Gareth Southgate says facing “revitalised” Italy will be a great test of where England are at as they attempt to seal European Championship qualification with two matches to spare.
The Euro 2020 runners-up can wrap up their place at next summer’s finals in Germany in Tuesday evening’s mouthwatering Group C clash against the Azzurri at a sold-out Wembley.
It will be the nations’ fourth meeting since Italy beat England on spot-kicks in the Euros final just over two years ago but their first reunion under the arch, with their previous meetings coming in Wolverhampton, Milan and Naples.
The Azzurri return to Wembley a far different side from when they became continental champions there, with Luciano Spalletti in charge of a new-look team that host Malta on Saturday evening before heading to London.
“Italy look revitalised under Spalletti,” Southgate said. “They were excellent against Ukraine last month. They’re a top-10 nation.
“We’ve talked about these top-10 games and the importance of them, the challenge of them.
“We have the chance to qualify for the European Championships with two games to spare.
“But also it’s a great test of where we are as a team and, yeah, it’s a challenge we’re really looking forward to.”
The Euro 2024 qualifier completes England’s October doubleheader at Wembley after securing an unconvincing 1-0 friendly win against unfancied Australia on Friday.
Returning Ollie Watkins secured Southgate’s much-changed side victory against the surprisingly dangerous Socceroos on a night when stand-in skipper Jordan Henderson was booed off the field.
The England boss defended the Al-Ettifaq midfielder and felt his experience was key having taken a risk by making 10 alterations in an experimental line-up against the Aussies.
“I don’t think it was a win because of how we played,” Southgate said. “We had enough quality on the pitch to be able to create a couple of important moments.
“But we know that all the changes, the inexperience of the team, made it was really tough for the players that played. I set them a really difficult challenge.
“It was great that they got the win. It was important to keep winning because if we if we lose the game or you give a goal away at the end then you leave here on a bit of a low. It sets the game up now with Italy.
“In the end, it’s very hard to prepare the squad when they know ultimately this week really is about the Italy game and it’s impossible to dress that up any other way.
“But for the players that played, for some of them their Wembley debut, for some of them their England debut. Massively important nights for them.”
Arsenal striker Eddie Nketiah made his England debut as a second-half substitute against Australia, while versatile Chelsea defender Levi Colwill made his bow from the start.
“Important first steps for them,” Southgate said of the debutants.
“I mean, Levi is a young defender. We know he’s not a left-back first choice, but he’s filling that slot for his club.
“What we tried to do is start with a team where everybody was pretty much in the roles they’re playing with their clubs, so that it was as smooth as it could be.
“But in the knowledge that we didn’t have a lot of caps on the field, we didn’t have a lot of leadership.
“Normally, we’d be putting one or two of those lads in with a lot more experience and a lot more continuity, so it was extremely hard for that group of players.”
Southgate came away from a challenging friendly pleased with a number of individual displays, highlighting Trent Alexander-Arnold’s problem-solving as he learns more about being a midfielder.
Matchwinner Watkins’ movement and positioning was praised after scoring on his first England appearance since March 2022, while Lewis Dunk’s development continues to impress his boss.
The Brighton defender won his third cap in central defence alongside Fikayo Tomori, who was replaced by John Stones in the 62nd minute as he continues his recovery from a hip issue.
“Thirty minutes for John Stones was very important for us, to get him onto the pitch,” Southgate said of the Manchester City defender, who made his first Premier League appearance last weekend.
“We’re managing that recovery carefully, we’re combining really well with his club on all of that.
“But he’s a world-class player, and it was great to get him up and running.”
Published: by Radio NewsHub