Italy 1-2 England (Retegui 56′ | Rice 13′, Kane pen 44′)
On the plane home, supporters will conclude that this team have one hand on their qualification for another major tournament. And they will laugh at those moments when they thought that victory in Naples would be serene. Is anything easy with this bloody football team?
It was a match that distilled Gareth Southgate’s England tenure into 90-odd minutes: wonderful start, emphatic lead, one big moment that went awry and then a slow slump into something far less enjoyable. Ultimately England ended their trip to Italy in a far better position than where they started it and where we thought they might, so why does it all feel like any praise and positivity must be caveated?
Revolution, either by choice or emergency, may come at some point. But for now, evolution would do. In an ideal world, Kalvin Phillips would have played more than 56 minutes in the Premier League. But if we are trying to move on from Jordan Henderson, who will turn 34 a few days after Euro 2024 begins, it made sense. Phil Foden has been nudged out of the big games at Manchester City by Jack Grealish this season; the same is now true with England.
The thinking from Southgate, not without considerable logic, is that a double midfield pivot would give the foundation that allowed Jude Bellingham to push forward and create and Bukayo Saka and Jack Grealish to stay high. England are not blessed with defensive midfielders. Against lesser teams at Wembley, Southgate will likely pick Rice, Bellingham and Mason Mount as a midfield three. In Naples, just like everyone on this trip, he opted for security.
And in the first half, boy did it work. Phillips was rusty in the first five minutes – no shock there – but settled. Rice dominated in the area in front of England’s centre-backs. Bellingham delighted in the freer role, roaming across the pitch and driving forward in a manner that should make the heart of every England supporter fizz. For someone so lithe, Bellingham is astonishingly difficult to push off the ball. It’s all the control of the ball.
Kane deserved this. There is an attempt to denigrate penalties when comparing goalscorers, but England’s record goalscorer would have surely have preferred no other manner with which to stand alone and stand tallest. Nothing will ever remove the hurt of that miss against France because pain is prolonged by the constant contemplation of what might have been. But the majesty of Kane’s career is defined by his determination to overcome the roadblocks and march on. One day England will look back and realise how lucky the nation was to have him.
This trip to Naples was laced with intimations of danger, of a spiky, unpleasant atmosphere that may choke England’s attempts to express themselves. But this is not the same as when Napoli call it their home and this city has an uncomfortable socio-political relationship with Italy’s national team. For most of the first half, England voices were the only ones heard as they cheered on a team that they have longed to play in this way.
And for most of the second, the same problems we have urged this team to shake and yet that they are drawn towards like moths to the flame. England sat deep and tried to defend their lead, just like against Croatia and just as against Italy at Wembley on that chaotic July day. Just as in those games, it didn’t work because they invite pressure that a defence typically struggles to repel.
The big moment, for it did indeed change the game, came in the final minutes of the first half, when Saka and Kane poured forwards and an away end struggled to believe quite what attacking intent they were watching. Grealish stood waiting for the ball with a goal at his mercy. And he shanked his shot wide, tumbling this evening into the bizarre.
What started as determined defending ended in heroic blocks and England hanging on by bloody fingernails. There was ill-discipline thanks to Luke Shaw’s red card and Serbian referee Srdjan Jovanovic’s eager yellow cards for time-wasting. But there was guts there too. If you criticise England for sitting back because they always cede leads, you have to at least accept that they didn’t crumple here.
Who am I kidding? You already know what you think about Southgate and you will react accordingly. A magnificent victory in a country where England simply don’t win often to take them onto another major tournament campaign, or a lucky escape against a second-rate superpower that hurt England far less than they hurt themselves. You decide. You probably already have.