LIKE the area to the west of Wembley that is currently undergoing a dramatic transformation as no fewer than 16 cranes jostle with the iconic Arch on the North London skyline, Gareth Southgate’s England are very much a work in progress.
And, just like the stadium surrounds that are finally catching up with the gleaming stadium that opened its doors for the first time 11 years ago this week, the rebuilding job on the national football team after years of decline is not proving to be a quick fix.
Sturdy foundations are needed. So, too, is a clear and concise plan. For manager Southgate, this means a three-man defence and a fervent hope that a fit Harry Kane or one of the Three Lions’ pacey attackers can provide the spark that will be required to make any sort of impact on this summer’s World Cup.
On last night’s evidence progress is being made under the former Middlesbrough manager.
Maybe not as much as the developers are managing in the stadium’s environs, with new buildings seeming to have sprouted up each time England play on home soil. But progress all the same.
Last night Raheem Sterling and Jesse Lingard were the two sporting the Three Lions that most caught the eye.
The duo’s willingness to run at the Italians caused all manner of problems, as did their link-up play that turned defence into attack at speed. Just the sort of weapon England will need if they do advance deep into this summer’s tournament.
Jamie Vardy also reminded the 82,598 crowd that goals are not the sole preserve of the injured Kane with a stunning finish that, for so long, looked like ensuring Southgate’s men would start 2018 with back-to-back victories.
In the end, Lorenzo Insigne’s 87th minute penalty – controversially awarded after VAR made its international debut at Wembley – dashed those hopes. James Tarkowski being adjudged to have fouled substitute Federico Chiesa may have left Kyle Walker fuming, the defender having to be restrained by team-mates before the kick was taken.
But the late equaliser could not detract from an otherwise encouraging performance to add to Friday’s 1-0 win over Holland.
Only in the early exchanges did the hosts ever look vulnerable and this was mostly down to John Stones seeming determined to give Jack Butland a chance to shine in his quest to be Southgate’s first choice between the posts come the summer.
Twice in the opening 150 seconds the Manchester City defender committed howlers deep in home territory that left Butland potentially needing to save his side.
Ciro Immobile, however, lived up to his name by failing miserably to take advantage on both occasions.
The Lazio striker then wasted another gilt-edged opportunity to work Butland when left unmarked eight yards out to meet an Antonio Candreva cross that he somehow headed wide.
Such profligacy was punished when England took the lead on 26 minutes. Lingard’s quick free-kick after Sterling had eventually succumbed to the second of two ankle taps from Marco Parolo created the opening by releasing Vardy.
The former FC Halifax Town striker then larruped a right-footed shot past Gianluigi Dannarumma with such ferocity the goalkeeper had barely moved by the time the ball was past him.
It made amends for Vardy having earlier been denied by the AC Milan teenager after being released by Sterling.
Vardy’s seventh international goal also settled England down
Ashley Young, another to impress on the left flank, twice had shots diverted away from goal and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain also fired straight at Donnarumma.
Then, though, came the sting in the tail for the hosts courtesy of the VAR system that will be used in the World Cup.
In real time Chiesa’s theatrical fall to the ground looked nothing more than a doomed attempt to earn his side a draw.
Referee Deniz Aytekin, however, indicated a desire to check Tarkowski’s challenge and, after an interminable delay, a penalty was awarded. Insigne did the rest from 12 yards to deny England what would have been a deserved victory over Italy.
It could not, though, detract from an otherwise encouraging night for Southgate in what was his last chance to see the Three Lions in action before naming his interim squad for the World Cup on May 14.
England: Butland; Walker, Stones (Henderson 73), Tarkowski; Trippier (Rose 60), Oxlade-Chamberlain (Lallana 59), Dier, Lingard (Cook 70), Young; Vardy (Rashford 70), Sterling. Unused substitutes: Hart, Maguire, Mawson, Livermore, Alli, Pickford, Pope, Welbeck.
Italy: Donnaruma; Zappacosta, Rugani, Bonucci; De Sciglio, Parolo, Jorginho, Pellegrini (Gagliardini 79), Candreva (Chiesa 56), Immobile (Belotti 64), Insigne. Unused substitutes: Buffon, Perin, Florenzi, Darmian, Ferrari, Ogbonna, Verratti, Cristante, Bonaventura, Cutrone, Verdi.
Referee: D Aytekin (Germany).