The fortress that England's Under-21 side have erected all over Europe in the past 19 months was finally breached tonight, and at potentially damaging cost. When the clever little Italian midfielder Lorenzo Insigne whipped a free-kick past Jack Butland 11 minutes from the end, it was the first goal Stuart Pearce's youngsters had conceded in ten games, a run lasting 889 minutes.
Defeat in an opening group match is always a bad, if never fatal blow, although this one left England bottom of Group A after Israel had drawn 2-2 with the ten men of Norway. It was all typically tight and characteristically eventful of Pearce's four successive appearances at this tournament, where they had drawn seven of previous 12 games. Another one would have been welcome, if undeserved, despite England having two goals in two minutes disallowed just after half-time; the second so mysteriously that the whole team celebrated at length and the scoreboard changed to one-nil.
Pearce himself, watched by Sir Trevor Brooking, who must decide shortly whether to offer him a new contract, admitted: “The performance was very poor and the players know that. The better team won the game, some of our players didn't show their quality on the ball and one or two of the bigger players at this level didn't perform.”
The manager described Italy as “decent” and may come to upgrade that assessment before the end of a tournament in which they had been made only third favourites behind Spain and Germany. The Azzurri had much the better of the possession and chances, as well as an outstanding midfield pairing on the left in Marco Verratti of Paris Saint-Germain and the diminutive Insigne. With his bleached hair and long shorts, the latter was a conspicuous figure whom England still found it difficult to keep track of. Southampton's Nathaniel Clyne at right-back was given a difficult evening.
Birmingham's Nathan Redmond on his debut, showed up well but the worry was always that England would lack attacking verve without players like Raheem Sterling and Wilfried Zaha. Despite Pearce's insistence for two days that he was “ready”, Manchester United's new signing stayed on the bench throughout and cannot even be certain of starting the second game against Norway on Saturday. Danny Rose and Tom Ince, both suspended, will be available then.
The lack of flair and creativity, inability to keep the ball and the high number of absent friends are recurring themes from Pearce's campaigns and, to be fair to him, have been valid criticisms just as often of the senior team. The under-age sides do, however, suffer even more from withdrawals and unavailability. England make it worse for themselves by permanently promoting players like Phil Jones and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who would still be invaluable at this level but were picked for end-of-season friendlies. In contrast, Italy's manager Devis Mangla made a point of thanking the senior coach Cesare Prandelli for allowing him to use the gifted Verratti, who made his debut for the senior team against England last August. Tonight he made 120 passes; England's highest number was Jordan Henderson's 44.
Italy, five times Under-21 champions (a record), are old adversaries of England's at this level in what have invariably been close games; among them a 3-3 draw in the first game at the new Wembley and an equally eventual 2-2 stalemate at the European Championship finals a few months later. More recently there was a 1-0 Italian victory two years ago but the personnel change so quickly at this level that not one player who started on that occasion did so again here.
Nottingham Forest's Henri Lansbury almost certainly would have done but he had strained a groin the previous day. That meant a place for Blackburn's versatile Jason Lowe in midfield alongside Henderson, with the debutant Redmond, Shelvey and Marvin Sordell further forward, just behind Connor Wickham.
The Sunderland striker struggled to make an impression and the fact that England had two half-chances before half-time compared to Italy's half-dozen clearer ones was a fair summation of the first half. Pearce's team appeared to have settled the better and had the first attempt when Sordell did well to cross for Wickham, who could find no power for his shot.
Once Verratti and Insigne began seeing the ball, however, England's remarkable defensive record came under sustained threat. In the space of three minutes Ciro Immobile outpaced Craig Dawson and shot past the far post; Jack Robinson was forced into a defiant block from Alessandro Florenzi's shot; and Clyne headed his backpass beyond an alarmed Butland but recovered to clear for a corner.
By the interval the lively Insigne had driven a good chance wide and chipped just over the bar after playing a neat one-two. The most dangerous moment came when Robinson, playing in place of Rose, lunged at Florenzi and could easily have conceded a penalty.
The second half followed a similar pattern in that England began with a rush and were then slowed. Wickham was clearly offside before tucking away Clyne's pass but the reason for ruling out Dawson's header after Steven Caulker knocked on Shelvey's corner was more obscure. A push - barely a nudge - was the only possibility.
Italy again forced their way back with Fabio Borini, who had an undistinguished season at Anfield, more prominent. His header at the far post led to Butland's first real save but he screwed his shot wide when the goalkeeper unusually missed a cross and then cleared straight to him after regaining possession.
On a humid night - temperatures had reached 30 degrees during the day - England introduced the Chelsea pair Nat Chalobah and Josh McEachran, neither of whom had made a mark before the game's decisive moment. Clyne brought down the substitute Manolo Gabbiadini just outside the penalty area and Insigne curled the free-kick superbly past Butland's dive.
With the last kick of the game, the captain Henderson, had a free-kick pushed away by Francesco Bardi and victory was Italy's.
Man of the match Insigne.
Match rating 7/10.
Referee A Gautier (Fr).