Italy may have beaten England to the Euros trophy in the summer, but Gareth Southgate’s side should see themselves as favourites in a group also featuring Germany and Hungary
To suggest that England may feel they have unfinished business with Italy would be an understatement. Well, now they have a chance to action that — having been drawn against Germany, Hungary and the Italians for next year’s UEFA Nations League.
After backing up a semi-final finish at the 2018 World Cup with bronze medals at the 2019 UEFA Nations League Finals, Gareth Southgate’s side were disappointing in the 2020/21 edition of the Nations League, when failure to beat Denmark both home and away resulted in a third-place finish in their group. Only Iceland finished below them, with the Danes pipping England to second and Belgium reaching the 2021 Finals by topping the group.Embed from Getty Images
But after an emotional journey to the European Championships final this summer, and with a World Cup at the end of the next calendar year, Southgate may be perversely thankful for his team’s run of subpar results in last year’s competition. Seeding for the next edition is always based on results from the last, so England were in pot three and knew they’d face two world-class sides in their group — instead of a minimum of just one. For the ability to test themselves ahead of the World Cup, that could be decisive.
As it happened, the draw was perhaps kinder than it could have been. Italy have been surprisingly shaky since beating England on penalties to claim the Euros crown in July. Roberto Mancini’s men have won just two of seven since the finals, losing to Spain and drawing with the likes of Northern Ireland and Bulgaria. They also failed to win their World Cup qualifying group and so face the very real prospect of missing out on the finals in Qatar altogether, especially having landed on the same side of the draw as fellow supposed European giants Portugal.
And while drawing Germany would in the past have been an almighty challenge for England, Hansi Flick’s team are — in spite of improved form since he replaced Joachim Löw — still less potent than the Three Lions. England also knocked them out of Euro 2020. Hungary recently ended England’s run of 21 consecutive home qualifying wins when they drew 1–1 at Wembley in October, but they were schooled 4–0 in the away leg and are the group’s weakest side.Embed from Getty Images
And yet this is still most likely the so-called group of death.
England’s impressive World Cup qualifying campaign saw them briefly rise to third in the FIFA rankings between September and October — their joint-highest ranking of all-time. In ten qualifiers, they conceded just two goals, one of them a penalty. They were similarly stingy at the Euros, where they kept five consecutive clean-sheets and exited the tournament having shipped just two goals and none from open play.
Plenty of teams scored more than them at the European Championships, but that was more a result of their pragmatic style of play than an admission that they are feeble in attack. Far from it. Their most recent match was a 10–0 win — okay, against San Marino — and they topped their qualifying group having scored 39 goals across the ten matches. That made them the top scorers in the European qualifiers for the second time in a row. The same had also been true as they marched to Euro 2020, despite them playing two fewer matches than most other nations.Embed from Getty Images
Make no mistake, England are the favourites to win this Nations League group and reach the 2023 Finals. That means that if they don’t, they will have underachieved. But this is a tough group whoever you are. Germany are much-improved under Flick and seem to be scoring and winning freely again. Italy are a team set up to perform best against sides good enough to go toe-to-toe with them. England are definitely that (see 11 July 2021, Wembley Stadium). And while being a stern outfit in their own right, in this sort of shimmering company, Hungary are the team everyone ought to beat.
England face two friendly internationals in March 2022, before starting their Nations League campaign with four group matches in June. The final two games take place in September, before international football pauses until November when all focus will be on Qatar and the World Cup. For England it will, anyway. For Italy, it may not.