Italy 1 England 2
It was a night when a Harry Kane penalty conversion positively overflowed with narrative drama. It was his first attempt for England since his notorious miss in the World Cup quarter-final exit against France last December and so goodness knows what was going through his mind as he shaped to take it, after the VAR had spotted a Giovanni Di Lorenzo handball from a corner.
When he scored, it took him clear of Wayne Rooney as England’s all-time leading scorer with 54 goals. What a moment for the captain. It put his side 2-0 up and to describe them as rampant at that point late in the first half would have been no exaggeration. Declan Rice had scored the first and the Euro 2024 qualifying campaign looked set to begin with a bang.
Instead, Gareth Southgate’s team followed an age-old template. First half good, second half not too good, as one of his predecessors, Sven-Göran Eriksson, would have put it. Italy leapt up off the canvas, scoring through the debutant Mateo Retegui, and came to control the tie just as their opponents had done beforehand.
England were forced to cling on, especially after Luke Shaw was sent off in the 80th minute for a late tackle. His first caution had come 54 seconds earlier for time-wasting. England, though, got over the line. Despite what amounted to an Italy siege after the interval, Southgate’s team were able to restrict them to precious few clearcut chances.
At full-time, Kane slumped to his knees, exhausted but elated. He has made history. England are up and running once again, their most difficult assignment of the group already passed. It was their first victory in Italy since 1961.
The first thing to say about the occasion – Naples’s first senior international in 10 years – was that it was not a Napoli game. When they play at this stadium – especially this season, the Scudetto so close that everyone in town has started to prepare for the party of the millennium, connecting the buildings in those narrow streets with blue and white sheets – it can feel like an out-of-body experience.
There was still excitement, still a crowd that needed to be subdued, but it probably said a lot that there were empty seats and the 2,500 travelling fans were able to make themselves easily heard.
The early goal was a tonic for England and it came after they had moved up the field very astutely – and not for the first time. Or the last. It was Kane to Jack Grealish and he did well to release Jude Bellingham, who advanced and unloaded a vicious shot that Gianluigi Donnarumma tipped over. Bukayo Saka’s corner reached Kane beyond the far post and, when he shot, the ball ricocheted off Di Lorenzo and broke for Rice. He always looked like finishing, the spin and shot assured.
It has been said before but it had to be said again. How is Bellingham only 19? He was central to England’s barnstorming start as they quickly came to control the tempo and the ball, looking extremely confident on it. Bellingham showed his quick feet in possession, his strength and rangy stride plus his passing ability. He won the ball, he made things happen. Above all, he looked fearless.
Italy are, of course, the reigning European champions, although it feels as if their second failure in a row to qualify for the World Cup is defining them more at present. Local optimism had not been high before kick-off, especially with Roberto Mancini being without a clutch of injured players including Leonardo Bonucci, Federico Chiesa and Giacomo Raspadori. It is not a vintage Italy, although it is still Italy.
England simply dominated the first half. They enjoyed themselves. Italy could not get near to them, the combinations up through the thirds easy on the eye. From back to front – and that included the goalkeeper, Jordan Pickford – the passing was on point.
It was incredible to see the spaces that England were able to create and the chances flowed before the interval, a further clutch coming before Kane’s record goal. Italy were made to look toothless. Saka got into dangerous areas and even Kalvin Phillips, who was recalled to stiffen the midfield, fizzed a shot just wide.
The only frustration of the first half was that Grealish did not make it 3-0 in stoppage time. Saka found Kane and Grealish had to score when the captain cut back low, the open goal gaping. Grealish held his head for a good while after miscuing wide of the far post.
Italy were much better at the start of the second half, even if they could hardly have been worse, and England – flushed by their fantasy football in the first period – were guilty of offering them encouragement. Which was ridiculous. It was still Italy.
There had been huge focus on Retegui, the Argentina-born striker who Mancini had called up for the first time, and the Tigre player, on loan from Boca Juniors, hauled his team back into it with a low finish after Lorenzo Pellegrini’s lovely reverse pass. Harry Maguire lost possession and Italy worked the opening expertly, Marco Verratti prominent.
The turnaround was remarkable. The mind went back to Grealish’s miss. Italy pushed high and it was them that looked composed on the ball, threatening with it, too. England made errors. They looked vulnerable in defence, less secure in all areas.
It was nervy after Shaw’s dismissal. The celebrations were raucous at the end. – Guardian