Either way England were probably going to make history. Win and they had defeated Italy away for the first time since 1961. Lose and they suffered the embarrassment of relegation for the first time ever; for the first time since they first played an international 150 years ago.
And so it was embarrassment and angst and soul-searching and inquisition as they slid to a desperately poor, damningly poor performance just as they needed to restore confidence and belief in what is their penultimate match before the World Cup. They have only Germany left to play at Wembley on Monday before heading to Qatar.
For Gareth Southgate there is now real and certainly justified scrutiny. The spotlight will shine fiercely on the England manager and rightly so. He had talked about the need to right the wrongs of four competitive games without a win in the Nations League and instead extended that sequence to five. Just at exactly the wrong time it is looking like a trend. It is no blip and it was a tough, tough watch.
At the final whistle he walked head bowed and deep in thought to shake hands with Italy coach Roberto Mancini who, after the final of Euro 2020, had again bested him. England deservedly drop to Group B, the second tier of this newish competition, no longer regarded as one of the top nations, and did not even get a goal. Yet again.
It is now 450 minutes since they scored in open play – the longest spell in 22 years – and they could not find a way through against Italy’s three centre-halves (aged 35, 34 and 31 respectively). Alarmingly they just do not even look like scoring. There is such a creative deficit.
To put that in context England are one of only two countries yet to score a non-penalty goal in the Nations League. The other is that footballing giant San Marino. Having set standards, having broken down barriers and reached milestones Southgate is starting to stack up some grim statistics. Such as also being the only England manager relegated while in charge of a club – Middlesbrough in 2008-09 – and now a country.
What could go wrong did go wrong. From back to front it was poor, unconvincing, disjointed, dysfunctional. Nick Pope pulled off a couple of saves but look chronically nervous; the back-three was unpicked and abandoned after Italy’s goal. The midfield did not function despite the efforts of Jude Bellingham; Bukayo Saka was an uncomfortable and unsure wing-back; up front Phil Foden started brightly before fading while Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling failed to combine and just struggled.
On half-time Pope hoofed a goal-kick high up-field, Kane flicked it on and the ball ran straight through to Italy goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma. Is that what England were reduced to? Long-ball? It was regressive and damaging and Southgate also spoke about being ruthless but did not show that edge. He knows the demands will grow that, maybe, his time as England manager is drawing to a close and that he is losing a battle to fight against the allegation that he is too cautious and conservative.
And this against an Italy side who failed to qualify for the World Cup, for a second successive cycle, a team missing key players, one that could only half fill this iconic stadium and yet they completely outplayed England. They twice struck the goal-frame, they had other chances and had a shape and purpose that their opponents glaringly lacked.
The only crumb of comfort? Having gone into the last World Cup in 2018 in which they reached the semi-finals with low expectations England have certainly, and clearly inadvertently, done so again. Maybe they can use it as fuel to fire them? They need to get angrier.
Italy looked it. They ripped into England in the opening minutes with Gianluca Scamacca, the imposing West Ham striker, easily evading Harry Maguire to reach a cross from the excellent wing-back Federico Dimarco with his header just about turned behind by Pope as the ball hit the post.
That was far from good by Maguire, retained by Southgate and in need of repaying that faith with a performance far more sure-footed than the way he had started. And continued.
England offered little. The first-half? Forget it. The second-half? Marginally better before Italy scored and Southgate made changes and the impetus came as much from panic as anything tactical.
The goal summed up England’s malaise. It summed up their sloppiness and disorganisation with the lively Giacomo Raspadori bringing down a long, flighted pass from Leonardo Bonucci and with Kyle Walker hesitant and standing off he shifted the ball onto his right-foot and quickly struck a powerful shot across Pope and into the net.
On came Jack Grealish and Luke Shaw – and it certainly looked like the substitutions were too late – with a switch of formation. The closest England came was when Donnarumma smartly beat out two crisp drives from Kane in rapid succession. But, in truth, that was it.
Instead it was Italy who should have scored more. Firstly when substitute and former Southampton forward Manolo Gabbiadini ran clear only to be denied by Pope and then when Dimarco’s low cross cum shot struck the post.
And that was it. England were ragged, drowning and, for the second game in a row, booed off. They have to rescue this situation while Southgate’s protestations that the display was a step in the right direction just sounded like denial.
Italy Donnarumma, Di Lorenzo, Bonucci, Acerbi, Toloi, Cristante, Jorginho (Emerson, 89), Dimarco (Frattesi, 89), Raspadori (Gabbiadini, 81), Scamacca (Gnonto, 63), Barella (Pobega, 63).
Subs Meret, Vicario, Luiz Felipe,Zerbin, Grifo, Esposito, Bastoni. Booked Bonucci, Di Lorenzo.
England Pope, James, Dier, Maguire, Walker (Shaw, 72), Bellingham, Rice, Sterling, Foden, Saka (Grealish, 72), Kane.
Subs Ramsdale, D Henderson, Trippier, Coady, Ward-Prowse, Tomori, Mount, Bowen, Alexander-Arnold, Abraham. Booked Grealish.
Referee Jesús Gil Manzano (Spain).
Italy 1 England 0 as it happened
There's quite a clamour on social media
For Southgate to be sacked but it's not going to happen. Interesting, though, that the consensus candidate to replace him is Thomas Tuchel.
Southgate on being booed by the fans
I understand the reaction at the end because [of] the results we've had in this competition. It is an understandable emotional reaction.
I personally think the performance was a step in the right direction but understand that's not going to be the reaction given the result. "The reaction will be guided by the result but we weren't far off with the performance tonight.
I have to keep the players on track and not being distracted.
There'll be a lot of noise but that will be around me and that is absolutely fine. It's my job to take that pressure for them."
The scale of England's slump
Opta has four key indicators:
450 - Minutes since England last scored from open play (v Ivory Coast, Mar 2022), having not score in a competitive fixture other than a penalty or set-piece since beating San Marino in November 2021.
5 – England have gone five matches without a win for the first time since 2014, and have gone five competitive matches without winning for the first time since 1992.
3 - England have failed to score in their last three matches, their longest run without a goal since November 2000.
0 - England are one of only two nations yet to score a single non-penalty goal in the 2022-23 Uefa Nations League. The other nation is San Marino.
I think Gareth Southgate’s tactical master plan of not giving us any hope in order not to kill us is working beautifully thus far.
— Gary Lineker 💙💛 (@GaryLineker) September 23, 2022
You may have revised your thoughts after watching that
Gareth Southgate was booed
As he went over to the England fans to applaud them.
We're not going to hear from him tonight – not before the press conference. Channel 4, which keeps bidding for sport and then treating it with contempt (remember when they used to cut off the cricket for Hollyoaks), is hurrying on to Gogglebox.
Declan Rice speaks
We've slipped below our standards in the Nations League. Much better performance than in the summer. One chance, one goal, we controlled the game but lacked that cutting edge. It's not that we're not creating chances. In training there's goals for fun. It's coming. It's coming. Trust me, we're going to be good.
Some full-time reading
While we are waiting for Southgate ...
I don't know how he fixes this. Bellingham showed sparks of being the answer in the 8 role but Foden wasn't involved enough, Saka isn't the answer on the left and Rice looks less secure without Phillips.
Full time Italy 1 England 0
England's toils continue. Poor result but worse, it was a very troubling performance. No goal, few chances. Little rhythm and a left wing that doesn't function properly.
Hungary's victory over Germany means England are relegated from Nations League A.
90+5 min Italy 1 England 0
Last chance? James finally angles in an outswinging cross from the right towards the penalty spot and Bellingham rises to head about a foot over. Donnarumnma wasn't sure of the trajectory and it hurried him into backpedalling.
90+4 min Italy 1 England 0
Gnonto sprints away from James who fouls him as he cut in from the wing.
90+3 min Italy 1 England 0
Grealish is booked for a spot of retaliation and will now miss Monday's match against Germany.
90+2 min Italy 1 England 0
England keep probing down the right, three passes forward, two back. They switch to the left and Rice shimmies into space, opens his body but sweeps his shot and Donnarumma throws his cap on to it.
90 min Italy 1 England 0
Up goes the sign to start six minutes of stoppage time – there'll be more now as a pitch invader in an Italy shirt causes a further delay. Gnonto embarks on a jinking run down the left and into the box but his left-foot angled shot is blocked out for a throw-in by Dier.
89 min Italy 1 England 0
Dimarco and Jorginho depart and on come Emerson and Frattesi.
88 min Italy 1 England 0
Di Lorenzo feeds the ball inside to Cristante, 20 yarsd out. Gnonto peels to the right to take Dier out of his way but he blazes his left-foot shot over the bar.
England look even worse with a back four.
87 min Italy 1 England 0
England have now gone more than 550 minutes without a goal in open play and it looks nailed on to be a fifth successive game without a win.
85 min Italy 1 England 0
Pope makes a good save with his feet from Gabbiadini after England stood off again and let him carve a path down the inside left. Dimarco followed in with a cross/shot, having been given far too much space by the curiously passive James. It beats Pope and cannons into the inside of the right post and away.
84 min Italy 1 England 0
Grealish continues to be a magnet for snide fouls and crunching tackles, Cristante the latest wind-up merchant. Bellingham saunters down the inside-left, shimmies and thumps a shot from 20 yards over thebar.
82 min Italy 1 England 0
Italy defend the cross stoutly and send on Manolo Gabbiadini for Raspadori whose goal lit up a very drab game:
79 min Italy 1 England 0
England free kick on the left after Di Lorenzo pushes Grealish in the face. He's booked and the ref comes back after initially playing advantage to give England a chance to cross.
77 min Italy 1 England 0
England's best spell – Foden links up with Grealish down the inside left and he rolls Shaw in down the outside. He pats the ball across the six-yard box and it's turned out to the edge of the area. Rice pounces, taps it off to Bellingham who lays it off to the right of the box for Kane. The captain smashes an angles shot that Donnarumma saves smartly straight back to him and then slaps away the attempt from the rebound.
75 min Italy 1 England 0
Donnarumma engages in a spot of showboating at the back, a Cruyff, or should that be an Adrian Alston turn.
73 min Italy 1 England 0
England have switched to 4-2-3-1 with Sterling in the middle behind Kane but there's no rhythm to their play, no confidence and the tempo is too lethargic. There's no snap to their passing or conviction in their movement on and off the ball.
71 min Italy 1 England 0
Double England substitution: Walker and Saka make way for Grealish and Shaw. England change to a four-man defence.
Italy 1 England 0 (Raspadori) Gnonto splits out to the right to create space for the Napoli forward down the inside left who stuns the pass up to him, takes a touch and then another as Walker stands off him before rasping a right-foot curler from 16 yards into the bottom right corner.
67 min Italy 0 England 0
66 min Italy 0 England 0
Clumsy fall and foul by Maguire after being rolled gives away a free kick on the right. Walker heads the threatening cross away witha diving header and Pope saves Di Lorenzo's shot at the near post.
64 min Italy 0 England 0
Italy double substitution: Willy Gnonto and Tommaso Pobega replace Barella and Scamacca.
63 min Italy 0 England 0
From the corner Bellingham lands heavily when colliding in mid air with Barella who was late into the challenge. Bellingham got the ball and then went over the top of Barella. England think it was dangerous play. But the referee doesn't.
61 min Italy 0 England 0
Bellingham breaks past Cristante and is picked out by Foden's pass. The midfielder plays Kane in down the right and the captain spears over a threatening cross through the six-yard box and Toloi, who has a shiner from that clash with Kane, cleverly opens his body and deftly turns it past the left post with his left foot. Corner.
59 min Italy 0 England 0
Now Italy catch Foden in their offside trap when Bellingham drives forward to play him free down the left.
57 min Italy 0 England 0
Scamacca and Raspadori take turns in trying to bullock through the middle but can't get past Maguire and Dier. A minute later Bonucci fires a good pass up to Raspadori who spins and fizzes it out to Dimarco raiding into the box down the left. He zips a daisycuttter over towards the penalty spot and Scamacca slides in to hook his shot wide. England looked as if they had been thoroughly opened up by two passes but Dimarco had gone too soon and was a foot or so offside.
55 min Italy 0 England 0
England carry on with 10 men for a good two minutes, sweeping the ball across the pitch and back to Pope who sprays a long clearance out which allows Kane to come back on.
54 min Italy 0 England 0
Kane is OK to continue but needs to stem the bleeding first and may have to change his shirt. The fourth official won't let him on until he has washed off the blood.
52 min Italy 0 England 0
Kane goes down when he goes up for a header from the corner. His mouth collides with the top of Toloi's head and it looks very painful. He's bust his lip at the very least.
50 min Italy 0 England 0
England break again after the goalkick and Kane comes down the left, cuts into the box and Bonucci does well to show him down the outside and block the left-foot shot out for a corner.
48 min Italy 0 England 0
Nothing doing from the throw-in, Italy work the ball up to Dimarco who fizzes over a cross that just eludes Scamacca. Toe nails away. Back come England through Sterling and Bonucci brings him down in full flight. Yellow card, 20 yards out, to the left of the D. James to take ... and he lumps it over the bar.
46 min Italy 0 England 0
No changes. Italy kick off and shift the ball back to Donnarumma who is closed down by Kane and has to go short, putting his defence under pressure as England harry them into conceding a throw-in.
Focuses on Saka's rustiness in the wing-back role and a desire for Foden to get on the ball more. 'Game needs a ball player ... and needs a goal,' says Joe Cole.
Half time Italy 0 England 0
Italy haven't been brilliant but they have been a touch more fluent in creating chances than England who need to find some rhythm, exert some control in midfield and encourage the wing-backs to get forward and whip over some crosses.
45 min Italy 0 England 0
Rice is penalised when going up to try to meet Foden's diagonal chip for reasons the replay doesn't enlighten us about. Didn't matter as he didn't win the header but a strange decision.
It's bee a very scrappy performance from England who look low on confidence and suffering from the old international big match caution.
44 min Italy 0 England 0
Kane drops back to take the ball 50 yards from goal and storms off towards the box, dribbling 20 yards before putting his laces through a shot that swerves, dips but wobbles too high and wide.
42 min Italy 0 England 0
James has a golden opportunity to cross from the right and is urged to do so by Kane but again his radar and sense of adventure is not well calibrated tonight. Too timid.
40 min Italy 0 England 0
Sterling seems to have run off an earlier knock that left him limping.
38 min Italy 0 England 0
Chip up to Scamacca is headed away by Maguire, beating him in the aerial challenge. The ball falls to Crsitante 22 yards out and he unleashes a sidewinder half-volley that crashes straight into Dier with some force. Great block even if we can't be sure he knew too much about it.
36 min Italy 0 England 0
James puts it on a plate for Dier from the corner but the Spurs' centre-back cannot connect properly with his header having done the hard bit and lost his market with a crafty near post run.
34 min Italy 0 England 0
Foul on Sterling 15 yards inside the Italy half wide on the left. Foden chips it deep into the box where James meets it on the half-volley after some pinball and drags his shot wide of the left post via an unseen deflection off Toloi. England come back from the goal kick and Bellingham earns a corner on the right.
32 min Italy 0 England 0
England's forwards are finding the tight marking frustrating. As Graeme Le Saux, on co-comms, says, they need to find a way for Bellingham, Saka and James to join the attack to overload and take the initiative.
30 min Italy 0 England 0
Italy corner on the left, sent straight down Pope's throat by Dimarco.
28 min Italy 0 England 0
Dimarco sprays a long cross on the run from the left beyond the back post. Di Lorenzo makes the run to the byline to hook it back on the volley but Dier wellies it clear before Scamacca can pounce.
26 min Italy 0 England 0
Rice has found his feet and form with a couple of very good tackles and hub passes but a mistake in positioning by Saka, losing the ball upfield and failing to recover, leaves England naked down the Italy right, But Barella's's attempt to exploit it with a pass to Raspadori isn't good enough, far too heavy and he can't control it. England breathe again.
24 min Italy 0 England 0
Foden wins the ball and plays a cute pass into Bellingham who spins James in down the right and he whips over a cross. Sadly, it was behind Kane and Italy clear. Shame as James is usually so reliable with his crossing for Chelsea.
22 min Italy 0 England 0
England have settled down in the last 10 minutes or so and are finding the time and space to play, probing away and retreating when they can't find an incisive, forward pass. Tournament football.
20 min Italy 0 England 0
Neat triangle between Sterling, Saka and Kane down the left earns a free kick when Bonucci shoves Kane over. England try to work an opening to cross down the left but lose possession and need Rice to slide in to prevent a counter, winning the 40-60 duel and a throw-in.
18 min Italy 0 England 0
Bellingham is tripped by Cristante. Free kick just inside the England half.
16 min Italy 0 England 0
Foul on Barella gives Italy a free-kick, 22 yards out on the right. Dimarco pumps his cross into Kane who deflects it out for a corner.
A push by Scamacca on Rice at the corner gives England a free-kick.
14 min Italy 0 England 0
Sterling wins the ball back in midfield, bursts forward down the inside-right but his pass to Kane, on entering the box, sends him wider than he would have wanted and his cross is blocked, looping up and taking the sting out of it. Acerbi outmuscles Foden to clear.
12 min Italy 0 England 0
First opportunity for England after a foul on Sterling. Nothing comes from the free-kick but Sterling gets hold of the scraps on the left and angles in a cross that Maguire leaps to meet. Bonucci gets ahead of him with nous and strength to put him off.
10 min Italy 0 England 0
Rice, who isn't in the best of nick, is struggling to get a grip in midfield and keeps getting bypassed by Barella who is lacing passes through to Raspadori and Scamacca. The two forwards have dropped off the centre-backs and are flourishing in the space between Rice and the defence.
8 min Italy 0 England 0
England defend that corner much better but nothing's sticking. Toloi wins the ball back and link up Raspadori and Scamacca to storm up the middle. Rice labours in pursuit of his Hammers' team-mate who lets England off the hook by scudding a shot wide from 25 yards rather than carrying on into the box.
6 min Italy 0 England 0
England are all over the place. Really poor. Misplaced pass from Walker concedes a needless corner from which Scamacca attacks a cross at the back post. Pope has to turn it on to the post and Maguire hacks it behind for another corner.
4 min Italy 0 England 0
Maguire catches Scamacca offside with a well-timed step up but the flag doesn't go up until Pope has made the save, low to his right, from Scamacca's rasping shot.
3 min Italy 0 England 0
Dier is in the middle of England's back three, Maguire on the left. Barella tries to free Dimarco down the left with a chipped diagonal after winning the ball back easily in midfield. Italy have gone man to man.
1 min Italy 0 England 0
England kick off, attacking from left to right. The pitch looks a beauty, pleasing to zip passes around, as England do in midfield until Foden, playing on the right, is clipped high by Cristante. England free-kick on halfway.
Pennants are being exchanged
Luca Vialli and Gareth Southgate embrace and there will now be a minute's tribute to the late Queen Elizabeth II and the victims of floods in northern Italy.
Time for the national anthems
The camera is fixed on the soprano so we cannot see if anyone stumbles over the lyrical amendment in God Save the King.
Italy's is glorious.
England in their home kit
White shirts, navy shorts, white socks, with the Euro 96 sky blue flashes.
The hosts are in the tunnel
Italy in azure shirts, shorts and socks. England will be wearing their new World Cup duds, you'd think. Presumably the away kit.
Confirms he is playing at wing-back. Uefa's team sheet has him playing on the left side of the trident in a 4-2-3-1, perhaps gulled by his shirt number – 7. Reece James at right wing-back wears 3 which offends me. Sorry. I'm very old.
Matt Law reports from San Siro
We might not have a full house in the San Siro tonight. Italy haven’t qualified for the World Cup and there doesn’t seem to be an awful lot of local appetite for this game. The empty seats will start to fill up before kick off but it will be a surprise if England play in front of anything approaching a full house in Milan.
I haven't watched C4's football coverage with the sound on before. Tonight they have Eni Aluko, Joe Cole and the marvellous Alessandro Del Piero as their pitchside pundits.
They are discussing Harry Maguire after Gareth Southgate said in a pre-match interview, and I paraphrase, that there was a vendetta against the centre-half. Don't know if he meant in the media or from fans in general. If it's the latter, that would have to include Man Utd fans, too. I'm not sure he's got that right. Aluko says there is more pressure on him now than ever because he doesn't deserve his place ... at least not on form.
By Matt Law at San Siro
As predicted by Telegraph Sport on Thursday evening, Gareth Southgate has stuck with Harry Maguire in a back three – which is likely to be an unpopular decision ahead of kick-off. Southgate's most interesting selection is that of Bukayo Saka at left wing-back, despite the fact he has Ben Chilwell and Luke Shaw in his squad. That has allowed him to pick a front three of Phil Foden, Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling. Nick Pope gets the nod in goal ahead of Aaron Ramsdale, with Jordan Pickford out suspended.
Some interesting decisions by Southgate
Who will play on the left of the three centre-halves? Dier plays in the middle for Tottenham with Davies on the left. Maguire is right-footed but played most of his career at Old Trafford on the left of two centre-backs. Both Sterling and Foden do their best work on the left but I suspect they will be fairly fluid.
And the substitutes
Italy Meret, Vicario, Luiz Felipe, Pobega, Frattesi, Gnonto, Emerson, Zerbin, Grifo, Gabbiadini, Esposito, Bastoni.
England Ramsdale, Henderson, Alexander-Arnold, Trippier, Shaw, Grealish, Coady, Ward-Prowse, Tomori, Mount, Bowen, Abraham.
England starting XI
Pope; Walker, Maguire, Dier; James, Rice, Bellingham, Saka; Sterling, Kane, Foden.
So Bukayo Saka is playing as a wing-back.
England team snap
Gareth Southgate has reverted to a back-three for England's Nations League clash against Italy at San Siro, making six changes from their loss to Hungary in June.
Eric Dier returned for his first England cap since November 2020, lining up in defence alongside Manchester United captain Harry Maguire, who has not started the last four Premier League games.
Meanwhile, Newcastle's Nick Pope started in goal and there were starts for Declan Rice, Raheem Sterling and Phil Foden.
Italy's starting XI
Donnarumma; Di Lorenzo, Bonucci, Acerbi, Toloi, Di Marco; Cristante, Jorginho; Raspadori, Barella; Scamacca.
England fans are out in force in the golden city
We could look at tonight's match at San Siro, England's first visit to Milan since 1939, in two ways. The most significant and obvious one is that it's their penultimate match before they open their World Cup campaign in Al Rayyan on 21 Nov and they need to find some form after those chastening two defeats and two draws in June, matches in which they scored only one goal (and that a penalty) while conceding six.
The other way is that today and Monday's match against Germany gives them an opportunity to drag themselves off the bottom of Group 3. That may not seem all that important to the increasingly vocal critics of the Nations League but it will save them from a potentially trickier Euro 24 qualification draw and dropping down into League B for the third renewal of the Nations League and opponents that may struggle to draw the kind of sizeable Wembley crowds the FA needs to bridge the Covid grass-roots funding gap.
Last time out England were humiliated by Hungary at Molineux, the players seemingly jaded, muddled and typically vulnerable when sent out with a back four. All the reports suggest that Gareth Southgate will revert to tournament mode and play an extra central defender henceforth with Harry Maguire, despite his long decline at Manchester United, lining up alongside Eric Dier in the absence of the suspended John Stones, with Kyle Walker as the right-sided centre-half.
There should be a start for Jude Bellingham alongside Declan Rice in midfield and another opportunity for Aaron Ramsdale in goal but that should be the extent of the experimentation unless Bukayo Saka is preferred to Kieran Trippier at left wing-back. Up front Southgate has tried a few things in the past 12 months but with time running short and Ivan Toney not in the matchday squad, the expectation is that he will go back to his default of Raheem Sterling, Harry Kane and Phil Foden.
Italy, by contrast, are in full experimentation mode following their failure to qualify for Qatar. They're trying out the Brazil-born Luiz Felipe, who is eligible by virtue of his Vicenza-born great grandfather, at centre-back, Sassuolo's hard-running Davide Frattesi in midfield, SPAL's Salvatore Esposito, the Serie B Pirlo, and Leeds United's livewire diddyman forward Wilfried Gnonto all in the squad. Some or all may not start but there is a sense that Mancini, temperamentally disposed, like most Italian managers, to trust/favour his veterans, is wholeheartedly committed to rebuilding the European champions.
The match kicks off at 7.45pm and team news should drop around 75 minutes before then.