The Tottenham man has started just nine Premier League games this season but justified Roy Hodgson’s continued loyalty (79) within nine minutes of his introduction as he answered a first-half Graziano Pelle header (29).
England might even have gone on to match a 2006 run of eight straight wins, but in the end a draw which preserved both sides’ unbeaten seasons seemed about right.
For most of a first half between two experimental line-ups, on a night billed as England’s stiffest post-Brazil test yet, it seemed Antonio Conte’s innovation would win out over his rival manager’s as Hodgson’s diamond formation failed to put the brakes on Italy’s exciting wing-backs.
But an injury to Chris Smalling on the stroke of half-time saw Phil Jones revert to centre-half, and the more progressive midfield passing of substitute Michael Carrick was the basis for a second-half revival that gathered pace once the excellent Giorgio Chiellini was removed from Italy’s defence.
Harry Kane has barely hit an obstacle since breaking into Tottenham’s team in the autumn, but he found a nigh-on immoveable one on his full international debut in the shape of the Juventus bruiser – living proof that over in Italy they do still make defenders like they used to.
Chiellini clattered England’s newest hero inside 20 seconds, kept an uncompromising grip on him throughout – literally, on occasions – and still found time to create his side’s opening goal in the 72 minutes he remained on the pitch.
Jones’ role in it will be scrutinised: it was England’s defensive midfielder left for dead by the drop of a centre-half’s shoulder as Chiellini retrieved an overhit corner and swung in a cross that Southampton’s Pelle – without a Premier League goal since December – feathered inside Joe Hart’s far post.
England did have their moments – one in particular, as Kane’s back-post header forced a rushed clearance which Wayne Rooney returned with interest against Gigi Buffon’s crossbar.
But only on Carrick’s arrival did England begin to get a real foothold in the centre, his early pass at the start of the second half yielding a first chance for Kane, who spun onto the loose ball and released a sharp effort that Chiellini deflected behind.
The Spurs man then combined with Rooney to free Kieran Gibbs for a weak side-footer past Buffon’s near post, while at the other end Hart stayed big to keep out Eder, Pelle scuffing the rebound off target.
Ryan Mason was given his debut amid a flurry of substitutions that saw the game open up late on: Rooney took advantage of a rare Chiellini misjudgement to volley at Buffon before failing to get enough on a near-post Kane cross.
Kane grew more influential as the game went on, but for once his thunder was stolen by a Tottenham team-mate as sub Townsend worked space with a feint and beat Buffon with a 20-yard blast from a right foot supposedly the weaker of his two.
Both sides might have won it as self-preservation went out the window in the final few minutes: Luca Antonelli poked wide on the break for Italy, who had Buffon to thank for stopping Rooney one-on-one and dealing with Kane’s injury-time strike.