Gareth Southgate says England are ready to fight for European Championship glory having progressed from what he believes was the toughest qualifying group with two matches to spare.
After bouncing back from December’s World Cup quarter-final exit to France by winning in Naples in March, three further wins and a draw away to Ukraine put the Euro 2020 runners-up within touching distance of progress.
Unbeaten England only needed a point against Italy to wrap up qualification for next year’s finals in Germany but went on to secure all three thanks to an impressive 3-1 comeback victory at a sold-out Wembley.
“Really pleased to win the game tonight,” manager Southgate said after sealing their spot at Euro 2024. “That’s the first thing.
“We know that the games against the top, top nations are the ones that we want to make a step forward with.
“We still need to win the games next month because it can affect seeding.
“Nice to get it done early. I think it’s probably the toughest qualifying group, with Ukraine, Italy and the results that North Macedonia have had, not only in this qualification but also in previous qualifications.”
The pressure is off as England welcome Malta next month, before rounding off 2023 away to North Macedonia buoyed by an impressive victory against Italy.
Former West Ham striker Gianluca Scamacca had put the Azzurri ahead on Tuesday as these nations met at Wembley for the first time since the Euro 2020 final.
But Harry Kane levelled from the spot and Marcus Rashford finished off a fine second-half team move, before the skipper added his second on a night that underlined their place among the Euro 2024 favourites.
“I think we have to accept that,” Southgate said. “I think pressure comes when expectation is different to reality and the reality is we are going to be one of the teams capable of winning.
“There are others. You know, it’s a very strong (line-up). You’ve only got to look through the top 10 European nations and on any given night one can beat another.
“We’re seeing in a Rugby World Cup now that teams that were ranked one and two in the world in those moments haven’t been able to get there. That’s tournaments.
“But we’re comfortable with that. I’ve talked about that from when we played at Naples and we delivered that night.
“I think we’ve continued to do that through this calendar year. I think our performances have been good.
“I think the players that played against Australia did a brilliant job for us.
“If we didn’t have the depth that we’ve got and the mentality to come through what was a really tough night for them, we wouldn’t have been able to have the freshness that we had tonight to give ourselves the best chance of winning the game.”
One of the keys to success next summer will undoubtedly be the brilliance of midfielder Jude Bellingham.
The Real Madrid star is arguably the best player on the planet right now and earned the first half penalty scored by Kane, before winning the ball and playing in Rashford.
“With Jude, his mentality is incredible for his age,” Southgate said.
“To have such an impact at such a young age, to show such maturity but also humility. We’re very lucky to have him.”
As for Italy, Tuesday’s defeat under the arch leaves them in third in Group C and three points behind second-placed Ukraine.
But Luciano Spalletti’s men have a game in hand on Sergey Rebrov’s outfit, who they face in the final round of fixtures.
“We have to win our next game so we can then travel away to Ukraine to compete,” the Italy boss said, looking ahead to November’s home clash with North Macedonia.
“I saw a team trying to do what I asked of them and I saw some good things. We made a few errors as well.
“With the things we did well, we weren’t able to score but as soon as we made a mistake, we conceded.”