England held to goalless draw by Italy in Nations League

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 (The FA via Getty Images)
(The FA via Getty Images)

England’s first meeting with Italy since last year’s European Championship final was only a repeat of that night at Wembley in that both sides had cancelled each other out by the end of it. Otherwise, there was none of the jeopardy, none of the tension, no penalty shoot-out and thankfully, none of the trouble in the stands either. For the 1,000 or so schoolchildren watching this goalless draw in an otherwise empty Molineux due to a stadium ban on supporters, this was a memorable occasion. For everyone else in attendance, it was forgettable.

The question, three competitive games out from the World Cup, is how much Gareth Southgate has learned. For the first time in almost four years, England have gone three games without winning. This point keeps their chance of progressing from this group alive - thanks to Hungary holding Germany in Budapest - but still bottom of the group. The last goal from open play came in March, more than four hours of football ago. While admitting this end-of-season camp could have gone better, Southgate will not be overly concerned.

After all, it is difficult to separate the sluggishness on display with the fact that these Nations League games are coming at the end of a long, hard campaign. Both teams looked tired at Molineux - more tired than they did after a month of competition last year - and the fatigue particularly told during a second half that was low on real chances. Aaron Ramsdale impressed, making a handful of important saves to keep Roberto Mancini’s side out. Raheem Sterling could perhaps have won the game, spurning England’s best chance from close range. Other than that, there was little to write home about.

With these final two Molineux games to be played in the space of four days, Southgate wanted to take the rare opportunity to test some of those on the fringes of his first-choice line-up against elite opposition. Tammy Abraham and Fikayo Tomori were granted a chance to impress against familiar opponents after their impressive seasons in Serie A. Ramsdale was given the nod in goal and James Ward-Prowse the same in midfield.

Yet while England were arguably a half-strength, this was Italy’s second string. Only two of their line-up started last year’s final - one of those being penalty shoot-out hero Gianluigi Donnarumma - and Federico Gatti has never played higher than the second tier. The sense of experimentation on both sides, coupled with the empty seats and sound of excitable children, contributed to the sense that there was not very much at stake. This resulted in a game that was strangely open in spells but largely stultifying

Mason Mount went closest to scoring, striking the underside of the bar after a neat one-two with Sterling early on. Mount’s wait for an international goal stretches into its fourteenth game - the type of drought that invites scrutiny - but he was England’s busiest and brightest up top in and out of possession before the break. One earlier wave of his pressing had forced Donnarumma into a wayward pass that Abraham pounced upon to go through one-on-one, though a moment’s hesitation by the Roma striker saw the danger snuffed out.

Italy were threatening too. Davide Frattesi turned a clear-cut chance around the wrong side of Ramsdale’s right-hand post after just two minutes and Sandro Tonali went much closer midway through the half, forcing Ramsdale to save with legs while diving the opposite way. Giovanni Di Lorenzo, the other Wembley survivor to start, was repeatedly finding space down England’s left and it was from that same flank, just before the interval, that Matteo Pessina cut inside and had Ramsdale stretching to tip an attempt over.

 (The FA via Getty Images)
(The FA via Getty Images)

England were enjoying themselves down their own right-hand side too, though, and if something was going right, Reece James was invariably involved.

Of the four outfielders to come into the side since Tuesday’s draw in Munich, the Chelsea wing-back made the greatest impression. It was his cross at the start of the second half that found Sterling unmarked at the far post. Unfortunately, he made a meal of the connection, tying his feet up in knots to lift the ball over the crossbar from point-blank range.

That would be England’s best opportunity of the night, even after the introduction of Harry Kane for Abraham just after the hour mark.

Southgate will be pleased with how his side did not fall into the traps of the Wembley final eleven months ago. Wasteful with the ball that night, they ended this rematch with the lion’s share of possession and more attempts on goal than Italy. In terms of real positives, though, there was slim pickings. Perhaps the only real silver lining for his tired players is that there is only one more of these games to go.