Ahead of key men’s Euro qualifiers against Italy and Ukraine this week, we highlight some of the issues the England coach needs to address
By Chris Miller, Feature Writer
International football can be weird sometimes. Italy have proven themselves as difficult opponents for England in recent dust-ups, beating them in the final of Euro 2020 and then consigning them to Nations League relegation with a 1-0 win in Milan in September.
But while England put in a decent performance at the FIFA World Cup in Qatar, before exiting in the quarter-final stage to defending champs (and eventual runners-up) France, the Italians were sitting at home biting their knuckles in frustration having failed to even qualify.
Now Gareth Southgate’s men are facing Roberto Mancini’s side yet again, in the first match of a double-header of UEFA Euro 2024 qualifiers over the coming weekend. The two teams are rivals for top spot in Group C, so this opening game in Naples on Thursday is a chance for both sides to lay down a marker.
There are two automatic qualifying places on offer – which means Ukraine, who visit Wembley on Sunday, will be extra determined to break into the top two at the expense of either England or Italy. There are other reasons they’re desperate for success, of course, and we expect England and their fans to pay tribute to the strength of the Ukrainian people in terrible circumstances. But once the whistle goes, it’ll be a hard-fought contest.
Ahead of the games, we ask the big questions the England boss and former waistcoat model will have to answer as his team embarks on their Euros qualifying journey.
When are the England matches on TV?
Italy v England is on Thursday 23 March at 7pm on Channel 4 HD (CH 104/108). England v Ukraine is on Sunday 26 March at 4pm on Channel 4 HD.
Is it time for a goalkeeper rethink?
GRARGH! RAARGHGH! Jordan Pickford’s regular explosions of fury at things he doesn’t like – and also things he does – are fine when everything’s going well. But he, and Everton, are having a bad season, so they’re starting to look like the actions of a man who’s losing the plot. Southgate has been loyal to Pickford, who to be fair has made very few mistakes in an England shirt. But with Arsenal top of the league, could it be time to see if the in-form, somewhat calmer Aaron Ramsdale is a better fit?
Are these the best centre-back options?
Harry Maguire has started five league games for Manchester United this season. John Stones is just back from a hamstring injury. Marc Guéhi hasn’t kicked on as hoped. Eric Dier is Eric Dier. But it seems Southgate is happy to largely stick with the central defenders he used in 2022/23’s dismal Nations League campaign, which ended in relegation. Fikayo Tomori, who won the Serie A title with AC Milan last year and has performed well in this year’s Champions League, has not been called up – even though, if nothing else, he should know how to handle Italians.
Who supports Harry Kane in attack?
Kane is banging in the goals as usual so the question is who will support him, with Southgate fave Raheem Sterling and the in-red-hot-form Marcus Rashford injured. The coach finally seems convinced that Bukayo Saka is his best option on the right – as recently as September he played at left wing-back, also against Italy – so attention turns to the left, where two Manchester City players are competing for one place.
Pep Guardiola has recently preferred Jack Grealish but Southgate seems to view him as an impact sub, whereas Phil Foden has featured in seven of the last eight England matches, with five starts to Grealish’s zero. As for James Maddison, he’s in the squad, but we’re not sure the loquacious Leicester man is even part of the conversation.
Who should play on the left of defence?
England have two seriously good left-backs. Luke Shaw started all England’s games in the World Cup and he’s having a steady season at Manchester United (Anfield humbling aside). And since Ben Chilwell returned from injury, it’s been obvious how much Chelsea missed him. So which of them is the long-term solution on the left? Of course, knowing Southgate, he’ll pick Kieran Trippier there.
Is a double midfield pivot required?
We all know Jude Bellingham is the saviour of English football, but he and Declan Rice looked lost when paired in midfield against Italy in September. Given the central defensive frailties, will Southgate go with two deep midfielders in a 4-3-3? That would allow Bellingham to range forward and have an impact in the final third. And is Kalvin Phillips, who was so good at Euro 2020 but has less than 90 minutes’ game time in the Premier League this season, ready to form part of that midfield?
Who else could play a part in qualifying?
Southgate isn’t one for leftfield choices but sometimes new faces can shake up a squad. Crystal Palace’s Eberechi Eze was on the verge of a call-up before his serious Achilles injury and offers rare creativity – he’s the closest thing England have to a Thomas Müller-style Raumdeuter, even if he’s not the finished article. Ezri Konsa has been excelling in the Aston Villa defence for a while. And Solly March is having the season of his life at Brighton. With his crossing ability, penetrating runs and goal threat, he’d be the perfect understudy for Bukayo Saka at the very least. Perhaps this trio may have roles to play as the qualifiers continue.
How to watch England’s Euro 2024 qualifiers on TV
Italy v England
Thursday 23 March, 7pm, Channel 4 HD (CH 104/108)
England v Ukraine
Sunday 26 March, 4pm, Channel 4 HD (CH 104/108)
Malta v England
Friday 16 June, Channel 4 HD (CH 104/108)
England v North Macedonia
Monday 19 June, Channel 4 HD (CH 104/108)
Ukraine v England
Saturday 9 September, Channel 4 HD (CH 104/108)
England v Italy
Tuesday 17 October, Channel 4 HD (CH 104/108)
England v Malta
Friday 17 November, Channel 4 HD (CH 104/108)
North Macedonia v England
Monday 20 November, Channel 4 HD (CH 104/108)
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