How Europe looks now


AFTER that recent upsurge of activity, with two very full days of action, the qualifying competition of the European Championship goes into limbo for a while, giving us the chance to reflect on how things are going.

Italian forward Christian Vieri (right) scores his second goal past the Finnish goalkepeer Antti Niemi during their Group 9, Euro 2004 qualifying match at Palermo's Renzo Barbera Stadium. -- Pic. AFP-

In England, all the talk, very properly, has been of Wayne Rooney the 17-year-old wunderkid who turned and virtually won the game for England against Turkey in Sunderland. As I wrote in these pages, the idea — dear to his Everton manager, David Moyes — that he should be wrapped in cotton wool, in no circumstances be allowed to start for England, has been proved fatuous. This is a true phenomenon, a force of nature. The comparisons with Paul Gascoigne are very relevant for Rooney, Liverpool-Irish, from the humblest though most secure of family backgrounds, is gifted with the temperament, the sublime confidence, to go with his talents. The Big Match Temperament in spades.

I don't think England could have won without him. He lifted them, he turned you might say, the Turkish tide, even if the goals arrived after he had left the field to tumultuous applause. But for all the eulogies of the so-called Diamond Formation with Nicky Butt fulfilling the midfield enforcer role of his Manchester United predecessor, Nobby Stiles, Sven Goran Erkisson still hasn't yet got it right.

Short of a left-sided midfielder, why does he so crassly ignore the form of young versatile Gareth Barry of Aston Villa, showing the style, which previously gained him England status? What is the use of deploying Steve Gerrard, that right-footed player, on the left of midfield, even if he be allowed to drift into the centre? From which he famously supplies his Liverpool colleague Michael Owen with the long through balls on which he can thrive. And what of an England defence which, but for a stupendous save from David James, rising to the occasion at last, could so easily have given away a vital Turkish goal, late in the game? A fine through pass and an excelled left wing cross totally opened the English defence to the Nihat header, which could easily have been a goal.

Then there was the horrific violence of England's hooligan fans, who must sure be banned from the return in Istanbul, even if the FA's David Davies is sitting on the splice and saying he won't decide about it till next June. That decision seems inevitable, but what of the shocking violence in and around the Sunderland stadium with 95 arrests, all England fans, and the danger of England being obliged to play their next match, like Slovakia, behind closed doors? Disgraceful mayhem by the English thugs in Zurich on their way to the previous game in Lichtenstein surely dictates that the old ban on England fans abroad must be reinstated as soon as possible. Meanwhile England, despite their stuttering start, could well qualify for the finals in Portugal. And Wales?

I watched their win against Azerbaijan in Cardiff, which became inevitable after the soft goal they scored 13 seconds after the kick off. They have now commendably won all their four games with Mark Hughes their most successful manager since the wonderful old Ted Robbin whose glorious career as Welsh FA Secretary and virtual if unofficial team manager spanned two world wars.

Wales though were lucky indeed that their programmed match away to Serbia the following Wednesday was postponed till August 20, on account of the turbulent political situation there, following the assassination of the President. Had they been obliged to play the fixture, Wales would have been without two of their strongest defenders, the Aston Villa right-back, Mark Delaney and the young Cardiff City centre-back, Daniel Gabbidon whose pace is absolutely vital to a central defence which dangerously lacks it without him. Plus the injuries to two key Welsh players in Cardiff, Robbie Savage, ankle ligaments, whom one saw hobble out of the stadium on a stick, and the versatile left-back and captain, header of a goal, Gary Speed. Lacking those four, I don't think Wales would have found life easy in Serbia.

Meanwhile, they still also have to face away an Italian team, which has steadily been improving, after losing to Wales in Cardiff. They beat Finland in Palermo comfortably enough with a couple of goals from Bobo Vieri, in deadly form at the moment both for Inter and Italy. In Palermo, the much-criticised manager Gianni Trappatoni elected to play Francesco Totti of Roma up front with Vieri and to do without Alex Del Piero although he is fit again. It worked, and when in due course Wales have to come to Italy, it won't be easy.

Against Azerbaijan, beaten 4-0, Hughes brought back Sunderland's Osten, usually a winger, in central midfield, using Simon Davies the Spurs right-winger at right-back where he looked happy enough against feeble opposition. Afterwards he told me he was quite happy there, though I certainly like him best on the right-flank when, with Newcastle's Craig Bellamy — forever in the wars for his excesses off the field — he can exploit his devastating race.

Franz Beckenbauer himself has cuttingly called Germany's runner-up place in the last World Cup "an aberration" and as one who alas had to report their ghastly game in South Korea against a weakened Paraguay. I don't think I would disagree with that: even if they gave Brazil a good run for their money in the final. To be held to a draw by modest Lithuania at home was disastrous, but Scotland, probably somewhat lucky to beat Iceland that day in Glasgow, slipped up on the following Wednesday in Lithuania, when they over cautious tactics of Germany's Berti Vogts, who deployed a spearhead of two strikers who duplicated each other, condemned them to defeat on a dubious penalty. Which, said the Icelanders, made up for the one they should have conceded at Hampden Park.

Germany have been in trouble since the days of Vogts himself as their manager, lamenting as he did the lack of talent coming through, yet if you look at the team so embarrassingly held 1-1 by Lithuania in Nuremberg, you cannot see a great deal potentially wrong with it: even if Michael Ballack, that propulsive force from midfield, was missing. Yet his ex-Leverkusen midfield colleague Bernd Schneider is still there, Ramelow and Hamann are also in midfield. What is wrong?

But strange things are happening. In Group two, Denmark thrashed Romania 5-2 in Bucharest, right-winger Rommedahl on song with two goals; only, astoundingly to do at home four days later to Bosnia. But Envir Boljic can always spring surprise.