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LONDON — England booked their place at Euro 2024 on Tuesday night with the sort of victory that suggests they might soon be ready to clear the final hurdle in their path to tournament glory.
Perhaps the last challenge Gareth Southgate has to overcome in ending the Three Lions’ 58-year wait for a major trophy next summer is consistently beating the best sides in world football.
England have reached a semifinal, a final and a quarterfinal in Southgate’s three tournaments as manager, but his critics frequently point out that defeats to Croatia, Italy and France to end those runs are symptomatic of a longstanding problem in imposing themselves on the elite.
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Southgate’s record against sides currently ranked in FIFA’s top 10 prior to Tuesday’s 3-1 triumph over Italy was as follows: 27 games, seven wins, nine draws, 11 losses equating to a win rate of just 26%.
In that context, then, this was a performance that can have England fans daring to dream of what might be possible in Germany next summer, a deserved success coming from behind against the current European champions.
Of course, any talk of revenge was fanciful given the differing stakes, but this will nevertheless contain a cathartic feel for England, beating Italy two years on from their delayed Euro 2020 penalty shootout defeat in the final, Marcus Rashford scoring at the end after he missed one of the decisive spot-kicks.
Eight of that starting lineup began the game here — only Luke Shaw, Mason Mount and Raheem Sterling were absent — but it was Jude Bellingham who stole the show with an all-action performance encapsulated by England’s second goal.
It will be a further fillip to England’s self-belief that they recovered from a shaky start, conceding to Gianluca Scamacca’s well-worked 15th-minute opener. In reply, Bellingham was brought down by Giovanni Di Lorenzo for Harry Kane to convert a 32nd-minute penalty before he produced one of those game-changing moments for which he is rapidly earning such a lofty reputation.
The 20-year-old — yes, still just 20 — won the ball before collecting Phil Foden’s pass with the sort of surge forward associated with Paul Gascoigne, watching on among the 83,194-crowd, in his prime before releasing Rashford, who cut inside and thrashed a low shot past Gianluigi Donnarumma. Kane added a third with the sort of assured centre-forward play that provided yet another reminder he has few modern-day peers, registering his 61st international goal with a wonderfully assured finish.
Southgate enjoys chipping away at England’s historic millstones. After beating Italy in Italy for the first time since 1961 back in March, England secured their first victory over the Azzurri on home soil since 1977.
These are not decisive achievements by themselves but nevertheless serve as a reminder England have not been as good as they would have liked for a long, long time, and Southgate, steeped as he is in Three Lions history, knows progress is a capricious animal. For a team that failed to even reach Euro 2008, securing qualification as comfortably as this should not be taken for granted. Nights like this are tangible proof England are evolving toward something like the finished article they need to be to triumph in Germany, collecting positive experiences that must help them execute their game plan when the pressure becomes most acute next summer.
England have looked at their most exhilarating in recent times when unleashing a new talent on the world stage — think Michael Owen in 1998 or Wayne Rooney in 2004 — and Bellingham has the capacity to make the same impact, even if the cat is well and truly out of the bag given his remarkable form for Real Madrid this season.
Southgate has reshuffled his midfield to give him the platform to affect games from something approximating a No. 10 position, a decision that looks increasingly justifiable with each passing week.
Just as Bellingham excelled against Scotland, so he did against better opposition here, quietening any prematch grumbles over the inclusion of Kalvin Phillips as part of that platform despite 167 minutes of first-team action at Manchester City this season. Phillips was fortunate not to be sent off here, picking up an early yellow card for an agricultural challenge on Davide Frattesi before escaping a second despite a late tackle on Nicolò Barella. He was substituted for his own good, and the 70 minutes he played here means he now has more time on the field for England (188 minutes) than his club since August. Jordan Henderson received a mixed reception, yet again, as his replacement.
Yet England’s attacking play benefitted from the Phillips-Declan Rice axis in central midfield. Kane ended the evening as England’s record goal scorer at Wembley — surpassing Sir Bobby Charlton with 24 goals at this iconic venue — and his influence stretching back over such a sustained period is profound: the 30-year-old has been directly involved in 33 goals in his past 30 appearances for England (27 goals and six assists), including either scoring or assisting in each of his past 10 games.
Rashford, Bellingham and Foden floating around him looked dangerous all evening following that slow start. Bukayo Saka will come back from injury while Jack Grealish and James Maddison sat unused on the bench.
Excitement will now build if Southgate has the majority of these players fit and available next summer. The ultimate question remains whether they can put it together against the very best, but wins like this engender fresh hope.