Balti). Substitutes: Sukharev (Zimbru Chisinau) for Culibaba, 52; Popovich (Tiligul Tiraspol) for Siskin, 61.
Referee: K-E Nilsson (Sweden).
n England's Under-21 side, who beat Moldova 1- at Wycombe on Tuesday night, have qualified for the quarter-finals of the European Under-21 Championships. A 2- defeat for Italy in Georgia yesterday left England unassailable in Group Two.
Italy frustrated, results, page 25Reuse content