England may have gone through qualifying for Euro 2016 with a perfect record, but the standard of opposition will step up significantly in the next eight days when taking on defending European champions Spain and next year’s hosts, France. Roy Hodgson’s team were the only side to go through qualification winning every match, finishing a full nine points clear of second-placed Switzerland in Group E.
Yet even Hodgson conceded last month that he would learn more about his side’s ability to go all the way in France next summer from their upcoming high-profile friendlies. Those challenges begin in Alicante on Friday against a Spain team that has begun to bounce back after the desperate failure of their World Cup title defense in Brazil last year.
“It’ll be an opportunity to learn more about those players we believe in and give them a chance to stake an even greater claim to be in the 23 next year,” Hodgson said at a press conference to reveal his squad last week. “And to test ourselves against two top class opponents, because we all know that Spain and France at the moment are two of the top teams in world football.”
Hodgson, though, must continue to make his preparations without key players he will hope to have at his disposal in France. Daniel Sturridge, who was unable to take part in a single Euro qualifier due to injury, is again unavailable, while Arsenal duo Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain have joined him on the sidelines for the next two matches.
There is at least some positive news, with Everton defender John Stones and Manchester City midfielder Fabian Delph available, having missed England’s victories over Estonia and Lithuania last month. And joining them in the squad are two Tottenham youngsters who will be aiming to enhance their prospects of a place on the plane to France.
Dele Alli and Eric Dier have been instrumental in Tottenham’s fine start to the season, offering a balance of creativity and discipline in midfield. And Alli, who made his international debut at the age of 19 last month, is now joined in the England ranks by his midfield colleague, Dier, for the first time. The pair’s Spurs teammate Harry Kane, who has hit form with six goals in his last four appearances, is expected to lead the England attack.
Jamie Vardy, in better form than any striker in England after scoring in nine consecutive Premier League appearances, will provide competition. However, Hodgson has insisted he won’t be ramrodded into fielding the Leicester City striker up front after being criticized for selecting him in a left-wing position against Lithuania.
There has also been much interest in the striker position for Spain. Chelsea’s Diego Costa finds himself back in Vicente del Bosque’s squad after being left out for the conclusion of qualifying last month. The 27-year-old, who turned his back on his native Brazil to play for Spain last year, has struggled to produce the goods for his adopted country, scoring just once in nine appearances. And he is now in a poor run of form with Chelsea, too.
But if there is a position where Del Bosque is short of options it is in the center-forward role. Costa’s competition will come from two younger options -- Juventus’ Alvaro Morata and Valencia’s Paco Alcácer -- who have just six international goals between them.
Like Hodgson, Del Bosque has his own injury problems. Already without Manchester City midfielder David Silva, this weekend’s La Liga action saw him lose both Real Madrid central defender Sergio Ramos and Atlético Madrid full-back Juanfran. Ramos’ club teammate Nacho Fernández and Athletic Bilbao’s Óscar de Marcos have been called up in their place.
Spain suffered a defeat in their second Euro 2016 qualifier in Slovakia, but finished with eight consecutive victories to take top spot in Group C. And, in taking on England and then the side currently top of FIFA’s rankings, Belgium, next Monday, the 2012 European champions will be hoping to aid the cause of defending their trophy next summer.
“These are two of the top teams in the world,” Del Bosque said, reports ESPN. “England are an extraordinary team, they qualified really well, with full points, they have quick players in attack, are powerful in midfield and strong in defense. They will be a candidate for the Euros, if everything comes together they have extraordinary potential.
“I expect that we all know these are very important games, to be together these days and work on things. We must be very competitive, we must play with maximum intensity, both opponents are very strong teams.”
Goalkeepers: Joe Hart (Manchester City), Jack Butland (Stoke City), Tom Heaton (Burnley)
Defenders: Ryan Bertrand (Southampton), Gary Cahill (Chelsea), Nathaniel Clyne (Liverpool), Kieran Gibbs (Arsenal), Phil Jones (Manchester United), Chris Smalling (Manchester United), John Stones (Everton), Kyle Walker (Tottenham)
Midfielders: Dele Alli (Tottenham), Ross Barkley (Everton), Michael Carrick (Manchester United), Fabian Delph (Manchester City), Eric Dier (Tottenham), Adam Lallana (Liverpool), James Milner (Liverpool), Jonjo Shelvey (Swansea City), Raheem Sterling (Manchester City)
Forwards: Harry Kane (Tottenham), Wayne Rooney (Manchester United), Jamie Vardy (Leicester City)
Goalkeepers: Iker Casillas (FC Porto), David de Gea (Manchester United), Sergio Rico (Sevilla)
Defenders: Jordi Alba (Barcelona), Cesar Azpilicueta (Chelsea), Marc Bartra (Barcelona), Nacho Fernández (Real Madrid), Mario Gaspar (Villarreal), Gerard Pique (Barcelona), Mikel San Jose (Athletic Bilbao)
Midfielders: Thiago Alcantara (Bayern Munich), Sergio Busquets (Barcelona), Santi Cazorla (Arsenal), Cesc Fabregas (Chelsea), Andres Iniesta (Barcelona), Isco (Real Madrid), Koke ( Atlético Madrid), Óscar de Marcos (Athletic Bilbao)
Forwards: Paco Alcacer (Valencia), Diego Costa (Chelsea), Alvaro Morata (Real Madrid), Nolito (Celta Vigo), Pedro (Barcelona)
Prediction: Friendlies are always hard to call, but there this clash in Alicante should be fairly competitive at least for the first 60 minutes or so, before the rash of substitutions begin. While Xavi has now departed the stage, Spain still have huge technical quality in their midfield, certainly enough to control the game against England. Hodgson’s side will look to play on the break, but lacking the pace of Walcott and Sturridge that will be more difficult. Spain should be able to pick up a narrow win.
Predicted score: Spain 2-1 England