The goal came late but it was no more than Italy, and in particular Lorenzo Insigne, deserved on a balmy evening in Tel Aviv that ended with England making the worst possible start to these European Under-21 Championship finals.
Outplayed for much of the evening, Stuart Pearce's side succumbed to a free-kick from the best player on the pitch, leaving them bottom of Group A and facing elimination if they lose on Saturday to Norway, who drew 2–2 with Israel earlier in the day.
It was the first goal that England have conceded in 889 minutes of football and brought to an end their nine-match winning run. Questions will be asked about whether Jack Butland should have been beaten at his near post and also if the wall did its job, although the bottom line is that England could have few complaints about the final outcome.
Inspired by Insigne, who was been a regular in the Napoli side, Italy played with much more imagination and always looked the more likely to penetrate against an England team lacking in class.
England had looked particularly nervous in the opening 45 minutes against a side who were more refined in just about everything they did. The only saving grace from England's point of view was that their opponents failed to turn their superiority during that period into goals. That was due in part to their profligacy, with the otherwise outstanding Insigne wasting a couple of excellent chances, and also thanks to a touch of good fortune on England's part, in particular in the 39th minute.
Insigne, who shimmered with menace on the left and at one point sat Nathaniel Clyne on his backside after turning the England right-back inside out, broke clear and fed a perfectly weighted pass that released Alessandro Florenzi in the penalty area. Florenzi nutmegged Jack Robinson, with the Liverpool full-back guilty of diving in and recklessly bringing the winger down. Antony Gautier, for reasons that only the French referee knows, chose to wave plan on.
It was far from the only reprieve for England in the first half. Ciro Immobile, who was not exactly living up to his name, broke clear in the right channel in the 10th minute and dragged a low shot across the face of goal. Two minutes later England were stretched again when Robinson was forced to make a last-ditch block to thwart Florenzi after Luca Marrone and Immobile combined well. A misunderstanding between Butland and Clyne moments later hardly helped England's mood.
Unable to keep the ball for any period of time, England were powerless to stem the Italian tide. Twice in four minutes Insigne went close. The second of those opportunities arrived after a superb interchange with Immobile, Insigne bouncing the ball off the Italian striker before closing in on goal. Butland, to his credit, was off his line quickly and forced Insigne into a hurried shot that he lifted on to the roof of the net, much to England's relief.
England's threat was sporadic at best in the first half. Without the suspended Tom Ince and Danny Rose, and also denied the services of Wilfried Zaha, who is struggling with an ankle injury and was never likely to come off the substitutes' bench, England created little. Connor Wickham had a reasonable sight of goal in the ninth minute but he failed to make a clean connection, Jason Lowe drilled a shot from distance wide and Nathan Redmond, who was making his debut at this level, wriggled clear only to shoot over the bar.
It was England's turn to feel aggrieved early in the second half. Craig Dawson, who has a happy knack of scoring for England, headed home from inside the six-yard box following a Jonjo Shelvey corner. The players celebrated an unlikely lead only for Gautier, after some delay, to award a free-kick, with Steven Caulker seemingly penalised for a foul at the back post. Confusion followed as the stadium announcer took a full two minutes before he realised it was still 0-0.
For all Italy's chances it was not until the 62nd minute that Butland was forced to make a save. Robinson made a mistake that allowed the lively Florenzi to break on the right. His deep cross was met by the head of Fabio Borini but Butland got across to claw the ball round the post.
Butland was not so assured three minutes later when his error presented Borini with an opening that the Liverpool forward wasted. Borini failed to punish England on that occasion but Insigne was nothing like as forgiving.
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image: © ell-r-brown