LONDON: It a rough night for two teams expected to be World Cup contenders. England lost at Italy 1-0 and were relegated from the top tier of the Nations League, and Germany lost at home to Hungary by the same score.
World Cup semi-finalists in 2018, European Championship runners-up last year, England were surfing a wave of optimism, but the wheels have come off spectacularly and they now look anything but potential winners in Qatar.
Friday’s defeat in Milan relegated them from League A, Group 3 after a campaign in which they lost twice to Hungary — including 4-0 at Wembley — and once to Italy, who didn’t qualify for the World Cup in Qatar, along with two scrambled draws.
Their only goal in five games was a late Harry Kane penalty against Germany and they will hardly be brimming with confidence for the return match at home on Monday.
Manager Gareth Southgate had a relatively settled side during the Euros, when England posed threats from all over the pitch and were solid at the back.
After this sorry run, however, there are only a handful of players who can be confident of making the starting 11 in Qatar and the coach now seems unsure of his best system.
His oft-quoted policy of picking on form has shown to be hollow after he started Harry Maguire on Friday despite the centre back barely getting a game at Manchester United.
His chopped and changed midfield failed miserably to get hold of the game — despite Declan Rice’s faintly bizarre claim that England had controlled it.
Jude Bellingham, still only 19 despite all his experience for Borussia Dortmund, probably did as much as anyone to enhance his World Cup prospects while Kane remains a world-class threat if he can stay fit and Reece James remains ever-reliable.
However, Raheem Sterling struggled for impact, as did Southgate’s undroppable favourite Bukayo Saka and ineffective substitute Jack Grealish.
Even the ultra-reliable Kyle Walker had an off night, giving Giacomo Raspadori way too much time to pick his spot from just inside the box and score the winner midway through the second half at the San Siro in the rematch of last season’s European Championship final which was won by the Azzurri.
Southgate claimed England have taken a “step in the right direction”, but relegation from the top tier of the Nations League suggests the Three Lions’ are sliding.
Germany’s visit to Wembley for a Nations League dead rubber on Monday is England’s only match before the World Cup and Southgate’s last chance to rediscover the fizz that had the whole country behind him a little over a year ago, before embarking in November on the latest attempt to end what is now 56 years of hurt.
Germany suffered their first defeat under coach Hansi Flick in their penultimate game before the World Cup, and cannot qualify for the Nations League final four.
Instead it will be Italy and Hungary whose clash on Monday will decide which side advances for the finals in June. Hungary, who have 10 points, need only a draw against second-placed Italy (eight) to become group winners.
Flick said “it is better to be angry now than at the World Cup” as he promised his side will learn from their defeat to Hungary in Leipzig after Adam Szalai scored with an audacious backheel flick 17 minutes in following a corner.
“I am absolutely disappointed because as a footballer you hate to lose,” Flick said.
Flick said the first-half performance was the worst of his 14 games in charge, but took some responsibility himself.
“I opted for a line-up that just didn’t work so well,” he said. “The way we approached the game, we can do much better. The time for experimentation is over.”
Flick’s “experimentation” referred to putting attacking midfielder Jonas Hofmann at right back, which he abandoned at half-time with the home side trailing to Szalai’s goal.
“We wanted to try something with Jonas at right-back... we wanted to see two attacking full-backs,” said Flick. “As a result, we couldn’t get in flow. I have to take some of the blame for that.”
Joshua Kimmich, clearly the home side’s best player on a disappointing night, said beating England was the first step to a successful World Cup.
“Listen... we wanted to win the group at all costs, even if you didn’t see that in the first half,” Kimmich said, with his side third in their Nations League group. “And now we can’t do that anymore, but we still want to win the last game against England to give us more confidence.”
Elsewhere on Friday, Bosnia and Herzegovina were promoted to League A following a 1-0 win over regional rivals Montenegro, with Ermedin Demirovic scoring in first-half added time after being set up by Edin Dzeko.
Unbeaten Georgia secured promotion from League ‘C’ with a 2-0 win over visiting North Macedonia following an own goal from Bojan Miovski and another from Napoli winger Khvicha Kvaratskhelia, who has five goals and five assists in eight Nations League matches.
Estonia were promoted from League ‘D’ after beating Malta 2-1.
Published in Dawn, September 25th, 2022