Things gradually come into focus

TWO recent days of intense activity in the European Championship qualifying tournament and things gradually come into focus. Two monumental flops in their respective groups, England and Italy. Having scraped a draw in Naples against the Yugoslavs, giving away a farcical goal and scoring only from a deflected free kick, the Italians proceeded to lose 2-1 to a buoyant and adventurous Wales, a game I was happy to see. Manager Giovanni Trapattoni was for the high jump.

England, who performed wretched against supposedly minor opposition both in Bratislava, where they could so easily have lost and uneasily won against Slovakia, trumped that with a pitiful performance in Southampton against tiny Macedonia who held them to a deeply embarrassing 2-2 draw. There was every good reason to feel that manager Sven Goran Eriksson should have been thanked and paid off then but it didn't happen. But then "Trapp" had survived an abysmal Italian World Cup after which it was expected either that he would fall on his sword or that he would be summarily dismissed.

That he wasn't makes less sense than ever especially if you compare his treatment with that meted out to his 1998 World Cup predecessor, Cesare Maldini. Cesare may have made mistakes in France, notably his bizarre penchant for using the clearly out of form Alex del Piero instead of the sparkling Roberto Baggio. He and Italy had the luck of the devil in their opening game against Chile. But for all that, he did get them as far as the quarter-final in Paris against France, when they went out only after extra time, on penalties. Unbeaten. If Cesare went how on earth could Trap, whose team had lost wretchedly to Croatia and South Korea, whatever the refereeing decisions, be retained? Not least when it was perfectly clear from public statements by Francesco Totti, 'keeper Toldo and Del Piero that the players had lost confidence in him and what they considered his defensive methods.

So, this season Italy slumped to an abysmal 1-0 friendly game defeat by Slovenia in Trieste - the team which France thrashed 5-0 so casually in Paris recently - were fortunate to win 2-0 in Baku versus Azerbaijan with the help of an own goal, drew with Yugoslavia, then lost in Wales. They looked a demoralised team in Cardiff, unable to cope with the power and authority of big John Hartson, the resilient Welsh spearhead or the electric pace of the two Welsh goalscorers, Simon Davies and Craig Bellamy. And, just as against Yugoslavia their one goal came from a Del Piero free kick which went in off an opposing head.

Just as you wondered what in the name of logic persuaded Eriksson to give hostages to fortune by persisting with David Seaman in goal, after his cataclysmic error in the World Cup against Brazil, followed by two more high ball fiascos this season with Arsenal, so you wondered how Trap could persevere with Alessandro Nesta. Long lauded as the best, most reliable, influential Italian central defender, Nesta simply hasn't looked the same since he asked, demoralised, to be substituted in last season's Roman derby when his Lazio lost 5-1 to Roma and he was inexplicably inept. The goal he gave the Yugoslavs should surely have been enough to rule him out of the Welsh match. Incredulous, one watched as the veteran Yugoslav striker, Presdrak Nijatowic, brought the ball in from the left, strolled past Nesta as though he wasn't there, and guided the ball into the far corner of Gianluigi Buffon's goal.

Of course ideally Dino Zoff should never have relinquished the Italian job after he had taken the team to the Final of Euro 2000 and so nearly won it. But as we know, Dino surprisingly resigned, after loud mouthed, ignorant criticism of his stewardship by Silvio Berlusconi, owner of Milan and now believe it or not also the Prime Minister of Italy.

Picking Seaman was surely dicing with death and sure enough Macedonia took the lead when he allowed the ball to swing into his goal direct from an inswinging corner. You might, in passing, ask what Scholes was doing or rather not doing on the line by the post where the ball went in. Maybe he couldn't have reached it anyway, but why did he duck rather than jump?

Moreover, Eriksson who'd dropped the abrasive Leeds striker Alan Smith from the previous game - he emerged after 90 minutes - even though he had impressed and scored against Portugal, and banished his best playmaking prospect Joe Cole to the under-21 team, inexplicably used Southampton's left back Wayne Bridge as a mid-field left flanker. In Bratislava he had strangely started Scholes on the left of midfield, just about the only attacking position he doesn't play.

It was astounding afterwards to learn that a Football Association apparatchik, someone called Paul Barber, in charge we were told of "communications and marketing" should announce that England had made a solid start to the competition! What planet does he live on? His title perhaps gives it all away. Communications and marketing. How can the two be reconciled? Though we do know that when little Adam Crozier became chief executive of the FA - where he is now under ferocious pressure from the Premiership clubs who have even accused him of economy with the truth - he reportedly sacked a number of old hands and replaced them with marketing people. Who may know how to promote baked beans and pressure cookers but hardly know much about football.

Wales have their strongest team for many years under a manager, Mark Hughes, whom the players greatly respect, and who was once a formidable target man himself with the Welsh and with Manchester United. He has worked hard to tighten the defence in which the 23-year-old Cardiff City central defender Gabbidon has brought much needed pace, and now looks to Yugoslavia rather than Italy as chief rival in the group. I wonder what the veteran Sinisa Mihailovic, he of the elegant left foot but little speed, will make of Bellamy and Davies from central defence when the teams eventually meet?

Ireland has fallen sharply away, well beaten in Moscow by a Russian team which has been largely rebuilt and vastly improved, then defeated by the Swiss 2-1 in Dublin. No Roy Keane. A team which appears to have shot its bolt. But in their group, what of a German team which laboured at home to squeeze past the Faroe Islands?