Chris NeeComment

THE INPENETRABLE LIONS OF ROME

Chris NeeComment
THE INPENETRABLE LIONS OF ROME
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Some football moments zip by in a flash and others seem to make time stand still. When Glenn Hoddle's England played Italy in Rome in their final World Cup 1998 qualifier they provided both in quick succession right at the bitter end.

Needing only a draw to qualify, David Seaman got England moving after gathering Christian Vieri's attempted bicycle kick and his Arsenal team-mate Ian Wright skipped past Italian goalkeeper Angelo Peruzzi to bear down on an empty net. It was too acute an angle for Wright and his shot struck the post despite a nation willing it into the net.

Teddy Sheringham couldn't find a finish in the aftermath and Italy played a long pass of their own. Alessandro del Piero clipped in a precise cross for Vieri, who may as well have not moved from the spot from which his original effort had taken place.

With time running out it all came down to Vieri against Seaman. The Italian met the cross full and true as we watched, almost able to track the spin of the ball in agonising slow-motion as it arced towards the corner of Seaman's net. We waited, and waited, and waited. But the bulge in the net never came. Vieri had headed wide; England were through.

Hoddle first took to his desk at Lancaster Gate with England on the crest of a wave after Euro '96, and throughout qualifying for France '98 Wembley was the place to be. It was a vibrant and exciting venue, packed with enthusiastic and noisy school groups and hardened England fans alike, all watching arguably England's best team of the last 20 years.

But it was the dual with Italy that really etched the 1997 England team into the history books. After Gianfranco Zola's goal had beaten them at Wembley, Ian Wright and Paul Scholes scored the first two goals conceded by Italy under Cesare Maldini at Le Tournoi.

By kick-off time in Rome in October it was hoped that England wouldn't require another. The remaining results left Hoddle's team in the driving seat but there was still plenty of room for traditional English pessimism, for the job was not quite finished. Italy had kept Alan Shearer at bay at Wembley and had frightening firepower of their own.

Italy's line-up on October 11th 1997 was fearsome and England needed to thwart them in order to guarantee their place in the World Cup the following summer. Without the injured Shearer, Hoddle played Wright up front with Sheringham. David Beckham and Paul Gascoigne were anchored in midfield by Paul Ince and David Batty, both of whom were pivotal in Hoddle's game plan.

In the build-up, the former Chelsea boss (helped with translation on this trip by current England manager Roy Hodgson) had talked to his players about deploying an Italian game against the Italians, aiming to frustrate the post-Catenaccio Azzurri with a strategy based primarily on maintaining possession and limiting the opposition's chances. England's performance was disciplined and Hoddle's approach was executed almost to perfection.

The first half was as composed a 45-minute spell as one could hope to see from England. Italy's opportunities were kept to an absolute minimum, with Batty and Ince - who famously finished the match in a head bandage - wonderfully marshalling Italy's midfield playmakers while Gareth Southgate, Tony Adams, Sol Campbell and Graeme Le Saux happily tidied up any loose ends behind them. Seaman had little to do.

In fact it was Peruzzi who had to be on his guard when Beckham's diagonal pass to the edge of the area allowed Sheringham to tower above Angelo Di Livio and set up Ince, who arrived at the perfect moment but could only direct his volley straight at the Juventus goalkeeper. Beckham himself soon came close to opening the scoring, sweeping the ball over from 18 yards after playing a delightful lengthened one-two with Sheringham.

The second half was a scruffier affair but England kept their heads. Hearts were in English mouths with 17 minutes left on the clock when substitute Alessandro del Piero, replacing Zola in his last Italy match, appeared to be upended by Adams just inside Seaman's penalty area. Referee Mario van der Ende was prompted into action not to point to the penalty spot, but to caution the legendary Bianconeri forward for diving. It was a marginal decision and England had escaped a nervous moment that could easily have gone the other way.

Del Piero was in the thick of the action again three minutes later. Producing his trademark trickery on the left wing, he foxed Campbell more than once before the England defender was able to stand his ground while the Italian over-elaborated and surrendered possession.

Campbell didn't have the ball for long, however. As he scoped out his options, Di Livio came flying in to plant a vicious and unnecessary lunge on the Spurs man. Van der Ende didn't hesitate, raising the yellow card to Di Livio for the second time and reducing the home side to ten men. They continued to press regardless, and England remained equal to the challenge.

The match careered towards its dramatic conclusion, which began and ended at England's goal-line but left it mercifully unbreached. England were through and the Lions of Rome returned home as heroes.

It's difficult for a goalless draw to echo down the ages but this one came close thanks to England's unravelling in the decade that followed. Southgate and Sheringham, called in for a drugs test after the final whistle, were reportedly frustrated in their patient wait for beer by a prowling former Rome resident by the name of Paul Gascoigne, who knew the Olimpico medical room had a rare supply.

David Baddiel and Frank Skinner reprised 'Three Lions' with the Lightning Seeds, Rome its renewed focal point. And as Hoddle, his staff and his substitutes poured off the bench onto the field to join the players' celebrations, there was a real sense that this was England's moment. They'd limited Italy on their own pitch in spite of enormous pressure and world class opposition, and there was no suggestion whatsoever that they hadn't deserved it.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing. It can turn World Cup Italia '90 heartbreak into an historical zenith, a sacred memory one can only dream of matching, and for all the talk of a supposed Golden Generation of English players that began to make their mark after France '98, the team that secured England's qualification in superb style was a far more capable, much more effective outfit.

Chris Nee is an IBWM content editor and the author of The Stiles Council, a website about the England national team.

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