Leeds United have long since had a love affair with England’s preparations for the World Cup finals.
June will see Elland Road play host to a match against Costa Rica in scheduling mirroring their run-in to the 2002 finals, when the famous old ground saw its very own Nigel Martyn, Danny Mills and Robbie Fowler turn out in a 2-1 defeat against Italy 17 years ago this week.
Sven Goran Eriksson’s England was an exciting one, the side’s ‘golden generation’ of mecurial talent just about setting out on their ultimately failed tenure as trophy hopefuls in 2002.
Italy were to provide a stern test, of course, with the then three-time world champions naming a full-strength team against an England outfit still at the experimental stage of their preparations.
Indeed, Eriksson made no fewer than nine changes after a slothful first half that reduced a testimonial atmosphere to that of an art gallery. With the usual bite and intensity of a Leeds matchday replaced by camera-clicking day trippers from all four corners of the country, Elland Road has scarcely been so subdued.
In Nigel Martyn’s battle with David James to play second fiddle to Arsenal’s David Seaman, it was the latter who edged it having being afforded the chance to shine in a second half with far more chances.
Much of this was down to Giovani Trapattoni’s introduction of Vincenzo Montella at the break, the Roma forward producing by far the most exciting performance on the night with intelligent movement and a killer eye for goal. Danny Mills, who would go on to be named by Pele as one of the players of the World Cup, made way for Phil Neville after a solid but unspectacular outing, but it was Leeds hitman Robbie Fowler who made the biggest impression, coming off the bench at half-time to open the scoring just past the hour mark.
A casual observer of Fowler’s England record would perhaps scratch their head given his tremendous contribution to Premier League football, not least during his breakthrough years at Liverpool.
With seven goals across 26 appearances, the majority of which came from the bench, Fowler was one name on a long list of forwards that was victim of an embarrassment of riches up top, depth that current boss Gareth Southgate can only dream of.
With the game ignited by that Fowler goal, it opened up as Trapattoni rotated his talented squad and it was the introduction of midfield pairing Demetrio Albertini and Gennaro Gattuso, along with Montella’s clinical nature, that won the game for Italy.
Having hit back with an equaliser inside four minutes, Montella bagged his second and furthered his claims for a World Cup starting berth with a neatly-taken penalty in injury time.
Whilst Leeds’ playing contribution is somewhat limited at this year’s World Cup, Leeds has been entrusted to send England off to Russia in fine fettle and with a handsome win over a plucky Costa Rican outfit in the bag. Roll on June.
Italy 2 (Montella 67, 90 (pen)
world cup friendly march 27, 2002, elland road
England: (4-4-2): Martyn (Leeds; James, West Ham, h-t); Mills (Leeds; P Neville Manchester United, h-t), Southgate ( Ehioghu ,both Middlesbrough, h-t) ), Campbell (Arsenal; King, Tottenahm, h-t), Bridge (Southampton); Beckham (Manchcester United, Murphy, Liverpool, h-t) , Butt (Manchester United; Hargreaves, Bayern Munich, h-t), Lampard (Chelsea, Cole (West Ham, h-t), Sinclair (West Ham; Sheringham, Tottenham, 71); Owen (Liverpool, Vassel, Aston Villa h-t ), Heskey (Liverpool, Fowler, Leeds, h-t)..
Italy: (4-4-2): Buffon (Juventus); Cannavaro (Parma), Nesta (Lazio), Materrazzi (Internazionale), Panucci (Roma); Zambrotta (Juventus), Di Biagio, Zanetti (both Internazionale), Doni (Atalanta); Delvecchio (Roma), Totti (Roma).
Referee: H Fandel (Germany).
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