Taking the first step towards defending their continental crown, Italy welcome England to the Stadio Diego Armando Maradona for Thursday’s Euro 2024 qualifying Group C opener.
The Azzurri ensured that football would not come home when they defeated the Three Lions on penalties in the Euro 2020 final, but Roberto Mancini’s champions have since lost their sparkle.
Still reliving their North Macedonian nightmares, Italy fans can look forward to a reunion with their World Cup playoff conquerors in their Euros qualifying section, as they endeavour to consign another global failure to the history books.
The dominant force prior to and during the delayed Euro 2020 campaign, Italy once again came up short in their bid to appear at the World Cup Finals – losing to North Macedonia in the playoff semi-final to watch on from home for the second time running – and Argentina barely broke a sweat in a 3-0 Finalissima win over Mancini’s crop last year.
On a brighter note, Italy have a Nations League crown firmly within their sights after beating England, Hungary and Germany to top spot in League A Group 3 – a semi-final with Spain awaits in June – while they beat Albania 3-1 before losing 2-0 to Austria in their most recent bout of friendlies in November.
While no teams have competed in a Euros qualifier since pre-COVID times, Italy’s remarkable feats at this stage are well-documented – the Azzurri have won each of their last 14 qualification games and are unbeaten in 40 since going down 3-1 to France in 2006.
Furthermore, it has been 24 years since the reigning continental champions last lost a Euros qualifier on home soil – suffering a 3-2 beating to Denmark in 1999 – and an unforgiving Naples atmosphere will be sure to play its part in the hosts’ effort to extend that stunning streak.
Unable to take inspiration from watching the women’s team soar to continental stardom in their Euro 2022 campaign, another quarter-final exit reared its ugly heads for England in Qatar, as Gareth Southgate’s golden generation saw another opportunity at silverware pass them by.
Few roadblocks were expected en route to a first-placed group ranking or last-16 battle with Senegal, but Harry Kane’s second penalty against France is still rising, and a plethora of questions over Southgate’s future were unsurprisingly brought up in the wake of more major-tournament heartache.
The FA continue to place their faith in the 52-year-old to end 57 years of hurt, but Southgate will soon lead his side into the unfamiliar territory of UEFA Nations League B following a torrid relegation from the big time last year, and the glass remains half-empty for a good chunk of the Three Lions faithful.
However, the Three Lions can boast 17 wins from their last 18 Euros qualifying matches – the outlier being a 2-1 loss to the Czech Republic in October 2019 – and a landmark number could be hit for Southgate, who will claim his 50th victory as England manager if the Three Lions leave Naples with all three points in the bag.
Only Sir Alf Ramsey and Walter Winterbottom have previously brought up a half-century of triumphs with England, who are winless in their last six showdowns with Italy in all tournaments, playing out a goalless draw before losing 1-0 to the Azzurri during a forgettable 2022-23 Nations League run.
Already witnessing a couple of players depart the camp injured, Italy have lost attacker Federico Chiesa, left-back Federico Dimarco and goalkeeper Ivan Provedel, the latter two of whom have been replaced by Emerson Palmieri and Marco Carnesecchi.
Carnesecchi is one of four uncapped players to have been called up by Mancini for March’s fixtures, with Wladimiro Falcone, Alessandro Buongiorno and Argentina-born striker Mateo Retegui also seeking to make their maiden appearances for the Azzurri.
With no Ciro Immobile or Giacomo Raspadori in the ranks due to injury, Retegui could very well be thrown into the deep end for his first start this week, as Mancini faces a toss-up between a 4-3-3 or 3-5-2 setup.
Similarly, a trio of England men have also left the camp ahead of Thursday’s opener, with Marcus Rashford, Mason Mount and Nick Pope all pulling out with injuries – Fraser Forster has come in to replace the latter.
Despite admitting breaching betting rules, Brentford striker Ivan Toney has returned to the ranks as the only uncapped player in the squad, but none of Ben White, Raheem Sterling, Trent Alexander-Arnold or Callum Wilson has forced their way in this time.
Still languishing on the Old Trafford bench, Harry Maguire should continue to be one of the first names on the teamsheet for Southgate, while Harry Kane is just one strike away from becoming his nation’s all-time leading goalscorer and leaving Wayne Rooney in his wake.
Italy possible starting lineup:
Donnarumma; Di Lorenzo, Acerbi, Romagnoli, Spinazzola; Barella, Verratti, Jorginho; Berardi, Retegui, Grifo
England possible starting lineup:
Pickford; Walker, Stones, Maguire, Shaw; Henderson, Rice, Bellingham; Saka, Kane, Grealish