WORLD Cup similarities between Italy's Roberto Baggio and Ray Parlour of Arsenal might not be strikingly obvious at first sight, but do look a little deeper at the matter. Baggio was almost completely out of favour with Cesare Maldini and had not played for Italy in months, including important World Cup qualifying games. Life had not been the same at international level since that crucial penalty soared over the bar in Pasadena in the 1994 World Cup final. Against virtually all the odds - largely because he was at odds with Maldini - Baggio forced his way back into the Italian squad for the World Cup, which is now just a couple of weeks away. His final Serie A performance against Lazio was magnificent, following on from a string of excellent efforts that had the public and the press clamouring for his inclusion. It was widely believed just one Italian spot was left in the final 22 and Baggio claimed it in advance of Chelsea's Gianfranco Zola. It was a very creditable choice but one can only wonder how much pressure Maldini was under to make it. Now turn to Parlour and, in the same sentence, Paul Gascoigne. The biggest influence on Arsenal's magnificent double was Arsene Wenger but the most improved player in the team was Parlour. His contribution in a string of vital games simply cannot be denied or underestimated and Glenn Hoddle has done himself - and England - no favours by omitting him from World Cup calculations, unless there is a last-minute change of heart, which seems unlikely. What makes it somewhat more surprising is not only the superb, consistent form of Parlour but also his entire approach to the game since Wenger got hold of him. There is no denying that Parlour's image pre-Wenger was not that of a dedicated professional. Reliable accounts suggest be was given to late nights and long mornings. There was even a little bit of bother during a trip to Hong Kong some years back. Parlour had his lifestyle problems which, ultimately, would surely have affected his game - or his longevity in it. Under the Wenger regime, Parlour has flourished. He has been a late bloomer whose range of attributes now go beyond an undeniable ability to go at players and beat them. Despite the awesome presence of players like Tony Adams - another hugely improved player under Wenger - Patrick Vieira, Emmanuel Petit and Nicolas Anelka, it would be no surprise if Parlour was the first name down on the team sheet. Unlike Baggio with Italy, Parlour has been unable to force his way into the England squad despite the excellence of his performances and a season that has been truly remarkable for him. While Hoddle has, in my opinion, made a grave mistake here, the fact that only two players from Arsenal were selected by Aime Jacquet for the French squad is also a matter of condemnation. Vieira and Petit have been complete powerhouses for Arsenal and Anelka, who was not included in Jacquet's squad, has turned into the player those who follow French football always knew he would become. While Hoddle has ignored the true claims of Parlour, he continues to persevere with Gascoigne, who is now at an age when the lifestyle he has largely chosen to follow is affecting his game. That his talent is, or more ominously was, exceptional, is not in dispute. But one wearies of hearing how he has never let England down when wearing the shirt, that he gives his all. What on earth is expected? That he will deliberately let them down, that he or any other player will not give 100 per cent for their country? These are not valid criteria for selection because every player should possess them. Previous England coaches Bobby Robson and Terry Venables roundly endorse Gascoigne's selection for France and their views are most obviously relevant. But it is eight long, trouble-filled years since Robson had a much fresher-faced Gascoigne on the fields of Italia '90. It is only two years since Venables had him in Euro 96 but are there no thoughts of what might have been had a rippling fit Gascoigne actually connected with that cross and turned it into the German net, thus avoiding the penalty shootout? On balance, Gascoigne's inclusion is probably in England's favour. He seems genuinely liked by other players and his enthusiasm cannot be denied. Whether or not he would actually have a major impact on the field of play would have to be open to some doubt. These are anxious days for Hoddle and England. The steady hand on the tiller which saw them safely through the qualifying stages may just be a little shakier on the eve of the France 98. There have been problems not of Hoddle's making, not least a number of players whose form has tailed off. There are also the inevitable effects of a long, demanding season in the Premier League which the younger members in the squad will obviously feel much less than the older hands. And what of the catalyst, Alan Shearer? Hoddle and all of England must be praying that his recent petulance and less-than-impressive form will remain behind the White Cliffs of Dover when they set sail for France. These are anxious and demanding times for England - and more lie ahead.