20:00 BST, Tuesday 27th March, Wembley Stadium (London, England)
England’s World Cup preparations continues as Gareth Southgate’s face another ‘best of the rest’ in the form of Italy. A win in the Netherlands has returned the Three Lions to winning ways after two dry 0-0 draws in November, and England are now seven games unbeaten.
As for Italy, it’s been a tough two years. They impressed at Euro 2016 under Antonio Conte, but under his successor Gian Piero Ventura the Azzurri failed to qualify for this summer’s tournament in Russia.
Admittedly Italy were in a tough group alongside Spain, but they still would have been expected to come Sweden in the playoffs. Two cagey legs resulted in a 1-0 aggregate loss as the country failed to qualify for the World Cup for the first time since 1958.
With Italy under the stewardship of interim head coach Luigi Di Biagio, England will be confident of another victory, but Southgate will want more conviction from his men against a side clearly in transition.
Last time out
Netherlands 0-1 England (International friendly)
England were the better team in Amsterdam and deserved the victory, but it was far from a display that nations at the World Cup will be fearful of.
Gareth Southgate experimented with his side and it worked; Kyle Walker was man of the match operating as a right-sided centre back and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Jesse Lingard thrived in surging midfield roles.
England’s finally told after an hour, but Dutch goalkeeper Jeroen Zoet should have done more to stop Lingard’s stroked finish from the edge of the box. A step closer in preparations for Russia in terms of the result, but more clinical performances must follow.
Argentina 2-0 Italy (International friendly)
Argentina were the undisputed favourites against Italy at the Etihad, but the result could have been very different. La Albiceleste, without Lionel Messi and Sergio Aguero, dominated the first half, but were restricted to striking from range in attempting to beat Gianluigi Buffon.
Italy regularly hit their opponents on the break and had numerous chances to score, but some wasteful finishing, most notably from Lorenzo Insigne, cost them dearly.
Jorge Sampaoli’s Argentina finally broke the deadlock, winning the ball high-up the pitch and Ever Banega showed great footwork, played a give-and-go before guiding the ball past Buffon.
As Italy pushed for an equaliser, the Argentines to broke forward with the ball finally arriving at the feet of Manuel Lanzini on the edge of the box. A trademark thumping finish into the roof of the net sealed the win for Argentina.
With more composure in front of gaol, this could have been a very different result for the Italians.
Gareth Southgate is without Harry Kane, Jack Wilshere, Joe Gomez and Ryan Bertrand for the clash at Wembley, with Nathaniel Clyne, Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Tom Heaton all long-term injury problems.
It has been confirmed Jack Butland will be in the England goal and expect Southgate to ring the changes in order to see all of his squad. Nick Pope, James Tarkowski, Alfie Mawson and Lewis Cook are all in line for international debuts.
Luigi Di Biagio is also likely to rotate his squad, but Giorgio Chiellini, Federico Bernardeschi and Alessio Romagnoli are all unavailable through injury.
Expect Gianluigi Donnarumma to be given a chance in between in the sticks, and Italy could switch to a 4-4-2 to accommodate strikers Andrea Belotti and Patrick Cutrone.
Key battle: Eric Dier (England) vs Marco Verratti (Italy)
Eric Dier is favourite to be given the armband for the game at Wembley, but not only will he have to lead his nation, he will have to deal with Italy’s architect Marco Verratti.
Veratti is one of the most complete midfielders on the planet, more than capable in tackling, passing and strike from the edge of the box.
If Southgate opts for two forward-thinking players ahead of the defensive midfielder once again, likely to be Dele Alli and Adam Lallana against Italy, Dier could become exposed. Time on the ball for Verratti is dangerous for an inexperienced England defence, and Dier will need his defensive A game to keep the PSG man quiet.
It may be an international friendly but it will be a massive night for England’s debutants. Gareth Southgate has shown early faith in young defenders Alfie Mawson and James Tarkowski, who are both expected to start against Italy, with Gary Cahill, Phil Jones, Chris Smalling and Michael Keane all out of favour.
Italy have plenty of attacking options, with the in form Ciro Immobile the main threat. The Lazio striker has 34 goals in 38 games this season, and he will be looking to exploit an inexperienced English defence not acclimatised to a three at the back system.
Fluid front four
Harry Kane is injured, meaning England have no focal point. It’s not ideal preparation for the World Cup to have your premier marksman and only conventional striker unavailable, so England will have to use their movement to get the better of a traditionally stubborn Italian defence.
Marcus Rashford and Raheem Sterling led the line against the Netherlands, and it looks to be the turn of Danny Welbeck and Jamie Vardy at Wembley. Both players have plenty of pace to stretch the defence, and with Dele Alli and Adam Lallana behind them, Italy will struggle to deal with the fluidity of the England attack.
The anti-possession battle
This all hinders on whether Italy play a 4-4-2 or 4-3-3, but if they opt for just two central midfielders, it will be interesting to see who has the lion’s share of possession. Italy like to have a controlled build-up but playing against a three-man England midfield who like to press, they could struggle.
As for England, they are a counter-attacking team and prefer to be out of possession to hit their opponents on the break. They struggled against a Dutch defence sitting deep last week, and Southgate’s men will need to show more creativity against the Azzurri.
Prediction: England 1-0 Italy
Expect another narrow victory for England. If both teams make plenty of changes, the game will struggle to flow. England have kept five clean sheets in a row, and their extra vision and movement should enable to them to nick another. The pressure will be off Italy however, and against an inexperienced English defence, they will get opportunities to score.
Can England be a threat at the World Cup? Let us know in the comments section below.