OLIVER HOLT: Fire and fury will be all around England in Naples and they must douse the flames and avoid defeat – or pressure will be piled on Gareth Southgate’s shoulders again
- England face Italy in a European Championship qualifier on Thursday in Naples
- It promises to be a febrile atmosphere at the Stadio Diego Armando Maradona
- To triumph, England must quieten the fire that will rain down from the stands
Gareth Southgate strode into the decrepit, decaying hulk of the Stadio Diego Armando Maradona on Wednesday night and walked along the sunken concrete moat separating the stands from the pitch.
Maradona walked that walk when he arrived here to be unveiled to the Napoli faithful in 1984 and now it was Southgate’s turn. It was the beginning of a journey that will take him to the well with England one more time.
Perhaps this match against Italy in this cauldron on the southern edge of the city will be the start of his last adventure as England manager.
Perhaps the European Championship in Germany next year will be his last shot at being the manager to end a wait for a major trophy stretching towards 60 years.
Southgate smiled when it was put to him that this was the beginning of the end, that the finals would be his last dance. ‘Well, that depends if we win,’ he said.
England manager Gareth Southgate could be at the start of his ‘last dance’ as Three Lions boss
Southgate will lead his side into a fiery, febrile atmosphere at the Stadio Diego Armando Maradona in Naples for their European Championship qualifier against Italy on Thursday night
The Azzurri will prove stern opponents for England in their first match since the World Cup
‘We have been talking a lot this week about the experiences we have had over the last four or five years. These players have been involved in some of the biggest occasions in world football.
‘They know they have the ability to compete at that level. Now we have to have the humility to work hard and qualify again for the next major tournament and it is a great fixture to get that under way.’
A daunting assignment in the age of the bloated qualifying tournaments engineered by UEFA and FIFA is something of a novelty, but Italy in Naples, febrile and seething, as an opening fixture is about as severe a test as you can get. It makes a change.
England have only lost one qualifier in nine years, a 2-1 defeat by the Czech Republic in Prague in 2019 when they were already all but assured of making it to Euro 2020. England have won 17 of their last 18 European Championship qualifying ties.
But Southgate, who would become the fastest manager to reach 50 England wins behind only Sir Alf Ramsey if England prevail on Thursday night, referenced the fact that England have not won in Italy since May 1961 when two goals from Gerry Hitchens and one from Jimmy Greaves carried them to a 3-2 victory in Rome.
Even if the home team, who failed to make it to last year’s World Cup, are not the same side who squeezed past England in a penalty shootout to win the last Euros, they and the Neapolitan crowd will present a stern examination of England’s credentials.
Those credentials are good. Italy coach Roberto Mancini said England had ‘an extraordinary group of players’ and it is true that if this is Southgate’s last shot at winning a major trophy, it may also be his best shot.
England’s jewels, players such as Jude Bellingham and Bukayo Saka, have played in a World Cup and are gaining more big-game experience all the time. Jack Grealish has established himself at Manchester City, Reece James is a superstar in the making, Marcus Rashford — absent through injury here — is in the form of his life.
Southgate (pictured) referenced the fact that England have not won in Italy since May 1961
But he has a young, talented side with numerous players coming into the prime of their career
Declan Rice is likely to be playing Champions League football next season, Phil Foden will surely move closer to realising his full potential and Harry Kane needs one goal to become England’s record scorer.
So is it England’s best shot at ending all the years of hurt? ‘Well, it’s the next one,’ Southgate said. ‘It’s hard to assess where you will be. You are never quite sure who will emerge, who you may not have.
‘You have to peak across a three-week period and lots of things can happen. But a lot of our youngest players have had two tournaments so they have had great experiences and are gaining big experiences with their clubs.
‘You are always looking at young players and when is the right moment for them to become a fixture in the team. You never want a team to hit the moment where the whole thing needs refreshing.
‘We have tried to constantly give people their opportunity when they have been ready, and that happened again with Jude recently and we have one or two others who are just on the fringes we are hoping to give that opportunity to in the coming 12 months.
‘It is hard to predict when is the right moment for them to go ahead of some of the experienced players and of course on nights like this you need a balance of both.’
It feels as if the stars are aligning but it also feels as if England need to avoid defeat. Fortune is always fragile with England and a loss to Italy would embolden the critics of Southgate who always seem to be lying in wait for him despite his outstanding record.
Defeat would pile the pressure on ahead of the game against Ukraine on Sunday.
Emotions will be heightened by the fact that this is the first Italy game since the death of Gianluca Vialli (left), current manager Roberto Mancini’s great friend and one-time assistant
‘It has become a bit of a clasico, Italy against England, the fourth time in two years,’ Mancini said. ‘England are one of the best teams in the world. It won’t be easy but the same goes for both sides.’
Many of these qualifiers are rendered close to meaningless by the proliferation of fixtures but this is the first time Italy have played in this southern city for 10 years and the venue has been chosen with the aim of increasing England’s discomfort. The stadium has a capacity of 47,000 fans and 41,000 tickets have been sold so far.
The city is en fete with Napoli on the brink of winning their first league title for 33 years and the mayor announced monuments here would be lit up in blue to honour Italy’s return to the city.
Emotions will be heightened by the fact that this is the first Italy game since the death of Gianluca Vialli, Mancini’s great friend and one-time assistant. The Italy players will wear shirts embroidered with a tribute to him.
‘I played in Napoli many times with Italy,’ said Mancini. ‘Italy have always been helped by the crowd here. It will be even more so given how Napoli are playing. We need to produce a big performance to take them with us.
‘You were lucky enough to have Luca in London for many years and he had almost become an honorary Londoner. People like him are immortal. He will always be with us.’
It will be England’s job to defuse some of that emotion and quieten the crowd. Southgate smiled again when asked about playing in Naples and said he could just remember the great team of Maradona and Careca, who won Napoli’s first titles in 1987 and 1990.
He was asked, too, about Maradona’s history with England. ‘That is a bit different,’ Southgate said, still grinning. ‘It’s probably best we don’t talk about that.’ And then he was gone.
‘Wash them,’ a song sung by the fans of Napoli’s opponents goes. ‘Wash them with fire. Oh Vesuvio, wash them with fire.’
As the emotion cascades down from the stands here tonight, England’s chance of victory will lie in their ability to douse the flames.
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