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Remembering Italy v England 1997: Ince excels as Three Lions hold out in Rome

Italy and England have become familiar foes in recent years, notably clashing in the final of Euro 2020.

They face off again on Tuesday evening but neither that brilliant final nor their Euro 2024 qualifying Group C clash are likely to match the drama of their meeting in Rome in October 1997.

A rollercoaster Group 2 campaign meant that a win for Italy in their final qualifier would see them head straight through to France 98. However, holding a one-point cushion heading to the Eternal City, England knew a draw would see them take the top spot and qualify automatically, condemning the Azzurri to a playoff.

The permutations made a tactical battle inevitable and England's big names stood up to produce one of the Three Lions' most famous qualifying performances.

Azzurri gain psychological edge at Wembley

After Terry Venables's departure following Euro 96, England won their first three qualifying matches under new boss Glenn Hoddle, beating Moldova, Poland and Georgia before the Azzurri arrived at Wembley in February 1997.

Gianfranco Zola, months after moving to London to play for Chelsea, smashed past stand-in goalkeeper Ian Walker at the near post for the only goal in a potentially decisive 1-0 win.

Criticism inevitably came Hoddle's way, with Matt Le Tissier's inclusion in a then largely unfamiliar 'number 10' role receiving the ire of the press and public alike.

However, his team responded with wins over Georgia, Poland and Moldova and luck shone on them as after winning at Wembley, the Azzurri could only draw in both Poland and Georgia, meaning the Three Lions travelled to Rome knowing a point would be enough to top Group 2.

Selection headaches for Hoddle

Injuries had not been kind to Hoddle. David Seaman missed the first game against Italy, with Walker deputising. Seaman was back available for the return match, but captain Alan Shearer was absent at the Stadio Olimpico.

The skipper fractured and dislocated his ankle playing for Newcastle in a pre-season friendly against Chelsea in the summer of 1997, ruling him out until 1998.

Les Ferdinand deputised as the number nine for September's win over Moldova but Teddy Sheringham's return for the following month's game in Rome saw him selected and Ferdinand lost his place, with Ian Wright leading the line.

Wright possibly got the nod due to his energy and ability to press from the front and that determination characterised a battling performance from the Three Lions.

Armband inspires Ince

However, no player performed better than stand-in skipper Paul Ince, who was returning to Italy after leaving Inter Milan the previous summer.

He had his own 'Terry Butcher moment' when a loose elbow from Demetrio Albertini in the 12th minute resulted in him requiring stitches above his eye and saw him heavily bandaged in a manner akin to his fellow former England captain in another 0-0 draw in Sweden in 1990.

In truth, it was a somewhat violent game, with Dutch referee Mario van der Ende booking five Italian players, as well as brandishing a couple of yellows to Angelo Di Livio, who was sent off after 76 minutes.

Sol Campbell, Gareth Southgate and Paul Gascoigne also received cautions but there were moments of quality scattered among the late tackles, dives and dirty tricks.

Notably, Ince tested Angelo Peruzzi with a fizzing strike after bursting onto a Sheringham nod down but despite their numerical advantage, England almost blew it in the closing stages.

Late drama in Rome

With the England players urging Van der Ende to blow for time, a Seaman punt forward found Wright, who shrugged off Alessandro Costacurta and rounded Peruzzi.  

The goalkeeper did enough to force the England forward wide but he still had the composure to steady himself and cut back on his favoured right foot, only to slam against the post and Sheringham to fail to convert with the follow-up.

England were almost made to pay, as from the clearance, Alessandro Del Piero found space on the left and crossed towards Christian Vieri. In trademark style, the striker pulled to the back post, climbed above Graeme Le Saux…and headed wide to confirm England as the winners of Group 2.

The Three Lions' panic soon turned into pandemonium, Wright ripping off his shirt and Southgate, 15 or so months on from missing his penalty in the shootout against Germany at Euro 96, admitting in a post-match interview: 'It was the low point in my England career, but that makes me appreciate the good times even more and they don't come much better than this'.

Italian newspaper Tuttosport described Ince as 'the soul of England', suggesting his performance demonstrated the drive that Italian football lacked at the time. Corriere Dello Sport concurred, describing Italy as 'a team incapable of understanding how to attack or defend' and deriding their lack of desire, suggesting they played 'without the spirit seen in a Sunday park side'.

Hoddle's greatest result

The match in Rome demonstrated Hoddle's tactical acumen and was arguably the most outstanding performance of his England tenure. 

It was also Gascoigne's last great game for England, while Wright's chants of "I'm going to the World Cup, I'm going to the World Cup!" were sadly short-sighted, as a hamstring injury suffered in a warm-up game meant he missed the tournament.

England famously went out in the last 16 to Argentina, with Ince one of the villains in St Etienne, as he and David Batty spurned their spot-kicks following David Beckham's dismissal for kicking Diego Simeone.

After beating Russia in the playoffs, penalties also did for Italy, with Albertini and Luigi Di Biagio failing from the spot as they lost to hosts and eventual winners France in the quarter-finals. 

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