England Relegated to Nations League Second Tier After Italy Loss

Italy 1–0 England

by Dom Smith

You wouldn’t have known relegation was looming for England. This was their first match at Milan’s iconic San Siro since May 1939, five months before World War II broke out. This was their second-to-last chance to convince their fans that they are actually ready for a World Cup campaign. And to convince themselves. Yet there was nothing convincing about it.

Leonardo Bonucci, Italy’s captain, leader, and defensive warhorse helped turn the tide of the Euros final last summer with his scrappy second-half leveller when all England could do was retreat further into their own half. Here he had the beating of England again as his measured long ball forward was plucked from the Lombardy sky and hammered home by Giacomo Raspadori. A second-half sucker-punch that sent England down to the depth of League B for the next Nations League.

Far from ideal preparation for Gareth Southgate. Italy, it’s worth remembering, didn’t even qualify for Qatar. Their players can look forward to a winter break. England can’t. They have to play on through this pain. They came into this game on their longest winless run under Gareth Southgate. It was four games then; it’s now five.

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When Nick Pope parried from Gianluca Scamacca’s fifth-minute header and Italy continued to push, England’s players were suddenly removed from their bubble of talking about returning to form and knowing their quality and trusting the process. Italy might not be Qatar-bound, but they remain European champions and a capable side. This was a proper test for the visitors.

England are capable too, of course — evidence of that is just very scarce at the moment. It was a first-half where both sides frankly cancelled each other out. When Harry Kane counterattacked on his own in the 42nd minute, he never had the space for a shot. He struck from range anyway and the ball ballooned over.

Relegation to the Nations League’s second tier is now the utterly sobering reality for Southgate and England. They were European finalists just 14 months ago. They could now face Kazakhstan or Georgia in the next edition of this tournament. That was certainly not what UEFA had in mind when they dreamt up this competition, aimed at closing the gap in international football.

Raheem Sterling’s foray towards the Italian box early in the second half was a positive sign. Bonucci flooring him and picking up a yellow for the clinical foul certainly wasn’t. With no James Ward-Prowse on to find the postage stamp area, eyes turned to Reece James. Then they turned to Row Z as the defender shanked over.

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Kane crossed low and Rafael Tolói’s clearance behind for a corner so nearly flew into his own net. But Italy never panicked. They started again, handed Bonucci the ball, and watched on in awe as his floated ball was pulled down perfectly by Raspadori of Napoli. The 22-year-old feigned to go left, then turned back onto his right. Walker was walking — and not closely enough to the Italian. A rasping drive from Raspadori cracked into the corner, Pope well beaten by the 1000th goal England have ever conceded.

Misery compounded for England. Two draws in June bookended by two horrid defeats to bogey team Hungary. Now this. Southgate’s critics were rubbing their hands with fresh evidence that he may have become complacent in his role — something he addressed and accepted in the week.

England, on the night, didn’t seem complacent. They seemed incomplete and totally lacking any form of rhythm, as if they’d barely played with each other before.

Jude Bellingham was a rare positive on the night, shuttling up and down and putting in a typically unstinting, all-action performance. The 19-year-old made his rare start count but headed just over in the 95th minute, screaming at himself as he returned to the centre-circle, knowing it was probably last chance missed for him and for England.

It was. England versus Germany at a sold-out Wembley on Monday is now a dead-rubber. The booing on the final whistle was justified. There was no turning the page here. England were simply extending an already overlong chapter.

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Written by Dom Smith; Copy-edited by Luke Widdowson

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