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Gareth Southgate challenges his England stars

Thursday in Naples is England’s first Euro 2024 qualifying match against Italy; Since May 1961, the Three Lions have not defeated the Azzurri in Italy; “The past is irrelevant tomorrow night because we have to start again,” Southgate said in his pre-match press conference

In their first international match since losing to eventual runners-up France in the World Cup quarterfinal, the Three Lions took against Roberto Mancini’s team on Thursday in Naples.

Since a 3-2 friendly victory over them 62 years ago, England has not defeated the Azzurri in Italy, and they have won just five of their 13 games overall since the year 2022 began.

Southgate recognised this and issued his players with the challenge to start their qualifying campaign on a victorious note.

“In a nutshell, it is the sort of challenge that we’ve got to start to take on and the type of game we’ve got to start winning. We have over a period, but we’ve got to now consistently try to do that,”  he said on Wednesday.

“That said, we haven’t won here since 1961, so it’s another bit of history that we’re trying to break down and that’s a great challenge for this team because they’ve knocked down so many of those barriers in the past.

“I know Italy didn’t qualify for the World Cup, but they still have some outstanding players and they’re going to have high motivation as well. It’s going to be a fabulous game.

“We don’t need any more evidence of belief; they [England players] have been involved in some of the biggest matches in world football and they know the level that’s required, they know they have the ability to compete at that level.

“And then the fact that whatever we’ve done in the past is irrelevant tomorrow night because we have to start again. We have to have the humility to work hard to qualify again and it’s a great fixture for us to get that under way.”

Given that Italy, the defending champions of Europe, did not make it to Qatar, Southgate warned against taking the qualification process for granted.

“I think what we did really well after the Euros was our first game was away in Hungary. We gave one of our best performances, I think, and our mentality from the start was really, really good,” he stated.

“I don’t expect that mentality to be a problem, but it’s a reminder that these early stages of qualifying are crucial.

“I can remember us scoring a late goal against Poland at Wembley with no fans and people would have taken that victory for granted, but it was such an important moment in qualifying and we had several of those in our previous qualification campaigns.

“So though some of those groups looked comfortable at the end, there were plenty of nights where that wasn’t the case.”

When asked if the Euros are his final opportunity, Southgate responded: “Well that depends if we win! I think you have to be careful as a player not to assume when you’re younger that this might not be your last chance as well.

“Of course you’re always going to think you’re going to have other opportunities but injury, form, new players coming through in your position, you can never take that for granted.

“Yes, clearly the older ones know the timescale is quite clear. But everybody else has to be mindful of that as well.”

Southgate, whose contract expires in 2024, was asked if he would stay if England won the competition. He responded with a smile: “Let’s hope we’ve got that opportunity to make that decision!”

The question of whether the game offered Harry Kane the ideal chance to move past the disappointment of the World Cup in Qatar was also raised by Southgate. Kane needs just one more goal to break the record for most goals scored by England.

He said: “I think we’ve seen that, mentally, with his performances and his goal scoring with his club, he’s put it behind him, but I know he’s going to have added motivation tomorrow night to come back and show everybody what he’s about again in an England shirt. For us that’s a good position.

“It’s always difficult to compare [different England strikers] across the ages and there are a lot that I didn’t see because I wasn’t alive.

“But because of the goalscoring record alone, that puts him in the upper echelons of that group. He provides so much more for the team than that; his quality of passing, his vision, his touch. He’s an outstanding player and we’re very, very fortunate to have him.”

Declan Rice joined the news conference on Wednesday and shared his manager’s views on the importance of his captain.

“You can see every time he scores a goal how much it means to him,” he said.

“Everything he does is top level and to break the record tomorrow night, if he does it, I think it’ll be thoroughly deserved, with his mentality, the way he approaches the games and the way he captains our team.

“He’s a real leader and a lot of us would be really happy for him.”

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