England’s underwhelming week of Uefa Nations League action continued with a goalless draw against Italy at Molineux. A share of the points keeps Roberto Mancini’s team top of Group A3 and England rooted to the bottom, with relegation from the top tier of the competition becoming a distinct possibility.
However, England’s Nations League fate is a second priority to their preparations for this winters World Cup. And a third game without victory doesn’t bode particularly well for Gareth Southgate’s side. There was little to get excited by from the goings-on here in the west Midlands, just as defeat to Hungary and a 1-1 draw with Germany in the week dampened England’s aura.
This was the third successive game that England failed to score from open play and once again Southgate’s team looked rather blunt in attack with chances at a premium despite having more possession than their Italian visitors. Apart from Aaron Ramsdale pulling off a handful of useful saves to keep a clean sheet, Declan Rice driving forward from midfield and Reece James lively down the right, this was a muted performance by the home team.
Not even a smattering of revenge was dished out by Southgate’s men to the team which defeated them in last summers European Championship final. The current European champions are in transition having failed to book a place in Qatar and there was evidence that Mancini’s young prospects are already on their way back up after suffering such disappointment.
They were the brighter and livelier side early on whereas England were predicable and seemingly longing for the season to finally come to its conclusion. It was another disjointed display and for some the national team glass remains half empty less than six months out from the World Cup.
Whether it be fatigue after a tiring campaign or something more fundamental, England must overcome it and end the season with a win against Hungary back here on Tuesday evening to restore an element of hope with only two games remaining before they travel to Qatar.
Story of the game
The Euro 2020 final between these two teams last July will be remembered for Italy securing the European crown but also for the rioting mob outside Wembley who marred the showpiece by attempting to storm the national stadium on the country’s biggest footballing night in a generation. England’s punishment was having to play this fixture in front of a virtually empty stadium in Wolverhampton.
Around 3,000 children were allowed in under Uefa’s ruling but the atmosphere was more akin to the ghost games of lockdown with a creche-like element thrown in too. Southgate rotated his team with an eye on his players’ workload; Ramsdale, James Ward-Prowse and Tammy Abraham were all given starts. Meanwhile, only two names remained present on the Italy team sheet from that July night in a sign of the evolution Mancini is currently overseeing.
Italy fearless youth were quick out the traps and Davide Frattesi’s shot, which he dragged wide of the far post after being picked out by Lorenzo Pellegrini, represented a let-off for England. The visitors’ 4-3-3 was taking on Southgate’s 4-2-3-1 with Mason Mount the No 10 in the pocket behind Abraham, and the Chelsea player had his own good sights of goal in the early stages but shot straight at Gianluigi Donnarumma before curling another effort off the crossbar.
This was all played to the background of yelps and screams from the youngsters in the stands but concentration soon wained as the contest faded into a more subdued affair and both teams deployed kid gloves. It was all rather tight and the tempo dropped quite starkly from any early impetus. Still Rice volleyed high from a Ward-Prowse corner and Jack Grealish unleashed a shot which Federico Gatti blocked. Good chances in hindsight.
Italy’s openings were more clear cut though and came from the right side. The home team were indebted to Ramsdale who saved from Sandro Tonoli with his legs on 25 minutes and then tipped over a deflected effort from Matteo Pessina. The Italy midfielder was also denied by Fikayo Tomori, who won the Serie A title with AC Milan this season, and Ramsdale once again saved the follow-up from Manuel Locatelli.
The aim of this game, along with the previous two, was for Southgate to tinker and observe players who may be on the borderline of inclusion for his World Cup squad. But, in truth, there has been very little to garner from three somewhat insipid displays. Little has been added to England’s credentials in the past week.
Impetus has often been lacking from Southgate’s side but the second half saw them start to push a little more aggressively with Grealish running with greater menace. It was Raheem Sterling, out on the right of England’s forward line, who spurned their best chance when Grealish passed to James and his delivery was whipped into the danger area. Sterling was in around the back but he couldn’t get his body shape right and scooped high over Donnarumma’s goal.
Both managers made changes which did little for the already non-existent flow of the game. Abraham, another Englishman who has taken well to Serie A, had worked hard in his rare chance up top for England but service to the Roma striker had been limited. Jarrod Bowen, Bukayo Saka and Harry Kane all arrived but couldn’t improve England’s fortunes.
When Italian substitute Degnand Wilfried Gnonto cut in and shot into the side netting of England’s goal, everyone decided to call it a night.
England: Ramsdale; James, Tomori (Guehi 88), Maguire, Trippier; Ward-Prowse, Rice (Phillips 65); Sterling (Saka 79), Mount (Bowen 65), Grealish; Abraham (Kane 65).
Subs (not used): Pope, Stones, Walker, Coady, Bellingham, Gallagher, Pickford.
Italy: Donnarumma; Di Lorenzo, Gatti, Acerbi, Dimarco (Florenzi 87); Frattesi, Locatelli (Gnonto 64), Tonali; Pessina (Cristante 88), Scamacca (Raspadori 77), Pellegrini (Esposito 64).
Subs (not used): Gollini, Marchi, Calabria, Politano, Barella, Scalvini, Meret.
Referee: Szymon Marciniak (Poland).