Jermain Defoe strikes gold against Italy to give England's future a little more shine
England 2 Italy 1
It takes a beautiful goal to give meaning to a meaningless match and the one that Jermain Defoe struck sweetly past the Italian goalkeeper with 11 minutes left last night belonged to that category of strike that makes even the most indifferent stadium jolt back to attention.
It was a wonderful goal that gave a game played in front of a half-full stadium with a combined total of 13 international debuts, the kind of lustre that an unloved August friendly between two "B" teams might otherwise have been missing. Yes, there was the opportunity for Roy Hodgson to see new players, and rekindle a little optimism, but it always helps the England manager if his team wins.
Hodgson gave five players their debuts and brought Michael Carrick back into international football for the first time in more than two years. This was not the night that the England football team turned the corner, it was nothing more than a first tentative step on what Hodgson hopes will be the journey to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. With the limitations placed upon him, it could have been so much worse.
Yes, Cesare Prandelli handed out eight debuts, and had only three players from the first XI on the night that Italy eliminated England in the Euro 2012 quarter-finals, 52 days previously. With one successful qualification campaign under his belt and a recognised way of playing, he has far fewer of the worries and uncertainties that face England as they shape up for another international tournament.
Hodgson is pretty much at the start of that process and given the circumstances around last night's game, he will give thanks for small mercies. He could point to a composed performance from Carrick, who kept possession well in midfield over 90 minutes and was even rewarded with the captain's armband when Frank Lampard went off with 21 minutes left.
Hodgson also got to see Tom Cleverley and Jack Butland in an international game, both of whom played well enough to guarantee that they will be back. That was another small tick in the book on a night when there were empty seats and a sense of indifference in the air. Not exactly the circumstances in which the third-best team in the world – to give them their official Fifa status – usually find themselves.
There were also debuts for John Ruddy, Jake Livermore and Ryan Bertrand, all of whom were second-half substitutes. There was a sparkling cameo from Mr Steady, James Milner, another substitute, who unexpectedly changed the mood of the team despite taking a hefty kick on that famously robust jaw of his.
Last night England did not have to face that old midfield assassin Andrea Pirlo, who caused them such problems in Kiev. They looked sharper after their summer break, although the old problems of failing to move the ball around quick enough, and the lack of width, were evident again. None of this is going to be solved over one night.
Nevertheless, this was the first time that an England team has beaten Italy since 1997 and Hodgson can at least say that he is yet to lose a game in 90 minutes over the course of the seven that he has been in charge. In a job in which mood counts for much, this keeps England ticking over to the first two World Cup qualifiers against Moldova and Ukraine early next month.
You would be hard-pressed to argue that Carrick and Lampard are the solution to England's problems, especially at a World Cup finals almost two years away, but with Jack Wilshere's injury absence going on interminably, Carrick is a very useful man to have around. Had he been part of the squad, he would undoubtedly have played for England at the last European Championship, although we did not need last night to tell us that.
Unfortunately England did little to get their wingers Adam Johnson and Ashley Young in behind Italy's full-backs, not to mention their two attack-minded full-backs Leighton Baines and Kyle Walker. They still looked ponderous on occasions. With Andy Carroll, substituted at half-time, and looking nothing like match-ready, it was painful at times in the first half. Young, the only England player who also started against Italy in Kiev in June, struggled to get on the ball and Johnson only briefly threatened. Cleverley, deployed in the role taken by Wayne Rooney at Euro 2012 came in and out the game but played well enough to suggest he is not out of his depth.
The one consolation was that at least Italy were as bad at defending corners as England, and both goals in the first half came from the same route. Carrick failed to track Daniele De Rossi when he came into the box for Alessandro Diamanti's corner on 15 minutes, which the captain headed past Butland.
The 19-year-old, now the youngest goalkeeper ever to represent England, could have done little about that goal, and in the build-up had made a good save from a deflected shot to concede the corner. Overall, his bearing and his confident handling of the ball did nothing to detract from the initial supposition that England have a very promising, if inexperienced, goalkeeper at their disposal.
England played better in the latter stages of the first half and they scored when Phil Jagielka dived at the near post to head in Lampard's corner from the right-hand side with 27 minutes gone. They might have scored again when Joleon Lescott, another substitute, could not force the ball home at the back post in the second half.
The winning goal on 79 minutes came shortly after Bertrand blocked an attempt from Manolo Gabbiadini on the England goal. Milner took the ball upfield and played a nice ball to Defoe just out the reach of Ignazio Abate. The striker doubled back and from an improbable position out in the corner of the area struck a fierce shot past Salvatore Sirigu.
Not many strikers would have had the confidence to shoot from that position but then this is Defoe, who shoots given the slightest sight of goal. This was, after all, England's night to try things out.
Man of match Milner.
Match rating 6/10.
Referee S Kever (Swit).
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