Harry Kane becomes England’s all-time record scorer in qualifier win over Italy
It was a night when a Harry Kane penalty conversion positively overflowed with narrative drama. It was his first attempt for England since his notorious miss in the World Cup quarter-final exit against France last December and so goodness knows what was going through his mind as he shaped to take it, after the VAR had spotted a Giovanni Di Lorenzo handball on a corner.
When he scored it took him clear of Wayne Rooney as England’s all-time leading scorer with 54 goals. What a moment it was for the captain. It put England 2-0 up and to describe them as rampant at that point late in the first half would have been no exaggeration.
Related: Italy 1-2 England: Harry Kane becomes England men’s record scorer with 54 goals – live reaction
Declan Rice had scored the first and the Euro 2024 qualifying campaign looked set to begin with a bang. It ought to have been 3-0 in first-half stoppage time only for Jack Grealish to miscue wide of a gaping goal.
Instead, Gareth Southgate’s team followed an age-old template. First half good, second half not too good, as one of his predecessors, Sven-Göran Eriksson, would have put it. Italy leapt up off the canvas, scoring through the debutant Mateo Retegui, and came to control the tie just as their opponents had done previously.
England sat deeper, their passing sloppy, inviting Italy on – just as they had done in the Euro 2020 final when they surrendered the initiative and eventually lost on penalties. The rather key difference this time was that England had scored the first two goals.
England had to dig in, especially after Luke Shaw was sent off in the 80th minute for a trip on Retegui. His first caution had come 54 seconds earlier for time-wasting. England, though, got over the line. Despite what amounted to an Italy siege after the interval, Southgate’s team were able to restrict them to precious few clearcut chances.
A win is a win and this was a big one, England’s most difficult assignment of the group passed already. It was Southgate’s first victory over Italy as manager at the fifth attempt and England’s first on Italian soil since 1961. Revenge for the Euro final was a part of it. At full time, Kane slumped to his knees, exhausted but elated. He was the man of the match, his link-up play superb, ditto his passing; his running with and without the ball relentless. He and England are off to a flyer.
The first thing to say about the occasion – Naples’s first senior international in 10 years – was that it was not a Napoli game. When they play at this stadium – especially this season, the Scudetto so close that everyone in town has started to prepare for the party of the millennium, connecting the buildings in those narrow streets with blue and white sheets – it can feel like an out-of-body experience.
There was still excitement, still a crowd that needed to be subdued, but it probably said a lot that there were empty seats and the 2,500 travelling fans were able to make themselves heard.
They could celebrate an early tonic after England moved up the field very smartly – and not for the first time. Or the last. It was Kane to Grealish and he did well to release Jude Bellingham, who advanced and unloaded a vicious drive that Gianluigi Donnarumma tipped over. Bukayo Saka’s corner reached Kane beyond the far post and, when he shot, the ball ricocheted off Di Lorenzo and broke for Rice. He always looked like finishing, the spin and shot assured.
It has been said before but it had to be said again. How is Bellingham only 19? He was central to England’s barnstorming start as they controlled the tempo and the ball, looking extremely confident on it. Bellingham showed his quick feet in possession, his strength and rangy stride plus his passing ability. He won the ball; he made things happen. Above all, he looked fearless.
Italy are, of course, the reigning European champions, although it feels as if their second failure in a row to qualify for the World Cup is defining them more at present. Local optimism had not been high before kick-off, especially with Roberto Mancini being without a clutch of injured players including Leonardo Bonucci, Federico Chiesa and Giacomo Raspadori. It is not a vintage Italy, although it is still Italy.
England dominated the first half. They enjoyed themselves. Italy could not get near to them on the ball, the combinations up through the thirds easy on the eye. From back to front – and that included the goalkeeper, Jordan Pickford – the passing was on point.
It was incredible to see the spaces that England were able to create and the chances flowed before the interval, a further clutch coming before Kane’s record-breaking goal. Italy were made to look toothless. Saka got into dangerous areas and even Kalvin Phillips, who was recalled in a nicely balanced midfield, fizzed a shot just wide.
The only frustration of the first half was Grealish’s miss – and it was a horrible one – after Kane’s low cut back from the right. Grealish held his head for some time.
Related: Italy 1-2 England: player ratings from the Euro 2024 qualifier in Naples
England were guilty of offering encouragement to Italy, which was ridiculous. It was still Italy. Retegui’s goal came when Harry Maguire lost possession and Italy worked the opening expertly, Marco Verratti prominent. Lorenzo Pellegrini played the killer pass and Retegui, the Argentina-born striker, finished clinically.
The turnaround was remarkable. Italy pushed high and looked composed on the ball, threatening with it, too. England made errors and they were indebted to John Stones for some important interventions. When Shaw saw red, it was easy to fear the worst. England would celebrate upon the full-time whistle with real feeling.