Complete striker Kane not done yet
“When I presented him the boot for breaking the record he said to me he’d be giving it back to me one day.” Harry Kane had a smile on his face as he remembered Wayne Rooney’s words to him in 2015. Rooney now hands the baton onto Kane – and the new record holder looks to run with it out of sight.
At just 29 years old Kane – as he noted himself after his landmark penalty against Italy – has years on the international stage ahead of him and is showing no signs of slowing down. His ratio of 54 goals from 81 caps sets him apart in the modern era.
That relentless mentality was summed up by his spot-kick in Naples. Just 103 days after he scored one and then missed one against France in the World Cup quarter-finals, he was back on penalty duty for his country.
It must have been nerve-racking, given the enormity of the moment and what had happened in December. But when Kane lashed the ball into the net it was like it had never been in doubt.
He had looked weighed down with the pressure before his miss against France but has responded superbly to that setback with a glut of goals for Tottenham. But on Thursday his performance wasn’t just one strike from 12 yards, it was an excellent all-round display, setting the tone for a fine first-half team performance and then helping his countrymen get over the line at the end.
Italy boss Roberto Mancini described him as a “complete striker”. That he is – but he’s not done yet.
Questions will linger over Southgate
Away against the reigning European champions, at a hostile Diego Armando Maradona Stadium, Southgate’s 50th win as England manager should go down as one of his most impressive.
And yet, it is also possible to find familiar flaws in the performance. Why, after dominating the first half so comprehensively, did England surrender the initiative so readily in the second? Why was the manager so hesitant to change things?
England deserve enormous credit, of course, for taking a two-goal lead into the interval. Their first-half display was a reminder of how far they have come. But it was not the first time Southgate’s side have seemed unsure where to go from there.
The Euro 2020 final, against the same opponent, of course, followed a similar pattern, with England unable to build on their advantage and losing the momentum, and it was a similar story in their World Cup semi-final loss to Croatia in 2018.
This time, England were able to hold on. Again, though, many will feel Southgate lacked decisiveness with his changes. It was not until the 69th minute that he made his first substitution, Jack Grealish coming off for Phil Foden, and his second, which saw Foden ignominiously sub-subbed, a rare show of ruthlessness from the manager, was only a response to Luke Shaw’s red card.
All the while, England were sinking further and further back, unable to muster so much as a shot in the second half. Their grit and resilience in holding on was creditable, but it is also reasonable to wonder whether they made it harder than it needed to be.
Brilliant Bellingham now crucial for England
Jude Bellingham is still 19. It feels important to keep on reminding yourself of that when you watch him play. On Thursday night he was the standout player on the pitch in the first half.
A roulette teed up Jack Grealish. A thumping tackle set up Bukayo Saka. And then a drive of his own had to be brilliantly tipped over by Gianluigi Donnarumma. He was inches away from capping a lung-busting burst into the box with a goal-grabbing touch on a Harry Kane cross.
It was 45 minutes which summed up the all-round magnificence of Bellingham. Flair. Finesse. Fight. The exceptional technique and the cool but confident persona. It’s no wonder the biggest clubs in the world are scrambling to sign him for huge sums this summer. For Gareth Southgate he’s a gift.
With Declan Rice and Kalvin Phillips mopping up behind him, Bellingham is thriving in the more attacking role he was handed by the England manager during the World Cup. His link-up play with the attackers around him improving by the game.
It’s an exciting prospect for England supporters. And now a crucial part of their team’s hopes of winning a major competition.
Just 19. Wow.
Rice offers a riposte to his critics
Declan Rice had spoken out on what he perceived to be “harsh” criticism from Graeme Souness and Roy Keane in the build-up to the game but his most powerful response came on the pitch.
The Sky Sports pundits had questioned whether the 24-year-old offers enough offensively to be considered a truly top midfielder but there he was, on 13 minutes, firing home the opening goal from inside the Italy box following a corner.
It was only his third in an England shirt but the manner in which he took it hinted at sharpened attacking instincts and there was plenty more to like about his performance.
The midfield battled pitted him against Marco Verratti, Jorginho and Nicolo Barella but he dominated in the first half, then helped repel Italy as England sank back in the second.
He used the ball intelligently, charging forward when the opportunity arose, and his defensive contribution was even more impressive. Rice anticipated danger repeatedly, winning possession, halting Italy attacks and offering protection for his back four.
With the ball and without it, this was a complete performance from Rice, and one which suggests he may have had a point about the recent criticism which has been aimed his way.
Maguire still under scrutiny after errors
Premier League minutes have been hard to come by for Harry Maguire this season but once again Southgate showed the belief he has in the Manchester United defender by starting him at the heart of England’s defence in Naples.
And again, Maguire, who will have been helped by having started United’s last two games against Real Betis and Fulham, looked assured in an England shirt for much of the first half as the Three Lions dominated against Italy.
However, fresh scrutiny will now be on the centre-back after Italy were handed a way back into the game thanks to two errors in the build up to Mateo Retegui’s goal.
First, Maguire gifted possession to the hosts before clumsily fouling Nicolo Barella in the process, picking up a booking. The 30-year-old was left out of position, with Lorenzo Pellegrini eventually smartly playing the ball into Retegui to strike home and brig Italy back into the game.
Up until then England had looked comfortable and it set up a nervy ending to the game as Maguire helped his side cling on to gain a valuable three points, but it does not take much for defender’s name to be back in the spotlight.
All his good work in Naples was undone by avoidable errors, which will see plenty calling for him to lose his place in the starting XI. But will Southgate resist the calls for change? On the evidence that’s gone before Maguire will start against Ukraine on Sunday, but the pressure will be firmly on again to perform.
Grealish fails to seize his chance
Jack Grealish has never been Gareth Southgate’s man for the big occasion.
Overlooked from the start in all England’s World Cup games in Qatar, the Manchester City man has only really flirted with becoming a key man for Southgate. But a chance was handed to him Naples, preferred to Phil Foden as Marcus Rashford was missing with injury.
Did he take it? The jury is out.
At times, he dazzled with the ball. Showing tremendous early chemistry with Bellingham and dancing past Italian defenders with his usual nimble feet. However, what continues to hold Grealish back is his raw attacking output in terms of goal involvements.
Much of his all-round game has improved under Pep Guardiola, especially his positional play without the ball, but he has yet to master the art of popping up where it matters in the box to put the final ruthless finish to score his team a goal. Kane whipped in a cross midway through England’s dominant first half that was begging to be tapped in at the back post but Grealish was 15 yards away.
Then, with England 2-0 up, Grealish fluffed his big chance on half time to add to his miserly two-goal tally for his country when failing to properly connect with another superb Kane cross from the right. It was a chance Foden scores with his eyes closed. And it’s that aspect of Grealish’s game that may always leave him a little short with Southgate.
England’s Group C schedule…
England will play home and away against Italy, Ukraine, North Macedonia and Malta in Group C. After this evening, their fixture list is as follows:
- Mar 26, 2023 – England vs Ukraine
- Jun 16, 2023 – Malta vs England
- Jun 19, 2023 – England vs North Macedonia
- Sep 9, 2023 – Ukraine vs England
- Oct 17, 2023 – England vs Italy
- Nov 17, 2023 – England vs Malta
- Nov 20, 2023 – North Macedonia vs England
England host Ukraine in their next European Championship Qualifier at Wembley on Sunday; kick off 5pm.
Italy are away to Malta at the Ta’ Qali National Stadium on the same day in Group C; kick off 7.45pm.