Mancini searching for Italy solutions as Southgate sends England Euros stars back to the well

By Sports Desk March 22, 2023

"It has now become a 'classico'," said Roberto Mancini ahead of the latest episode of Italy-England.

Thursday's encounter – which kicks off Euro 2024 qualifying – will be the sides' fourth since Mancini took the Italy job in 2018 and their fifth since Gareth Southgate became England manager in 2016.

Prior to this match, Southgate has only faced Germany more often, yet the Azzurri are one of just four opponents his England team have played without winning (also France, Colombia and Brazil).

That sequence of results includes the Euro 2020 final, of course, and so revenge might be on the minds of the Three Lions.

Of the 16 England players who played some part in that Wembley shoot-out defeat, 14 were named in Southgate's squad for this month's qualifiers. Raheem Sterling – one of the other two – was also name-checked by Southgate, missing due to injury.

Rather than rebuild his side after coming so close, Southgate has stuck by his trusted lieutenants. He has handed out 20 or more caps to 22 different players across his England tenure and included 17 of those in his latest group – Sterling, again, is one of the other five.

It figures that Southgate should have faith in the best England side since 1966, even if his predictable squad selections frustrate some supporters.

Mason Mount and Marcus Rashford subsequently dropped out of the squad but were not replaced, with the manager seemingly reluctant to gamble on the introduction of a new face – particularly at this key juncture at the start of a new cycle.

"Now you have to start again," Southgate explained last week. "I know exactly where our most senior players are with that challenge: they are ready.

"The [Jordan] Hendersons, the [Harry] Kanes, they set the tone for that sort of mentality that is going to be needed."

How Italy would love to have the problems that face Southgate, both in having to rally quickly following a World Cup campaign – one Mancini's men watched from home – and in juggling elite talents and having to shut the door to others.

Less than two years have passed since Italy won the European Championship, yet the 17 players they used in the final were, on average, two years older than the 16 of England.

 

If this is the last run for Southgate and some of his most reliable stars – and it surely is – the same was already true for Italy at the Euros.

Only nine of those 17 players were retained by Mancini this month, naming a squad that included three teenagers and four uncapped players, along with the returning Matteo Darmian, whose last international outing pre-dates the Azzurri coach.

Far from confidently regenerating his squad, however, Mancini is casting around for answers. He has capped 88 players in 57 matches; Southgate has capped 88 players in 81 matches.

Where only five of England's 25-man squad have earned 10 caps or fewer under Southgate, there are 15 in the 30-man Italy group who are yet to reach that milestone under Mancini.

Of course, that includes Darmian, but it also includes Mateo Retegui, an Argentinian-born, Argentinian-raised and Argentinian-based forward at Tigre.

While his involvement prompted some controversy, going against Mancini's previous stance on calling up players not born in Italy, the coach explained: "In Italy, there are few. We are worse off than Southgate. If there is a chance to take new players, we take them."

It is a high-pressure situation Retegui is entering, potentially being tasked with leading the line against the toughest opponents in Italy's group.

Mancini has acknowledged his team cannot afford a slow start in a "very important" first game as they look to right the wrongs of their previous qualification campaign, but he has been left little choice but to take risks.

By contrast, getting to major tournaments has not until now been a problem for the risk-averse Southgate.

A 'classico' in Naples may yet inform the England boss whether that can remain the case with the same group of players at a third straight finals.

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