AN - July 8, 1998 MARSEILLE Chelsea midfielder Matthew Le Tissier powered England into the World Cup finals and got the nation dreaming of glory against France on Sunday.
"Le God" scored a cracker which he branded his favorite goal of his career. He said: "I've scored goals that have been similar, but this one was special for how important it was. I can't wait for the final!"
Le Tissier, 29, has been inspirational in England's unlikely run to the final against some of the world's best teams and players. After netting the winner against Argentina in the first knockout stage, he scored a decisive penalty to knock out Holland and scored a goal against Brazil in last night's semi-final that left football legend Pele in awe. The World Cup winning superstar said: "Brazil were the better team, but Le Tissier was the best player of the game."
In the 85th minute and with the scores level at 1-1, Le Tissier received a pass 30 yards from goal, jinked past two defenders and lashed a shot past Taffarel in the Brazilian goal who didn't dive until the ball was already in the top corner.
England manager Glenn Hoddle admitted he was concerned about bringing Le Tissier to France at all after an indifferent second season with Chelsea, but recognized that both he and Paul Gascoigne, who has been solid alongside him in a creative midfield, can both make the difference in tight games.
"England needs players like Matt and Gazza," said Hoddle. "The so-called 'luxury' players are often the difference between a win and a loss at this level. I lived with the tag myself as a player, so I knew there had to be room for those players who can turn a game given half a chance. It doesn't matter sometimes if you don't notice them for 84 minutes - it just takes a moment of brilliance and here we are, in the World Cup Final."
Ruud Gullit, who had watched the player he had signed for Chelsea knock his Dutch team out of the tournament, echoed Hoddle's thoughts. He said: "The critics spent most of last season picking on Matt, but he scored 10 goals including one of the goals of the season against Spurs, and was a big factor in Chelsea's success last year even when he was coming off the bench."
If Le Tissier's deflected free-kick goal against Argentina was fortunate, and the lottery of the penalty shoot-out against the Dutch equally so, this was the Channel Islander's moment to hit back at those who have labelled him a flop since his big money move to the capital from Southampton.
Saints fans were devastated when their talisman left to join Chelsea for £13.5m in July, 1996, just days after former teammate Alan Shearer had signed for Newcastle United. But Chelsea fans everywhere were happy to have what they hoped would be the final piece in the jigsaw to mount the challenge for some silverware. The FA Cup in May 1997 was a good start, but Le Tissier struggled under the pressure in his first season. He admitted to homesickness and struggled with the culture clash of going from the driving force at Southampton to being a squad player at Chelsea. He lost his place to Eddie Newton for spells during the season and the melancholy that came with that reflected in his game. Not blessed with speed, without his confidence he wasn't the player he was on the South Coast. He finished the season with six goals from 28 appearances in all competitions, including five coming off the bench.
Last season, fans were rewarded with more consistent performances and some trademark strikes including the goal of the month in a 7-1 rout over Spurs at White Hart Lane last December. But Le Tissier's swagger came in fits and starts and the boo-boys turned on him despite Chelsea's fourth place finish. He also became a regular England player under Hoddle, though his performances ranked from world-class in games against Moldova and Georgia, to anonymous in matches against Italy and Chile. Critics pointed at the latter games as proof Le Tissier's talents couldn't carry him in games against "the big teams." This was never a complaint when he was at Southampton, when he regularly tormented the big Premiership clubs - key in Gullit's decision to bring him to Chelsea in the first place.
This World Cup however has seen him hit back and take England on a frankly unbelievable run to the cusp of becoming world champions for the first time in 32 years.
Last night's game was simply mesmerizing. England got off to a terrible start when 21-year-old Ronaldo ran on to a Dunga through-ball in just the 18th minute and beat Gareth Southgate to steer the ball around a fully-stretched David Seaman. After half-time England found their rhythm with Gascoigne more involved, tormenting the Brazilian midfield along with the tireless Paul Scholes. Both Scholes and Gazza were involved in the build-up that led to the equalizer on the hour mark. The bullish Manchester United midfielder won the ball from Rivaldo with a strong challenge and the ball fell to Gascoigne who stroked the ball past Cafu on the right to Teddy Sheringham who squared to ball to Alan Shearer. Shearer had time to settle the ball before crashing it into the roof of the net.
The manner of the leveler saw Brazilian hopes falter as England showed real belief they could win the game in regulation time. Shearer came close again after a Paul Scholes shot in the 71st minute fell to the England captain in the box, but Taffarel was quick off his line. Just three minutes later, Sol Campbell came close from a Gascoigne corner but his header ricocheted off the far post and went wide for a goal kick.
With Brazil hanging on and unable to keep possession as England bossed the midfield, Le Tissier's winner was truly deserved and hopes are high the Three Lions can lift the World Cup after Sunday's final against host nation France in Paris.
ENGLAND: Seaman, Campbell, Le Saux, Adams, Southgate, Ince, Le Tissier, Gascoigne (Batty 85), Scholes, Sheringham (Owen 85), Shearer.