It’s always a problem with friendlies trying to work out exactly who is going to play and perhaps especially in his game when neither side will play again until March. Harry Kane has already left the squad to rejoin Tottenham as he looks to build up fitness after his ankle injury and it seems likely other deals have been done between Gareth Southgate and Premier League clubs not to overtax their players. Spain, meanwhile, will be without a host of major players with injury. Andres Iniesta, Diego Costa, Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique are all out.
Since Julen Lopetegui replaced Vicente Del Bosque after a disappointing Euros, Spain have been ruthless in dispatching lesser opposition, scoring 14 without reply in three games against Liechtenstein, Albania and Macedonia FYR. They were also impressive in beating Belgium 2-0 in a friendly. The only wrinkle, and it’s barely even that, was a 1-1 draw away to Italy in a game in which they took the lead and had much the better of. England haven’t conceded in four games since losing to Iceland at the Euros, although that has often seemed more by luck than judgement. The draw away to Slovenia last month showed up major deficiencies and even Friday’s 3-0 win over Scotland was far less comfortable than the scoreline may suggest.
Spain were the first team from outside Britain and Ireland to beat England, winning 4-3 in Madrid in 1929, although England had their revenge in cooler conditions on a softer pitch at Highbury two years later, winning 7-1. England have developed a recent habit of playing Spain in friendlies with six meetings in the last 15 years: four of the last five have been won by Spain. Last year Spain were comfortable 2-0 winners in Alicante but, with Phil Jones acting as a midfielder destroyer, England did win at Wembley in 2011, a Frank Lampard penalty sealing a 1-0 victory in what turned out to be Fabio Capello’s penultimate game as England manager.
A CHANCE FOR ENGLAND TO COUNTER
Roy Hodgson always said that we would see the best of this England when they weren’t endlessly having to hammer away at defences who sit deep against them. This will be an opportunity to put that to the test, although – and this is the great curse of international football – it is happening in a friendly when the commitment of the two sides is questionable and neither are likely to select their strongest possible side. Whereas most teams in international football sit deep and look to absorb pressure, Spain will push up. For once England will not dominate the ball and that means there could be opportunities on the break.
With Kane returned to Tottenham and concerns about overusing Daniel Sturridge, who scored England’s opener against Scotland, it seems probable that Jamie Vardy will start up front for England. He hasn’t been in the sharpest form recently, with just two league goals this season, the last of which came more than two months ago, and he struggled to make an impact at the Euros. This, though, is the sort of game in which he could thrive. He is one of a number of rapid England forwards who might be able to take advantage of the space Spain naturally leave behind them.
THE MIDFIELD CLASH
The suggestions are that Eric Dier will be rested, which probably means a start for Jack Wilshere in that holding midfield role alongside Jordan Henderson. That will be a major test not only of his rehabilitation following his long-term injuries but also of his capacity to operate as the holder. Much the same could be said of Henderson who, for all Liverpool’s success this season, still seems almost too energetic, lacking the positional discipline truly to protect a back four that needs protection. Certainly at national level, where pressing systems are far less sophisticated than they are in the club game, it feels as though both players would be at their best alongside a Dier figure rather than playing together. And Spain’s midfield, if Lopetegui picks his strongest available trio of Busquets, Koke and Thiago Alcantara, could be merciless.
Even with Spain’s underperformance at the last two major tournaments, they still just look too slick, too clever for an England side that, yet again, seems likely to have a patch-up aspect. Friendlies, with their raft of second-half substitutions, often run out of steam in the final half hour so it’s unlikely to be a hammering, but this looks like a relatively comfortable Spain victory. They can be backed to win at a relatively generous 2.50 but it may be worth inflating that by Dutching correct score bets: 1-0, 2-0 and 2-1 are 8.00, 12.00 and 9.50 respectively.