October 1997 and England head to the Stadio Olimpico for their final qualifying match for France ’98. England lead the group but just by 1pt from Italy, so a draw is enough to see them qualify. But defeat to Italy, would mean the lottery of the play-offs.
England had embarked on the qualifying campaign with a new manager, Glenn Hoddle. Having suffered the trauma of a penalty shootout defeat in the Semi-Finals of Euro ’96, the FA decided not to offer Terry Venables a new contract. Hoddle took over and immediately put his mark on a new team. The feature of this England was their ability to defend away from home. Hoddle brought in David Batty to play alongside Paul Ince in midfield and the two worked as ‘spoilers’ to stop any attacks, and generally break down the opposition. David Beckham made his debut in the opening qualifying match in Moldova in a team showing 5 changes from the Germany match 3 months earlier.
England had beaten Moldova, Poland and Georgia, but then came unstuck at Wembley when Gianfranco Zola pounced on a mistake by Sol Campbell and he scored the only goal of the game. It was the last goal they conceded in the group. But then Italy had been equally tight at the back. Moldova scored 12 minutes into the first game in October 1996 and then Italy’s defence wasn’t breached again. Italy should’ve been clear after the Wembley win, but draws in Poland and Georgia had handed the initiative back to England.
Between the Wembley game and this, England had beaten Italy in the Tournoi in the summer, so they were upbeat of their chances. History was against them, though. England hadn’t won in Italy since 1961, in fact they’d lost every time they visited the country and hadn’t scored either. But the pressure was on the home side too, the pressure of expectation was huge. Could they risk having to qualify through the play-offs? They had been at every World Cup since 1962 and were beaten in a shootout in the Final in 1994. Not qualifying would be unthinkable.
England were without Alan Shearer, so Hoddle chose Ian Wright. Wright had scored twice against Moldova in their last game, but England weren’t necessarily there for goals, a draw was enough. Gascoigne was back after he missed the Wembley match when Matt Le Tissier provided further evidence of why he didn’t win many caps.
England were there to defend, against the past masters of defence. They passed the ball well too, and something that future England teams didn’t seem to be able to manage, they kept the ball, making their opponents work. Italy were no weak team, including players of the calibre of Nesta, Maldini, Cannavaro, Costacurta, Zola and Filippo Inzaghi. But England’s comfort on the ball gradually produced nerves within the home crowd.
England had their chances too. Paul Ince’s volley from a Teddy Sheringham knock-down brought out a good save from Peruzzi. Soon after, Sheringham was involved again, playing a one-two with Beckham who’s shot just went over the bar. England’s tactics were clear, try and grab an early goal and then defend it. But the first half was goalless and in the second half England were pushed further back as the home side needed to score.
Italy were gradually getting more and more desperate. Del Piero was booked for a dive in the penalty area, and then on 76 minutes Di Livio was booked for a rash challenge on Sol Campbell. Di Livio had already been booked and so he was off. Italy were down to 10-men and you could feel things really weren’t going their way. In the first half, England’s captain Paul Ince, had to go off for a head injury. He came back on all bandaged up, but as the game wore on the bandage became more and more bloodstained, giving the impression of a real battle.
As the game drew towards a conclusion, Vieri tried an acrobatic kick but scuffed his shot to Seaman. The Arsenal keeper then kicked it long downfield where Wright had worked tirelessly on his own all night. Hesitation with the bouncing ball allowed Wright to pounce, and take it past the advancing Peruzzi. The angle was acute but Wright steadied himself and his right foot shot seemed destined for the net, but agonisingly it hit the post and bounced back out 20 yards out and the chance had gone. But straight away, as if goaded into life, the Italians came back at England as Vieri headed just wide from Del Piero’s cross.
That was the last real action of the match and England had pulled off a famous result. They had gone to Italy and beaten them at their own game. They defended better than the Italians, they kept the ball better than them too, and but for a post would’ve won the game. It was a real backs-to-the-wall performance but England certainly hadn’t parked the bus, they were the better side.
England had qualified for World Cup ’98 and would go on to lose in another penalty shootout against Argentina in the Second Round. Italy had to settle for the play-offs and a tricky tie against Russia. They drew 1-1 in Moscow and Casiraghi scored the only goal of the 2nd leg to see Italy earn a place in France. Italy also went out on a shootout, losing to France in the Quarter-Finals.
The game would prove to be the last competitive fixture for Paul Gascoigne.
ENGLAND: Seaman (Arsenal); Campbell (Tottenham), Southgate (Aston Villa), Adams (Arsenal), Le Saux (Chelsea); Beckham (Man Utd), Ince (Liverpool), Batty (Newcastle), Gascoigne (Rangers) [Butt (Man Utd)]; Sheringham (Man Utd), Wright (Arsenal)
ITALY: Peruzzi, Nesta, Cannavaro, Costacurta, Maldini; D. Baggio, Demetrio, Zola, Di Livio; Vieri, F. Inzaghi.