England miles off it ahead of World Cup as Italy loss shows problems

Italy v England: Pictures

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On the face of it, a 1-0 defeat to Italy at the San Siro seems a harsh way to be relegated – even if it is only the UEFA Nations League. But with England, context always seems to be far too convenient an excuse. Italy, for their abject failure to qualify for the World Cup this winter are still European champions – don’t we know it. England have not won in Italy since 1961 and competitively anywhere against them since 1978.

But now there is also that other context nagging at this generation of stars that seem frustratingly short of being able to fulfil their staggering potential. Unable to meet that expectation that has been building to this year’s World Cup since Greg Dyke wound up his blessed countdown clock a decade ago with the opening of St George’s Park.

So while England were able to come to this famous stadium and show for periods they have the ability to go toe-to-toe with the game’s finest, it is still in the guise of plucky underdogs, too often forced back against the ropes. Certainly, there was little evidence during the 90 minutes that they are yet able to go into games confident of beating the best – which is supposedly the agenda in just two months’ time.

Germany on Monday gives Gareth Southgate’s side one last chance of finding that missing ingredient before they pack for Qatar. But boy, right now does it seem hidden now amidst rather too much baggage. The back-three system looked strong with Eric Dier fresh from the school of Antonio Conte and back in an international shirt. Even Harry Maguire looked comfortable alongside him.

But even with the extra man in defence, the whole system unravelled when Kyle Walker had one of his lapses of concentration in the 68th minute and Giacomo Raspadori compounded an exemplary first touch by shifting away from the Manchester City defender too easily and firing past Nick Pope. England had shown none of that thrust, particularly in a first half in which a desperate 25-yarder from Harry Kane that flew over the bar was the entire sum of their threat.

A bright spell after the break failed to yield much more, Reece James hitting a free-kick so high it was in danger of being laughed out of the stadium by the Italy fans and a Harry Kane ‘steal’ coming to nothing. The England captain seemed to have little of the rapport with Raheem Sterling and Phil Foden that make his tendency to drift in and out of position so dangerous with Tottenham, where he is surrounded by team-mate who understand his foibles.

And behind them Declan Rice and Jude Bellingham are still a shade or two short from being able to turn in the sort of midfield masterclass with which Jorginho kept England on the back foot. As in recent internationals, England’s one saving grace was they were at least to lift things in the chase to the line.

England will certainly not be the best team in Qatar, but their squad is among the elite and the ability to throw Jack Grealish into the fray always brings hope. His mischief was enough to create a double opportunity for Kane, which Gianluigi Donnarumma did well to beat away on each occasion and England’s probing of the Italian defence suddenly looked just that little bit more forensic.

The sacrifice was that extra man at the back, and the central defensive pair of Maguire and Dier were nearly caught again when Manolo Gabbiadini broke clear, his shot was saved, and Federico Dimarco fired the rebound against the base of the post.

Then in injury time, Bellingham headed narrowly over the bar from close range. Those are the fine margins of international football. But right now they are adding up to the huge chasm that separates England from where they want to be.

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