Why England’s resilient win over Italy was so significant
A night of historic landmarks in Naples, if also one that quickly went from the easiest of important victories to an immensely difficult test of character.
Harry Kane became England’s record scorer with his 54th international goal, to ensure the national team won in Italy for the first time since 1961, and also claimed their first qualifying win away to a major nation since Germany in 2001.
Any fanciful ideas that this 2-1 would instead be another 5-1 from the first half instead swiftly dissipated, as Italy belatedly displayed why they had the momentum to become defending champions themselves.
After a period when England had showcased all of their best strengths - especially through the brilliance of Jude Bellingham - Italy began to exploit weaknesses, especially at centre-half. Gareth Southgate’s side instead had to find different qualities, but that what was made it a statement for Euro 2024 in itself. Make no mistake, even if England inevitably made a few themselves. This was a seriously good win, as much because of how troubling the second half became.
They all looked relieved at the end, as Italy seemed so deflated.
Southgate himself looked like he didn’t want to go through that again.
What he must try to recapture, however, is just how commanding England were for that first half.
The period between the fifth and 45th minute was so good that it must come quite close to what Southgate sees as his perfect display. Above anyone, even Kane, there was Bellingham. He has clearly only gone to another level since the World Cup, and brings the team up several levels with him. What feels most influential is how he amplifies everything around him. It was Bellingham’s stunning long strike that set it all off, bringing the corner from which Declan Rice opened the scoring.
The only surprising element of that was that the West Ham United midfielder didn’t have some celebratory message for Graeme Souness given his own pre-match comments, since England were at that point so intensely dominant a goal looked like it could come from anywhere. As it was, their most reliable ever scorer in Kane had a shot blocked, and Rice was there to do what Souness claimed he couldn’t.
One of the most telling sights of the game thereafter was the midfielder just charging through the open plains of the Italy midfield, barely a player close to him, let alone a challenge.
The image of the game, of course, will be Kane celebrating that 41st-minute penalty. There was a symmetry and something of a catharsis in the moment, given that it was a spot-kick that the captain missed against France to win the Al Bayt in Qatar. While this won’t bring back the chance to win the World Cup, it might just be a step towards the European Championships.
The rest of the game illustrated there is still a long way to go, of course, but it is worth reflecting on how quickly Kane has broken this record. He broke Wayne Rooney’s record in 39 fewer caps. And while a natural response to that is that he has been a pure striker in contrast to the way Rooney was moved around, Kane was in the first half a playmaker as much as a number-nine. He was linking play with Bellingham brilliantly. Bukayo Saka was showing his own rise, the player doing Italy the most damage on the wings. There were just so many little touches that were great to look at and yet took chunks out of Italy.
The problem was how long was left, and how proactive Mancini can be. The European champions revved it up to become relentless. Through that, even if this was an Italy without the emotional momentum of two summers ago, it was maybe how the Euro 2020 final could have gone. England this time got a second goal before Mancini inevitably found a response.
If the first half was the ideal Southgate imagines, it was hard not to imagine the Italian manager going apoplectic. This had maybe been a display even worse than North Macedonia. It then became something more akin to Euro 202. Italy came out transformed. They were the side suddenly controlling play, forcing England into defiant blocks in the moments when they weren’t opening Jordan Pickford’s defence with one-twos. That may well be an issue for Southgate in future, especially with the dearth of top centre-halves. Italy were repeatedly looking to play quick exchanges around Harry Maguire, and it was a similar move that brought Mateo Retegui’s fine goal.
England were so stretched by then that Luke Shaw was forced into two bookable offences in the space of 54 seconds. It meant Phil Foden had to off just 12 minutes after coming on for tactical reasons. Italy were relentless. Substitute Wilfried Gnonto was everywhere.
England - and their centre-halves - were, for their part, resilient. They stood up, even as club managers will be aghast at how the game brought players to their knees in emotional exhaustion.
All that mattered here was victory.
England, after all that, have their biggest away from home in a qualifier since 2001. That is far from insignificant, as Southgate continues to build for the most significant campaign yet.