England suffered the shame of relegation from the top flight of the Nations League after a lackluster defeat by Italy, raising further concerns ahead of the upcoming World Cup.
Among the favorites to triumph in Qatar after reaching the semi-finals and final of Euro 2020 four years ago, Gareth Southgate’s side have been struggling lately.
Unable to win any of their four games in June, the Three Lions put up a poor response to Molineux’s 4-0 win against Hungary, with Giacomo Raspadori handing Roberto Mancini’s Italy a 1-0 win on Friday.
A fifth straight game without a win means the Southgate side are relegated from Group A of the Nations League – a competition in which they finished third three years ago – with a game to go.
Midfielder Declan Rice tried to remain optimistic, telling Channel 4: “It’s obviously disappointing. Every tournament we go to we wanted to win. We slipped below our standards in the Nations League, but I didn’t think everything was bad tonight.”
“It’s coming. It was a much better performance than in the summer.
“It’s not that we don’t create chances. I see it in training. Goals are scored for fun. Believe me, we’ll be good.”
The relegation is embarrassing but the performance is arguably more worrying as there are just 59 days until the World Cup opener against Iran.
The Euro 2020 finalists had played out a memorable goalless draw behind closed doors in June and the first half in Milan somehow became even more dreary as England struggled with the absent Azzurri.
Things didn’t get any better for the visitors as Italy, who will not be in Qatar, kept them at bay and secured the win thanks to Raspadori’s fine display.
Southgate’s side lacked the ruthlessness required on the eve of a San Siro clash that ended in more questions than answers with only the home game against Germany remaining on Monday before the World Cup.
Bukayo Saka, who was named England Men’s Player of the Year earlier in the day, was deployed at left-back at San Siro, where Eric Dier won his first cap since November 2020, making six substitutions from Hungary.
Harry Maguire was also called in and the disgraced Manchester United captain’s name was chanted by the 4,415 fans who had traveled in as a show of support that followed Thursday’s public support for Southgate.
The 29-year-old settled down after a shaky start as Italy started on the front foot, with Gianluca Scamacca beating him all too easily to a deep Federico Dimarco cross from the right.
A combination of Nick Pope replacing the injured Jordan Pickford and the woodwork prevented the West Ham striker’s powerful header at his near post before the frontman hit wide from long-range.
England tamed that storm and began to enjoy periods of possession, albeit without bringing creativity and excitement to their game.
Awkward with the ball, there was precious little to note in terms of chances apart from Jude Bellingham’s shot into the ground and Harry Kane lashing out from long range.
Luckily there was no stoppage time at the end of a miserable first half.
Dier produced an important block and Reece James miserably overplayed a well-placed free-kick after Leonardo Bonucci tripped Raheem Sterling on the edge of the area.
Phil Foden threw his hands in the air in frustration as Kane fired in a tight-angle shot when he was clear at the back post as the visitors’ incoherent display continued.
Luckily for England, a combination of an offside flag and Nicolo Barella’s poor finish prevented them from going from behind in the 57th minute after Dimarco was released to send a well-placed cross to the far post.
The game was now ragged and stretched, swaying from end to end without much quality. Rafael Toloi prevented Saka from catching a cross from Kane before substitute Wilfried Gnonto’s sharp shot forced a fine block.
The impasse was finally broken in the 68th minute when the Azzurri struck.
Bonucci’s long ball put Raspadori in play behind Kyle Walker, with the striker remaining calm before sending a beautiful shot past Pope straight from the box.
Kane forced Gianluigi Donnarumma to make a double save as England chased a leveller, with former Southampton striker Manolo Gabbiadini saving a shot from Pope at the other end before Dimarco’s cross shot hit a post.
Declan Rice saw a hopeful stoppage time saved and Bellingham headed over as Italy saw victory, leaving the traveling hordes audibly frustrated after full-time.
Updated September 23, 2022 at 9:29 p.m