Harry Kane's fabulous form and Italy's struggles add to drama ahead of Euro 2024

Injuries to promising youngsters Gavi and Zaire-Emery worrying signs for Spain and France

Harry Kane, left. celebrates after scoring their England's second goal in their Euro 2024 qualifer against Malta at Wembley Stadiumon November 17, 2023. PA
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The reigning champions of Europe can book their hotels, scope out training venues, and, if they are wise, schedule some practice at taking and saving penalties.

Italy, who won the final of Euro 2020 in a shoot-out, are so locked into the habit of seeing their fortunes decided by late, suspense-heavy outcomes they should anticipate some nervous finishes if they go deep into Euro 2024.

On Monday in Leverkusen, the latest adopted "home" ground of Ukraine’s exiled national team, Italians anxiously anticipated penalty drama as they scraped towards qualifying for next summer’s European championship.

Italy were drawing 0-0 with Ukraine, needing a point to assure progress but at risk of being pushed below their opponents into Group C’s third place and into a spring play-off were they to lose.

In the 93rd minute, Mykhailo Mudryk appeared to be tripped, inside the Italy penalty area, by Bryan Cristante. No foul was given, no VAR referral made. Ukraine were outraged. After the final whistle, Italy’s goalkeeper Gianluigi Donarumma admitted: “Having looked at the video, it [a penalty] could have been awarded.”

The incident will linger in Ukrainian minds until the March play-offs. In Italian minds, there is lasting relief that, in their agonising sequence of cliffhangers over the last six years, this one, like the Euro 2020 final, blessed them.

Azzurri supporters have watched the national team fail in play-offs to reach both of the last two World Cups, Donnarumma bearing heavy criticism for the very late North Macedonia goal that denied Italy a place at Qatar 2022.

Then again, perhaps the giant keeper would have saved a Ukraine spot-kick. He has a sound record facing high-pressure penalties. Two Donnarumma saves in the shoot-out at Wembley won the last Euros, at England’s expense.

But what Donnarumma, the Italy captain through the jittery later phase of Euro 2024 qualifying, has never managed is a penalty save against Harry Kane, whose successful spot-kicks in both the England-Italy matches in Group C shaped the eventual standings.

Kane struck England’s second goal of a 2-1 victory in Naples. Last month, Kane’s penalty equalised after Italy took a lead in London, England going on to win 3-1, a bit of revenge for that Wembley final.

To look at England’s six-point headroom over Italy and Ukraine is to imagine a pendulum has truly swung. The squad Kane leads to Germany will be among the top seeds when, on December 2, the six groups of four for the finals are assembled, with Italy among the lower-seeded nations.

England belong firmly among the favourites. Kane is a principal reason, his four international goals from four international starts since August augmenting his surreal tally of 21 from 15 starts for his new club, Bayern Munich.

Add the equally stunning instant impact of Jude Bellingham at Real Madrid – 13 goals from midfield in 14 games – and, fitness and form permitting, England have a pair of world-class game-changers.

If Gareth Southgate’s team suffered some dreary and untidy moments in the concluding chapters of their qualification – they drew 1-1 in North Macedonia and looked flat beating Malta 2-0 at home – they have reserves of attacking talent to up the gears when needed.

But fitness and form are always important caveats. The smooth progress of fellow top seeds, France and Spain, through the final matchdays of group qualifying has been disrupted by ominous medical bulletins, painful ones in the cases of midfielders Gavi of Spain and Warren Zaire-Emery of France.

Both are teenage prodigies, eagerly looking ahead to their first European championships. Neither will play again in 2023, and it remains to be seen how quickly they recuperate and regain momentum in the months leading up to the tournament.

While France, finalists in three of their last four major tournaments, were showing off their full attacking might by beating Gibraltar 14-0, they were also learning that Edu Camavinga, the 20-year-old midfielder who tore a knee ligament in training, would also be out of action into the new year.

Belgium, impressive in qualifying, must imagine they will be even more so should Kevin de Bruyne and Thibaut Courtois, both recuperating from long-term injuries, be their old selves come the summer.

Portugal were immaculate in topping their group, and will be monitoring the recovery of striker Rafael Leao, whose withdrawal from their squad last week begins a period of up to a month out tending to a muscle problem.

Not that the Portuguese are short of calibre alternatives up front. Their route to Germany, steered by a new head coach Roberto Martinez, marks them out as real contenders to reclaim a title they won in 2016 title: 10 games, 10 victories; 36 goals scored, two conceded.

And anyone doubting the enduring fitness or form of their captain, who will be 39 come the finals, should do so in whisper.

In nine qualifying matches, Cristiano Ronaldo struck nine goals. “He’s as hungry as an 18-year-old,” warned Martinez.

Updated: November 21, 2023, 4:38 PM