Declan Rice responds to Graeme Souness criticism as England star struggles with West Ham

Naples is no one’s idea of feet-up relaxation – particularly inside the crumbling colosseum of the Stadio Diego Armando Maradona – but for Declan Rice, England’s lion’s den appointment in Italy represents a form of escape. Back to being a foot soldier – an important one, mind – in an England side that is looking upwards rather than downwards makes for a pleasant change.

It is a passport out of the weekly stress of a relegation fight, the debate over his club form and the constant speculation over his future at West Ham. “There has always been loads of talk around my name but for me, now I’m here, it’s about these fixtures for England,” said Rice.

“When I get back to West Ham it’s about playing the best I can for that club to get us out of the relegation battle and win the conference league. My club performances are probably getting looked at more because of where we are in the league.

“With me being captain my performances are scrutinised more which I can take on the chin. There have been some games recently where I probably haven’t been at my best but there have been other games where I have been at my best.

“It’s a bit up and down for the whole team this season.” One of his fiercest critics has been Graeme Souness who claims Rice only displays one of the three attributes a top midfielder should have – the ability to win the ball back – and that he falls short on passing and scoring and claimed he is “not the best”.

“I think it’s harsh because Souness doesn’t watch West Ham every week,” said Rice. “I think to say I’m only good at one of three is harsh but Souness was a top midfielder and when someone like him speaks you have to sometimes listen and take on board where you can improve if that’s true.”

Many of the country’s top clubs disagree strongly enough to want to prise him away from the London Stadium at the end of the season. Rice wants to park the transfer talk but Italy midfielder Marco Verratti, who plays his club football at PSG, believes it is inevitable that the 24-year-old will end up at a Champions League club.

“I really like him as a player, he provides great balance and shape to the team, he has got wonderful physical attributes and really helps the team out a lot,” said Verratti. “He is a number 6, a defensive midfielder that England really need and I’m sure he will end up at a top side.

“He never gives up. He has a wonderful attitude and is really young so has room for improvement.” Rice wins his 40th cap for his country in the chaos of a city teeming with life but where – trying to cross a road anyway – death never seems that far away.

Italy’s first home game among the Neapolitans for a decade is an interesting way for England to restart their engines after the heartbreak of the World Cup quarter-final. Going toe to toe with finalists France in Qatar has convinced this crop of England players that they need fear no one.

“I think there is more expectation now than ever,” said Rice. “If you look at this squad it’s full of top-quality players. The record in Italy hasn’t been good and I think tomorrow night is a really big statement if we can go out there and put on a performance and win.

“We’re in a hostile city, a hostile stadium but we’re ready to go out there. It’s going to be tough but after the World Cup we genuinely believe we can beat anyone.”