JUST IN: Declan Rice identifies how England can…..

The biggest statement Declan Rice made as England qualified for Euro 2024A was on the pitch, not off it. Yet, from the moment he gave them the lead in the Stadio Diego Armando Maradona, securing the pivotal result in the opening game, it could scarcely be any other way. And if England fans of a certain generation – Gareth Southgate perhaps quietly among them – could be forgiven for savouring the sense that the path to a European Championship began at a ground named after a man who knocked them out of a World Cup in inimitable, immortal fashion, a second victory over Italy sealed their passage to Germany.

And then Rice made a different kind of statement. “We have to be level-headed about it but there is one objective and that is to win on foreign soil,” the £105m midfielder said. “We have enough winners in the group and the mentality is amazing but it is down to us. We can talk about it as much as we can but we know as players it is now time to step up.”

If his ambition was apparent, perhaps there is no need for false modesty. As finalists in Euro 2020, semi-finalists in the 2018 World Cup and a team who, as Southgate had noted earlier in the week, have consistently been ranked in the top five of Fifa’s rankings for five years, England will have the burden of expectation, whether or not they want it.

Rice has chosen to embrace it.

“There is no need for fear,” he said. “We went to Naples and won in Italy for the first time in ages. We beat Italy at Wembley after they beat us at the last Euros. Big performances. We’re ready, mentally.

“We were watching the rugby the other night and seeing how those top teams like Ireland went out but they are the No. 1 team in the world. That mindset of getting over the line, that is what we’re now starting to achieve. We have all the talent but it is about that mindset and the drive to be the best and to win.”

Rice’s past rendered the mention of the Irish rugby team more intriguing. His first taste of international football came with Ireland, after all. Other mentions of the oval-balled sport may jar, too. Southgate knows the England coach, Steve Borthwick, well, though his side stumbled into the tournament and have progressed through it with few flourishes and little aesthetic appeal; he used to share ideas with Eddie Jones, the architect of Australia’s embarrassing campaign and whose narcissistic brand of gobshite management is very different from Southgate’s more considerate ethos.

The lesson from the 15-man code is that tight knockout games between elite teams can go either way. The top two in the world rankings, Ireland and France, lost in the quarter-finals. Southgate turned his thoughts back to his own game and reflected: “You only have to look through the top 10 European nations and on any one night one can beat another.”

England’s two qualifying wins over Italy make them contenders for Euro 2024, can Gareth Southgate lead them to glory?

Rice has recent proof. “Even though we went out in the World Cup, it was like we took another step in terms of the way we played against France,” he said.

Southgate concurred: “We had that belief in the winter and of course we played a top team and we didn’t quite get there. But I think the team has evolved again.”

And if France represent an obvious reason why England may not win Euro 2024, with Didier Deschamps’ hugely gifted side meriting the billing of favourites, the reality is there are plenty of contenders and most will depart disappointed.

If a generational talent like Jude Bellingham could make a difference, so can the nous to secure results. “Knowing how to win games, knowing how to see games out,” Rice outlined. “The prime example is the Euro final: we didn’t manage that game well enough at all. I think since then we’ve kicked on and managed games so much better.”

After losing to France in the most recent World Cup, have England learned how to get over the line against strong opposition?

Southgate has turned to rugby again, in particular to New Zealand.

“We’ve had some people in before to do some talks,” Rice said. “Not only the All Blacks; England as well [and] South Africa. How to get over the line. How to do things differently and how to have that mindset of ‘We ain’t getting beaten. No matter what.’”

It was an attitude England demonstrated twice against Italy, first holding to win in the hostility of Naples with 10 men, then coming from behind to get victory at Wembley. If they felt seismic results against a country who have exposed English shortcomings in the past, Southgate’s side are now at a stage where they will be assessed on a still bigger stage.

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“We know in the end we will be judged on the tournaments, that’s been clear since we won the games in March,” he added. “But we’ve had some very special nights with this team, some incredible wins.”

But, as Rice had said, the victory on foreign soil that would mean most will not come in qualifying.

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