England v Italy:
A rivalry that burns fiercely between two great footballing nations, but how much of a disparity is there between the success of each side’s development of international footballers?
Historically, the meeting of Italy and England has produced some memorable displays and moments of pure genius. One of the first encounters came in 1934 – the ‘Battle of Highbury’ as it was known – which took place at the former home of Arsenal in what was a tempestuous affair. The stakes were so high that Benito Mussolini is thought to have offered the Italian players each an Alfa Romeo if they could defeat one of the strongest sides in the world at that point. However, the final result saw England win 3-2; the first of eight wins against the Azzurri that would gradually see them become second-best to the Italians.
After almost 40 years without a win, salvation came at last in Turin, with future England boss Fabio Capello scoring the winner in a 2-1 win against Alf Ramsey’s side. Success in this fixture became fleeting for England, with just four wins in the 18 meetings since that fateful day. Even today, the very mention of the name Andrea Pirlo conjures up memories of his audacious chipped penalty against Joe Hart, while the Barclays Premier League continues to be dominated by the presence of Italian coaches at the country’s top clubs. So strong is the connection between England and Italy that this shared history has continued into their nation’s Under-21 sides.
The completion of the new Wembley Stadium in 2007 was marked by the arrival of the Azzurrini, who had the pleasure of christening the playing surface against England in front of a crowd of over 55,000. Giampaolo Pazzini was the first to score a goal at the new stadium, coming after 28 seconds in what would become a hat-trick for the former Inter and AC Milan striker. The last meeting between these two sides came in the Euro Under-21 Championship in 2015, ending 3-1 to the Italians courtesy of two goals from Marco Benassi and one for Andrea Belotti; who now finds himself representing the senior side.
The latest chapter in this timeless rivalry will see both Under-21 sides face off at St. Mary’s Stadium, once the stamping ground of Graziano Pelle and Dani Osvaldo. England, having endured the turmoil of Sam Allardyce’s dismissal, have plucked Gareth Southgate from the relative peace as head coach of the country’s Under-21 side and placed him in charge of the senior side. Aidy Boothroyd has stepped up from his position as Under-2o boss to fill Southgate’s shoes, albeit as caretaker, with a mountain of pressure on him to condition players for the senior set-up. Italy’s youngsters, meanwhile, remain in the safe and experienced hands of Luigi Di Biagio.
While the need for Di Biagio to procure talented players for the Azzurri remains a demand, the consistency with which they are introduced at club level eases this responsibility. This contrast with England, who continue to plunder overseas for their star players, deny youngsters the chance to shine at club level. However, the recent additions of Sunderland pair Jordan Pickford and Duncan Whatmore to the Under-21 squad represent challenges to this notion. Nathan Redmond, Calum Chambers, Jack Stephens and James Ward-Prowse will find themselves in familiar surroundings as they make up the squad’s Southampton contingent.
Italy meanwhile have, what they hope, will be the next in a long line of powerful strikers: Andrea Petagna. The former Milan youth product has been in excellent form for Atalanta, a nightmare for defenders wanting to muscle him off the ball. Lorenzo Pellegrini, one of three Sassuolo players to make the squad, has been showcasing his talents both in Serie A and the Europa League. Pierluigi Gollini, following his impressive season with Hellas Verona switched to Aston Villa, with the prospect of going head-to-head with teammate Jack Grealish on Thursday night. However, he will have competition from Alessio Cragno, who has kept six clean sheets in Serie B so far.
Benassi is the only player to have featured against England in 2015 to still be with the Under-21 side. Of the players named that day, both on the pitch and on the substitutes bench, six of the 22 have been called up by Gian Piero Ventura for the senior side. In comparison with a lot of nations across Europe, the successful transition from Under-21 team to senior internationals has been commendable as far as Italy are concerned.
The standards set have ensured that the likes of Gianluigi Buffon or Giorgio Chiellini can afford to retire from international football, with Gianluigi Donnarumma and Alessio Romagnoli already in place to stake their claim and ensure there is no traumatic turnover between generations.