JULES BREACH: England have shown they have resolve to dig in for major victories ahead of Euro 2024
When Euro 2024 qualification began in March, England were in the spotlight for the first time since their heartbreak in Qatar. Despite World Cup agony, Gareth Southgate decided to continue as England’s head coach and, after the opening two qualifiers, it’s looking like a good decision.
A win in Italy followed by a home victory against Ukraine has the Three Lions topping Group C following two of the toughest fixtures they’ll play on the road to Germany, as they now prepare for meetings with Malta and North Macedonia in June, with the latest England squad announced this week. That 2-1 win against Italy felt significant.
It was England’s first competitive success against the Italians in 45 years, and their first time beating the Azzurri in Italy since 1961.
Harry Kane also made history by becoming England’s leading goalscorer, surpassing Wayne Rooney’s previous record – a proud moment for him and the nation.
Aside from the milestones, the manner of victory showed a side to this England team that’ll be needed at major tournaments. We have become accustomed to England letting leads slip, and that all-too-familiar feeling returned at 2-0 up following an excellent first half in Naples. A loss of control early in the second half, conceding a goal, and Luke Shaw’s sending-off left England anxiously clinging on for the final 10 minutes.
Those fragile spells have cost us in the past, but on this occasion Southgate’s men managed to show a different side. They dug in and held on for a valuable victory against the European champions. Italy didn’t even manage a shot on target after England went down to 10 men.
It was a big win which they backed up with a comfortable victory against Ukraine at an emotional Wembley a few days later: six points from six available, but just as important is the growing belief that this team is capable of beating the top sides.
Games against Malta and North Macedonia should see England further stamp their dominance on the group, while also giving Southgate the chance to experiment and work out a few conundrums. In the forward line of his preferred 4-3-3 system, Kane and Bukayo Saka are shoo-ins, but he has a headache on the left and we could see opportunities for any or all of Jack Grealish, James Maddison and Marcus Rashford in that position.
Elsewhere, Harry Maguire has been an automatic starter for Southgate but is sometimes fifth-choice centre-half for Erik ten Hag at Manchester United. Now could be the time to see some other options at the back – Tyrone Mings, Marc Guehi and Lewis Dunk are all in the squad.
Although the players will insist that domestic matters aren’t on their mind during international duty, expect murmurs of Kane’s departure from Tottenham to Manchester United to ramp up when the England captain is at Old Trafford for the North Macedonia match on June 19.
However, one of the biggest positives under Southgate is that no matter what is happening at their clubs, this England team have never been more together, and the focus will be on taking a step closer to Germany 2024. Win both of these games and England will have all but secured one of the two automatic qualification spots.
What issues Manchester United will have to resolve to win in Europe again
One of my highlights this season was following Manchester United in their quest for a European trophy. Although they fell short, it has been fascinating to have a front row seat for every Europa League match at one of the world’s biggest football clubs.
Erik ten Hag hasn’t had a straightforward first season, but I found his honesty and direct approach refreshing when he spoke to us, never ducking questions, regardless of how challenging they were.
We covered every match on BT Sport with Paul Scholes and Owen Hargreaves, who have both played on some of the biggest stages, and when seeing their eyes light up at the Camp Nou for the Barcelona tie, you’re reminded what a privilege it is to be pitchside for these games. The return leg provided what they both described as the best atmosphere at Old Trafford since Sir Alex Ferguson was in charge.
United were knocked out by Sevilla in the quarter-finals. Sevilla were impressive, but the two legs offered more evidence that silly mistakes and squad depth are among the issues Ten Hag will need to resolve if United are to get back to winning European trophies once again.