Perhaps Glenn Hoddle should have given up gambling for Lent. Not on the horses, on the footballers. Last night he risked England's World Cup hopes on the sloping shoulders of Matt Le Tissier. The gamble failed. Hoddle's faith, in this case, was misplaced.
Le Tissier had chances but missed them. Alongside, Alan Shearer had barely a sniff at goal and Steve McManaman was shepherded into blind alleys. In defence, the other gamble - of entrusting the sweeper's role to Sol Campbell - was also exposed. After 19 minutes, Gianfranco Zola broke free of Campbell and Stuart Pearce and, almost inevitably, scored.
In recent years this has not necessarily meant arriverderci but the Italians are back under the control of one of the ancients, the 64-year-old Cesare Maldini, and they closed the door as effectively as the Internazionale of Helenio Herrera, the godfather of catenaccio.
England had shots (Sky Television came up with an astonishing figure of 18 goal attempts) but most were snatched at from tight angles or blocked. Especially blocked. At times the goal area looked as if it were blue, not green, so numerous were the shirts of the Azzurri. They worked hard, countering at the back, chasing at the front, with Pierluigi Casiraghi running himself into the ground.
England also showed abundant effort but lacked both the Italians' class and fortune. England's bad luck started with the injuries: Tony Adams and Teddy Sheringham were especially missed, maybe Paul Gascoigne could have rolled back the years. Paul Ince's subdued performance suggested a lack of sharpness.
Italy are now overwhelming favourites to qualify automatically for France '98. England must win at home against Georgia and Moldova, and in Poland, then hope for something in Rome in October. A November play-off beckons.
The result capped a disappointing day. The team was leaked, apparently by a squad member disappointed at being left out. Then David Seaman was ruled out. Instead of playing he had a scan on a troublesome knee. It meant Ian Walker, himself possibly carrying a shoulder injury, was handed his first start in an England shirt. Then, late in the game, in front of the dignitaries who had been lunched and lobbied on England's 2006 World Cup bid at Downing Street, an England fan ran on to the pitch as if to mock the pretension.
Hoddle, of course, is more interested in the 1998 World Cup. "It's a set-back, not a disaster," he said. Quite a big set-back: England's first World Cup defeat at Wembley.
The early portents were more favourable: a touch of magic by Le Tissier would have brought a corner had the linesman been more sharp-eyed; a dribble by McManaman carried promise but a weak shot.
On 15 minutes England had their first real chance. Stuart Pearce's cross fell to Le Tissier only for Ciro Ferrara, reacting far more quickly than most Premiership defenders, to block. The ball was whipped to the other end and Zola, getting ahead of Campbell, just failed to make a firm connection.
The warning was not heeded. Now Alessandro Costacurta, on the half-way line, arrowed a long ball forward. Zola, having positioned himself between Pearce and Campbell, drifted behind the Forest player-manager and on to the pass. He shot with his second touch and, helped by a deflection off Campbell's boot, it flashed past Walker.
Wembley lay hushed. England sought a reply but McManaman, though doing well to get a head to Pearce's cross, could find neither power nor direction.
Zola tested Walker with another volley and David Beckham won a corner - safely cleared by Angelo Peruzzi - after a rare escape from Paolo Maldini. England continued to probe and, in the last five minutes of the half, should have levelled.
Peruzzi had already made a good save from a Beckham free-kick when David Batty floated a deep cross towards him. He was tempted towards it but Le Tissier got there first. He headed towards, but just wide of, the unguarded goal. In the Royal Box, Hoddle leapt to his feet, then fell back, the cheer dying on his lips.
The England coach made no alteration at half-time save to move to ground level himself. It may have changed the view but not the picture: England attacking in hope against numbers, Italy moving forward less often but with precision.
One scramble in the Italian area almost brought chances for Le Tissier and Shearer but, as ever, there were plenty of Italians to parry. Then a clutch of quick passes around the England area ended with Dino Baggio laying the ball back to Demetrio Albertini before sprinting forward. Campbell let him go but Pearce was sitting deep. Baggio, onside, chipped over. He later headed wide after Walker had mis-judged a Zola corner.
Finally, after an hour, Hoddle his called his gamble off. Up went the yellow No 10 board, off came Le Tissier and on came Les Ferdinand. It made no difference: two magpies brought no joy. England did up the tempo but optimistic shots by Batty and Graeme Le Saux suggested urgency was overtaking patience to an unhealthy degree. Even so, as the pressure mounted Peruzzi had to save well from Le Saux and Pearce.
With eight minutes left, Paul Merson came on and almost forced an equaliser but his volley was blocked. As Peruzzi denied Ince and Shearer, the crowd drifted away. Uncertain whether to boo the result or cheer the effort, they did neither.
ENGLAND (3-4-2-1): Walker (Tottenham Hotspur); G Neville (Manchester United), Campbell (Tottenham Hotspur), Pearce (Nottingham Forest); Beckham (Manchester United), Ince (Internazionale), Batty (Newcastle United), Le Saux (Blackburn Rovers); McManaman (Liverpool), Le Tissier (Southampton); Shearer (Newcastle). Substitutes: Ferdinand (Newcastle) for Le Tissier, 61; Merson (Arsenal) for McManaman, 76; Wright (Arsenal) for Batty, 87.
ITALY (3-5-1-1): Peruzzi (Juventus); Ferrara (Juventus), Costacurta (Milan), Cannavaro (Parma); Di Livio (Juventus), Di Matteo (Chelsea), Albertini (Milan), Baggio (Parma), Maldini (Milan); Zola (Chelsea); Casiraghi (Lazio). Substitutes: Ravanelli (Middlesbrough) for Casiraghi, 76; Fuser (Lazio) for Zola, 90.
Referee: S Puhl (Hungary).
World Cup Group Two
P W D L F A Pts
England 4 3 0 1 7 2 9
Italy 3 3 0 0 5 1 9
Poland 2 1 0 1 3 3 3
Georgia 2 0 0 2 0 3 0
Moldova 3 0 0 3 2 8 0
RESULTS: 1996: 1 Sept: Moldova 0 England 3 (Barmby 23, Gascoigne 24, Shearer 61). 5 Oct: Moldova 1 (Curteanu 11) Italy 3 (Ravanelli 8, 87, Casiraghi 68). 9 Oct: England 2 (Shearer 24, 37) Poland 1 (Citko 6); Italy 1 (Ravanelli 42) Georgia 0. 9 Nov: Georgia 0 England 2 (Sheringham 15, Ferdinand 37). 10 Nov: Poland 2 (Baluszynski 4, K Warzycha pen 76) Moldova 1 (Clescenco pen 78). Yesterday: England 0 Italy 1 (Zola 18).
FIXTURES: 1997: 29 Mar: Italy v Moldova. 2 Apr: Poland v Italy. 30 Apr: England v Georgia; Italy v Poland. 31 May: Poland v England. 7 June: Georgia v Moldova. 14 June: Poland v Georgia. 10 Sept: England v Moldova; Georgia v Italy. 24 Sept: Moldova v Georgia. 7 Oct: Moldova v Poland. 11 Oct: Italy v England; Georgia v Poland.
Qualification: Group winners qualify for France 98; best second-placed team qualifies; remaining eight second-placed teams take part in play- offs (who plays who decided by a draw), with the winners of each play- off (played on a home and away basis) qualifying.
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