Revenge was bitter-sweet for England when it beat Italy, 2-0, at Wembley Stadium in a World Cup soccer qualifying game today.
The Italians have another match to play, against feeble Luxemburg Dec. 3 in Rome and needs to win by only one goal to gain the finals in Argentina in June.
England merited its win and showed, in the process, that the accounts of the death of English football have been, as Mark Twain would have said, greatly exaggerated, and that the Italians are no exceptional team. Playing before 92,000 fans, England surprised the visitors with an excellent goal after only 10 minutes, but it was not until nine minutes from the end that the second score came.
In each case, it was partnership of Trevor Brooking (excellent early on) and Kevin Keegan that was decisive; two of the very few English players of the moment who have genuine claims to what is loosely called "world class."
Thank goodness the English coach, Ron Greenwood, resisted the siren songs that would have had him omit Keegan, who now plays in West Germany for Hamburg. True, Keegan has seldom played for Liverpool in the European Cup final in Rome last May, but he has the stuff of a champion in him, and he showed it tonight.
For the first goal, he rose beautifully on the near post to flick an exquisitive header past the famous Italian goalkeeper, Dino Zoff, into the far corner of the net from Brooking's glorious right-wing cross. Not, by the way, the kind of goal you expect a packed Italian defense to concede.
The second goal came at a moment when the Italians appeared to have ridden the storm and you might call it a matter of reciprocation. Keegan slipped an insidious pass through the Italian defense from the right to Brooking, who glided his shot low pass Zoff very coolly. Zoff, let it be said, did make one astonishing save from Dave Watson, the England center halfback, when Watson volleyed a corner kick ferociously. With one hand, and with a supreme reflex, Zoff pushed the ball over the bar.
Why Italy insisted in keeping its big center forward Francesco Graziani, on the field for half an hour of the first half after he had cut his head in a collision and had it bandaged is hard to say. Certainly it was follish. Graziani looked dazed, and in any case he could not hoped to head the ball, which is one of his greatest strengths.
In the second half, on came Claudio Sal, another Torino players. But he is not a center forward, and though he was lively, there is no doubt the virtual absence of Graziani had a large effect on Italy's largely dull performance.
Where was the brilliance of Franco Causio and Roberto Bettega which had torn the Finnish defense to pieces a few weeks ago in Turin? Alas, the thuggery of Romeo Benetti in midfield was only too evident. This mild canary fancier, as his own coach would have us see him, got through a catalog of fouls, many of them most painful to their recipients. The last of them was especially nasty, performed as it was on Keegan just after he had set up Brooking's goal. Pure spite, that.
Greenwood's gamble in selecting three new English international players for so important a game partly succeeded. Bob Latchford was the man he failed: the big Everton center forward looked quite out of his class, and Greenwood was very slow to replace him with the more experienced Stuart Pearson, who came on only very late in the game. With virtually four forwards playing, Pearson would probably have been much of the more effective: he likes support. Once Greenwood had decided to use Latchford, Keegan and two wingers, it was clear that Pearson would have han the close support he craves. Latchford just didn't exploit it.
Peter Barnes had one marvelous, sinuous run past three Italian defenders in the penalty box in the first half, but he finished with a feeble shot at Zuff from a narrow angle, which tells its own story. Moreover, he had already missed a couple of good chances. One wants to see him again, but he is inevitably a little raw at his exalted level.
Italy will, as their map fans at Wembley kept chanting, go to Argentina, but much though I respect their skills and the quiet excellence of their coach Enzo Bearzot, I do not fancy their chances. Moreover, if Benetti, Tardelli and other repeat some of the antics of tonight in Buenos Aires, they run every risk of being carried out of the stadium feet first.