England against Italy feels as though it should be one of football's classic fixtures, a meeting between the motherland of the game and a country that has won the World Cup four times. Yet the sides have met only twice before in major tournaments, never on neutral soil, and only four times in qualifying games for major tournaments. England have won just one of those six competitive fixtures and Italy are one of only four teams (Brazil, Uruguay and Romania being the other three) to have the advantage over England in a head-to-head comparison. It was, though, a game against Italy in 1948 that brought perhaps England's greatest ever victory.

The last competitive meeting also produced a positive outcome for England. They went to Rome in their final qualifier for the 1998 World Cup having lost 1-0 to a Gianfranco Zola goal at Wembley but needing only to draw to qualify for France. Three months earlier, Glenn Hoddle's side had beaten Italy 2-0 in Le Tournoi – that World Cup warm-up in France, notable for Roberto Carlos's free-kick and for England winning the oddly cheap-looking glass trophy after rotating the ball better than they have before or since. In the Stadio Olimpico, England were more Italian than the Italians. They kept the ball superbly, wasted time, feigned injury, generally broke up the play and nearly won it at the end when Ian Wright hit the post.

Eileen Drewery, Hoddle's faith-healer, claimed she'd deliberately steered the ball so as to avoid the possibility of crowd trouble but she'd have been left looking pretty silly if Christian Vieri hadn't put a free header wide moments later. He did, though, and England got the 0-0 draw they needed.

The last tournament meeting came in 1990 in Bari in the third-place play-off at the World Cup. With both sides drained by emotionally exhausting semi-final defeats in penalty shoot-outs, the game was largely a non-event until Roberto Baggio capitalised on a gaffe from Peter Shilton, in his 125th and last international, to put Italy ahead with 20 minutes to go. David Platt levelled with a header but a foul on Toto Schillaci presented Italy with a penalty and gave the Sicilian the goal that won him the golden boot.

The other tournament meeting also came in Italy – in Turin in the 1980 European Championship. England had drawn with Belgium in their opening game and Marco Tardelli's goal, touched in from close range after Roberto Bettega had got the better of Phil Neal, ensured England could not reach the final.

Before that, in competitive terms, there were just the two qualifiers for the 1978 World Cup. Italy won 2-0 in Rome, Giancarlo Antognoni and Bettega getting the goals, a result that placed England in serious danger of failing to qualify for the second successive tournament. By the time of the return at Wembley a year later, Don Revie, recognising he was probably about to be sacked, had departed for the UAE and Ron Greenwood had taken temporary control. He selected a young side in which Peter Barnes, Bob Latchford and Steve Coppell made their debuts. They were superb, winning 2-0 as Kevin Keegan scored with a looping header from a Trevor Brooking cross and then Brooking, laid in by Keegan, slid home a calm finish. It might easily have been more had Tardelli been sent off, as he surely should have been, for a first-half elbow on Keegan but 2-0 was not enough. Italy won their one remaining qualifier 3-0 against Luxembourg and England failed to qualify on goal difference, eliminated, effectively, because they had scoffed fewer goals against Finland than Italy had.

(This is the forgotten aspect of England's dismal seventies: one goal against Poland in 1973 or a marginally better goal difference in 1977 and they'd have qualified; in many ways, 1982 was a far worse qualifying campaign than for either of the two preceding World Cups).

The major consequence of England's win was in persuading the FA that Greenwood should stay on as permanent coach. Brian Clough was interviewed but turned down (a decision that was perhaps not as craven as is often portrayed; at the time, he had won only one league title and two promotions, and had managed to fall out with pretty much everybody he'd ever worked for).

For England's real success, we have to go a lot further back. The first meeting came in 1933, a 1-1 draw in Rome, but it was the return five months later, the so-called Battle of Highbury, that entrenched in each side's mind a stereotype of the other: England tough and brutal; Italy hysterical and cynical. The game turned on what was almost certainly a moment of misfortune in the second minute. Luisito Monti, Italy's Argentina-born centre-half, had booted George Rodger in the testicles after a game on Chelsea's 1929 tour of Argentina, where he had played until emigrating in 1931. This perhaps was his comeuppance, as he took a kick from Ted Drake and fractured a bone in his foot. He moved first out to the left, where he hung around for a time as a passenger, and then had to leave the field entirely.

Italy were convinced the injury had been inflicted deliberately and lost their discipline. "For the first quarter of an hour there might just as well not have been a ball on the pitch as far as the Italians were concerned," said Stanley Matthews. England, "playing the best football it was possible to play", as Drake described it – swept into a 3-0 lead within 20 minutes, and that despite missing an early penalty. Only in the second half, once the red mist had lifted, did Italy begin to play. "Players who had once run wild," the report in the Times said, "began to run into positions." The wildness left Eddie Hapgood with a broken nose and Wilf Copping with a badly bruised thigh; Eric Brook returned to Manchester with his arm in a sling, Jack Barker had a bandaged hand, and Drake's leg was badly cut. The running into positions threatened to embarrass England – and hinted at the problems they would go on to have against other fine passing sides – as Giuseppe Meazza scored two in quick succession around the hour mark. England held on, though, for a 3-2 win over the world champions.

But England's greatest success over Italy, arguably their greatest ever victory, came in 1948. It was the sixth game the front five of Stanley Matthews, Stan Mortensen, Tommy Lawton, Wilf Mannion and Tom Finney – surely England's greatest forward line – played together, and the last. Italy had won the previous two World Cups but the war had weakened them. Worse, there was tactical confusion. Seven of the eleven played for the great Torino side that dominated Italian football in the years immediately after the war; they were used to playing the sistema – that is, effectively an English-style W-M.

Vittorio Pozzo, the coach who had led Italy to their two World Cup triumphs, still favoured the metodo – a slightly more attacking system in which the centre-half operated more as a defensive midfielder than a centre-back. "I found myself," Pozzo said, "trying to put together players half of whom spoke one technical language, while half spoke the other. They could not understand one another; two men would be marking the same inside-forward."

A storm on the morning of the game should have cleared the Turin air but it was still humid when the players lined up before kick-off, the teams flanking a pedestal on which the ball sat – "like a pagan ceremony" said Brian Glanville. Italy began ferociously, attack after attack smashing against the English rearguard. But, with four minutes played, Billy Wright won the ball on the edge of the box and laid a short pass to Matthews. He beat two men and laid a pass down the line for Mortensen. He was forced wide but as everybody – including, crucially, Italy's goalkeeper Valerio Bacigalupo, who edged from his line – expected a cross, Mortensen swivelled and lashed a shot at goal, tumbling off the pitch as he did so. The angle was preposterous but, thanks to Bacigalupo's advance, the space was there, and the ball flashed between the goalkeeper's hand and the post and into the roof of the net.

The Italian assault continued. Twice they had goals disallowed for offside, the second controversially. Laurie Scott cleared off the line from Gabetto while Geoffrey Green wrote in The Times that "Swift made two remarkable saves when most other goalkeepers would have been left to pick the ball out of the net. Wright, from first to last, had the game of his life, and one can underline that by saying that he was opposed to the two best Italian forwards, [Valentino] Mazzola and [Riccardo] Carapallese".

"Italy really turned the screw …" Matthews wrote in his autobiography. "Some of their one-touch football was a delight. I remember thinking if I had been up in the stands I would have really enjoyed watching it, but chasing about after blue shirts in 90F heat meant I wasn't fully appreciative of the dazzling array of skills on display." But midway through the half, Neil Franklin dispossessed Guglielmo Gabetto, and set Matthews away down the right, where Alberto Eliani struggled to contain him. Mortensen again made the run and Matthews again slipped a pass to him. As Roy Peskett in the Daily Mail saw it, "the Blackpool dynamo was away on a 60-yard dribble, during which it twice appeared he would be caught. Each time he accelerated," and pulled away, eventually reaching the byline. This time, rather than shooting, he cut the ball back to Lawton, who tucked a finish low to Bacigalupo's right.

Italy renewed the assault and again and again they were thwarted by the excellence of Swift. And then came the greatest controversy, the hosts thinking Gabetto's header had hit the bar and bounced over the line, Swift and the referee disagreeing. "In the 13th minute of the second half," as Peskett described it, "Gabetto finished a bewildering move with a back-header which hit the bar and smashed down on to the line. While the Italians were frantically appealing for a goal, Swift swooped from his height, grabbed the ball with one hand, and flung it far into the crowd. No goal, and England breathed again." Italy protested, as did the photographers behind the goal, but as play continued Swift invited one of them on to the pitch to see the scuff marks he had left – short of the line – in making the save.

That broke Italy's spirit and Finney made the game safe with 18 minutes to go, finishing off a rapid break that had begun with Swift. Two minutes later, Mortensen and Henry Cockburn combined to lay on Finney's second. "England's superior tactics and the individual brilliance of certain members, particularly Mortensen, Swift, Wright, Franklin, and Scott, saw them through their troubles," wrote Green, while Peskett saluted "the refusal of the players to be ruffled by the electric tension, the heat, and the extreme partisanship of the crowd when they were displeased … Why did England win? Because the defence did its job at the right time, and because the forwards knew how to shoot when the opportunity arose."

Any notion that Italy was still the best team in the world had been demolished by the 4-0 defeat. Even worse, the following May, came the Superga aircrash that wiped out the entirety of the Torino squad that had formed the core of the national team.

For England, such a high was not to be repeated until 1966 and that front five never played together again. Lawton, in fact, never played for England again, overlooked after opting to leave Chelsea to join the Third Division side Notts County for a record £20,000 fee. Mannion was left out for a year after going on strike when his request for a transfer from Middlesbrough was denied. By the time of the 1950 World Cup, Swift had retired, Scott and George Hardwick had suffered serious injury and Franklin had been blacklisted for accepting an offer to go and play in the rebel league in Colombia.

The victory in Turin is almost certainly England's greatest result overseas. A win on Sunday for Roy Hodgson's side wouldn't eclipse the victory in Turin but, given their dearth of tournament success, it wouldn't be far off.