Italy vs England match report: Andros Townsend has great night in Turin after cancelling out Graziano Pelle opener

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The Independent Football

It was Andros Townsend who came to the rescue of England in the end, and there will always be a place for him in the England squads Roy Hodgson selects just as long as the Spurs man keeps coming up with goals that spare his manager a lot of awkward questions.

What a strange old game, that England finished so strongly they might even have won had Gianluigi Buffon not flung himself in front of Wayne Rooney’s shot with nine minutes left and stopped the striker from scoring England goal No 48. Yet at times, especially in the first half, it served as the most sobering reminder that when it comes to the big boys of European football this England team can feel like the proverbial Milton Keynes car park amongst the Renaissance palaces.

Goodness knows, Roy Hodgson will not try again his first half experiment of Phil Jones in holding midfield and Theo Walcott partnering Harry Kane, much less the subsequent tinker which left Walcott as the No 10 behind Rooney and the Spurs striker. This was a mediocre Italy team at best but in the first half it was painful watching Hodgson’s team try, and fail, to break them down.

The truth is that it has been a fairly dismal set of opponents England have been able to bully since the World Cup finals, a run of seven teams who have ranged from the mediocre to the downright amateurish. Up against a football nation of superior calibre, there were moments when the truth was all too painful.

The “five-minute furies” that Hodgson has instigated to pressurise opponents did not seem to be squeezing an ounce more perspiration from the Italians, not until the very end when the six second half substitutions that Antonio Conte made upset the balance of his team. They started to make mistakes and Townsend could drill in a goal to level Graziano Pelle’s first half equaliser.

 

In the end, with a late chance for Kane, saved by Buffon, it did not look so bad for Hodgson. He was able to give a debut to Ryan Mason and a run-out for Ross Barkley. To England’s credit they had fought back in the second half after a slow start following half-time and had adapted better to the substitutions – although that said much about how poorly they had responded to the original tactics

The experiment that involving Jones in holding midfield lasted all of 42 minutes when an illness that affected Chris Smalling gave Roy Hodgson the opportunity to change his team. The England manager could have gone for the straight switch and brought Gary Cahill on in the middle of defence in place of Smalling but instead he opted to move Jones back into defence and play Michael Carrick in front of the back four.

It was acceptance that whatever he had hoped to get from Jones in that position had not been forthcoming and that the least worst option was to abandon the plan.

At the same time, and at the other end of his team, he moved Walcott into the No 10 position and pushed Rooney into attack alongside Kane. It was a move that made little sense given the Arsenal man’s qualities.

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It was not even half-time and the bravery to try something different that Hodgson had felt following those post-Brazil victories was already wilting and no surprise, either. His team had been extremely poor in the first half, incapable of passing through a decidedly average Italy team that simply out-numbered their visitors in midfield and hit them on the counter-attack.

The Italy goal from Southampton striker Pelle was a personal failure for Jones who let the centre-back Giorgio Chiellini burst past him from the right after the ball was loose following a corner. The defender curled in a marvellous cross which Pelle nudged gently on its way inside Joe Hart’s left post.

By then England had their one sight of goal when, on 21 minutes, a rushed clearance from Italy had found its way to Rooney and his volley downwards skipped up off the turf and struck the bar of Buffon, making his 147th international appearance. Otherwise, the veteran goalkeeper had expended most effort on singing the national anthem.

During the build-up to the game, Smalling had spoken hopefully about how he might develop into kind of centre-half capable of carrying the ball out of defence and starting attacking moves with his own incisive passing. By the time he came off that just looked like a bad joke. Most of England’s defenders’ passing went sideways and that which was optimistically launched forward was far too speculative to cause Italy real problems.

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England manager Roy Hodgson

 

Conte’s team defended deep so that they were not exposed to the pace of England’s full-backs, Kieran Gibbs and Nathaniel Clyne or that of Walcott. Although they were missing eight first team players who might ordinarily have expected to play they looked a lot more composed than England with Citadin Eder, the naturalised Brazilian, sharp and so too Marco Parolo of Lazio, who forced Hart into a good early save.

As for England, it just felt like a struggle in midfield with Rooney isolated and Kane anonymous. The Spurs striker lurked at the back post for a couple of crosses from the left, one of which opened up the chance for Rooney, but otherwise the three-man Italy defence denied him space. Certainly Italy looked like they had figured out a way of dealing with the Premier League’s latest star.

It made little sense for Hodgson to persist with Walcott behind Kane and Rooney but he did, for ten minutes of the second half until the unfortunate Arsenal man was called over to be replaced by Barkley. Walcott had been given none of the service he thrives on while in attack and then had been moved completely out of position.

In the meantime Italy should have scored a second. Hart came out on 50 minutes to block a shot from Eder and in the aftermath Phil Jagielka succeeded only in passing the ball straight back to Pelle who could not hit the target.

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Arguably the best early England chance of the second half fell to Gibbs on 55 minutes in a decent passage of play for England when Rooney managed to get the ball to him in the left channel but the full-back put it wide of the near post. Nevertheless, they were playing closer to the Italian goal for longer periods.

Then came Towsend’s equaliser off his weaker right foot. Rooney had chances either side of the goal to score but flicked Kane’s cross wide and was then denied by Buffon. England were getting stronger as the game became more open, more of a free-for-all – and more players found themselves in the positions to which they were best suited.

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