Italy 1–2 England
by Dom Smith
Harry Kane is made of tough stuff, and so are England. Kane now stands alone as England’s all-time leading scorer, with his 54th goal taking him past Wayne Rooney to break the record. He banished the demons of his heart-breaking penalty miss in the World Cup defeat to France, slamming home England’s second as they looked to be cantering towards an eerily easy victory over Italy.
In the end, it was tougher than the first-half had been. Ten-man England had to hold on after Luke Shaw’s late dismissal ensured they were firmly under the cosh. They did hold on. They won.
The Italians had not lost a home match to England since 1961, and they deliberately elected to hold the match in Naples — where they hadn’t played for nine years — in an attempt to make England wilt in the hostile atmosphere.
But after a nervy start in which Italy were the better side, England found calm and composure and found a goal from Declan Rice to ease the nerves and set the tone for the first period. England, in the first half, were outstanding. So outstanding that even after their below-par second half, this felt a fully merited victory.Embed from Getty Images
They’d played just as they did throughout their World Cup campaign in Qatar — like an elite club side who play together week in week out. They don’t, of course, and that made it all the more impressive, the way England simply popped the ball about, zipping it between themselves and through their bewildered hosts.
Italy were incredibly welcoming to England early on, allowing Jude Bellingham to drive forward like a freight train, and gifting Jack Grealish and Rice acres of space to play with. It all made for the perfect start to Euro 2024 qualifying for Gareth Southgate’s side. Italy have been a bogey team for England under their current manager. This victory will have felt sweet.
Italy missed the World Cup, making them all the more eager to get to Euro 2024 where they can defend their crown. Their maiden qualifier was off to a nightmarish start, however, when Rice volleyed home from an early corner. Bukayo Saka’s delivery found Harry Kane, whose blocked shot found its way to Rice. The West Ham midfielder volleyed down into the ground and was soon flying towards the corner flag wearing a joyous smile.
England’s level at this point was worryingly high from Roberto Mancini’s perspective. His team were being given the run-around by the World Cup quarter-finalists. What Italy didn’t need was a spot of bad luck, but they duly got one when Giovanni Di Lorenzo’s handball from a corner was picked up by VAR after Kane and others in close attendance had made a fuss to referee Srđan Jovanović. The Serbian official took a look for himself and gave the spot-kick.Embed from Getty Images
What a chance Kane now had to become England’s all-time leading scorer just seven weeks after he had become Tottenham’s. Italy appealed, Kane waited. Then he slammed into the corner, past Gianluigi Donnarumma, to double England’s lead and ensure the captain replaced Rooney as his nation’s greatest-ever goalscorer. A phenomenal record. Kane took just 81 matches to score 54 goals. Perhaps only in years to come will the madness of such a record be apparent.
England were flying. To say so would not be an overstatement. Within minutes of Kane’s record-breaker, he crossed for Grealish. The goal was gaping but the ball hit Grealish’s shin. Every England player everywhere held the same expression: hands on head, mouth hung open, stunned. It could have been three, but at the break it was only two.
Italy needed to change something, but rather than personnel it was the feel of the match. Right from the off, Mancini’s side were much more assured after the interval. Now they were the side in command. And that wasn’t about to change.
At the Diego Armando Maradona Stadium, as if Maradona had instructed it so, Italy’s Argentina-born debutant striker Mateo Retegui scored a handy goal to further shift the match’s momentum, slotting past Jordan Pickford from Lorenzo Pellegrini gorgeous no-look pass.Embed from Getty Images
England were going to have to dig in and find another gear, but instead it was Italy who pinned England further and further back. Your mind could be forgiven for returning to the Euro 2020 final, when England had started so brightly, only for Italy to turn the screw and turn England over.
Jovanović brandished yellow cards for Rice, Grealish, Harry Maguire, Kyle Walker and Shaw. Then 54 seconds after Shaw’s first booking, Maguire was down, Shaw covered, fouled, and was then shown a second. England’s tough second half was about to get a whole lot tougher for the final ten minutes plus stoppage time. What started a free-flowing England display was going to have to end as dogged backs-to-the-wall stuff.
Substitute Phil Foden was subbed; he understood the reasons. Kieran Trippier, Conor Gallagher and Reece James came on to help England in their plight. Wave after wave of blue attack was shinned, scuffed, tackled and hammered away by England’s tiring generals.
To England’s credit, the final whistle arrived before Italy’s equaliser could. The ideal start to qualifying for Southgate’s side. They need to start beating major nations more often — getting the key moments right. Here in Naples, they did.