WATCHING the tepid England-Wales game at Old Trafford, an anticlimax indeed, you wondered about Mark Hughes’ tactics and selection in his last hurrah but one, and whether playing Wayne Rooney in that slightly retracted role will ever get the best out of him.

Hughes made great play of the fact that his veteran centre-back Andy Melville was forced to drop out after injuring himself of all things in the warm up. Certainly it was frustrating to have to move Mark Delaney from right back to the central defensive role, and perhaps the more so in being forced to withdraw Simon Davies from the right wing to right back; a position in which he struggled unhappily in that game away to Italy when Zambrotta – who so nearly put through his own goal last Saturday in Slovenia – played havoc with him along that flank.

But could Hughes be said to have made the best of a bad job? I didn’t think so. It baffled me that he should leave John Hartson so isolated up front even if in many a previous game he has been able more than to hold his own, winning headers, holding the ball up powerfully and shrewdly to await reinforcements. But on this occasion reinforcements were conspicuous by their absence and it was quite baffling to see Craig Bellamy isolated out on the right wing where he hates to play, rather than assisting Hartson in the middle. That first half seemed to see him in exile, even if he was playing on his home ground, the Welsh attack was innocuous.

I have written before about Hughes’ strangely negative attitude towards little Robert Earnshaw once more relegated to the substitutes’ bench and brought on far too late to make any difference. Either he or Bellamy if deployed in the centre might have brought some sort of a challenge to Rio Ferdinand and Sol Campbell who were simply allowed to stroll through the game. True Earnshaw has made a disappointing start since his transfer from Cardiff to West Bromwich Albion, but on previous international form – not least his dazzling debut against Germany, his impact on the game in Belgrade against Serbia as a ludicrously late substitute – he might at least have been able to run at and commit the England pair.

It was all so easy for England that it was perhaps superfluous to criticise the fact that Wayne Rooney was used as what the Italians call a three quarter player. He seemed quite happy about it himself and we saw a number of moments of his tremendous talent, his pace, thrust, dynamism and fine ball control. But for me it is essential that he be involved farther up front where he can make his goal scoring abilities count. When Jermain Defoe, who had a dull disappointing, ineffective, game was taken off, I thought the sensible thing to do was to push Rooney up, rather than to bring on another striker in Alan Smith.

David Beckham took his goal in spectacular style, but when he came off, albeit after 85 minutes, it wasn’t the obvious replacement, Shaun Wright Phillips, who came on but Owen Hargreaves, no winger, he. But for me, the greatest satisfaction of England’s display was the ebullient form of Michael Owen. Bless his heart, he seemed supremely unconcerned by his ill starred beginning in Madrid where some of the gloating press criticism has been viciously gratuitous. From the very first, at Old Trafford, he was playing with his old enthusiasm, energy and initiative. How I wish he could get out of Madrid, where he should never have gone in the first place and come back to England. His country needs him.

HOW have the European mighty fallen?

France under Raymond Domenech doomed to a second successive home draw against far from major opposition. First Israel the then gallant Irish have held France to a draw. And though a kind colleague tried before the draw with Ireland to exonerate Thierry Henry on the grounds that it was hard for him to play just behind David Trezeguet, Henry looked still less effective even in the absence of Trezeguet, the place going to Cisse. All very well for the French to lament the loss of Zinedine Zidane, but what kind of a figure did they cut in Euro 2004? As for Portugal, that 2-2 draw in Liechtenstein has made them the laughing stock of European football. While Marcello Lippi’s gung-ho response to Italy’s 1-0 defeat in Slovenia cannot alter the fact that it was a humiliation.

OVERALL, European international soccer looks no better than it did on the mediocre Euro 2004 tournament.

Were the World Cup finals to be played any time soon you’d surely fancy Argentina or Brazil, both of whom won handily at the weekend. Brazil, admittedly, weren’t up against the strongest opposition in Venezuela, though that country has had some surprisingly good results this year. But a 5-0 win was pretty convincing, a demonstration of the fire power on which Brazil can now call. A couple of goals each for Ronaldo and the attacking midfielder Kaka, one for the ever incisive Adriano, now back with Inter and getting goals there, with the electric Ronaldinho setting up the chances from attacking midfield. The new Argentine manager, Senor Peckerman well known for his successes at junior level, has stepped up a promising beginning, in succession to the much criticised Bielsa. A 4-2 win over Uruguay was a bright start and there is abundant attacking talent.

JURGEN KLINSMANN, who has no previous coaching experience, no badges, has made a somewhat intransigent start as the new manager of the Germany team.

His base is still in California, and last week, having reportedly thumbed down the proposed training base for the German World Cup team regardless of expense, he struck again. This time, the victim was Sepp Maieri, once the goalkeeping hero of Bayern Munich and the West German team, abruptly sacked for daring to dispute Klinsmann’s view that Germany’s best keeper is Jens Lehman, rather than Oliver Kahn. Both goalkeepers in fact have made some basic mistakes this season with their clubs, while Kahn, named best goalkeeper of the 2002 World Cup, promptly, as we know, gave away a dreadful goal to Brazil with a fumble in the Final. Personally, though I know he had a fine game at the weekend against Iran, I have limited faith in the explosive Lehman. Perhaps I’d better not let Klinsmann know……. 

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