Two contenders to take home the trophy at next year’s European Championship will square off in Alicante on Friday, when defending champions Spain host an England side that won all 10 matches in qualification.
England could have done no more than to breeze through their group with the only perfect record throughout qualifying. But the standard of opposition now increases sharply for them, with a trip to Spain, followed by a meeting with Euro 2016 hosts France at Wembley next Tuesday. Coach Roy Hodgson will have to negotiate the two heavyweight fixtures without several of the players likely to feature strongly in his plans for next summer, if fit. Liverpool duo Daniel Sturridge and James Milner, Arsenal pair Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain as well as Everton defender Phil Jagielka are all currently sidelined through injury.
And Hodgson’s options against Spain will be further limited by the Premier League’s top scorer this season, Jamie Vardy, being ruled out with a knee complaint. Still, Hodgson, who led England to a quarterfinal exit at the last European Championship, has challenged his fringe players to step up and impress against high-quality opposition.
“I think there’s lots of players who in the space of the last two or three months , since the start of the season, have really shown themselves to be very, very serious competitors for a place in the starting lineup,” he said at his pre-match press conference. “So these two games give us an ideal opportunity, because anyone who gets there chance against Spain or France and then goes onto the field and takes that chance and comes off the field having played well is obviously going to be that one step further forward for being considered next summer.”
As well as Vardy being ruled out, Hodgson has also revealed that captain Wayne Rooney will not start the match at the 30,000-capacity Estadio José Rico Pérez. It means that England are set to begin with Tottenham’s in-form Harry Kane supported by Everton attacking midfielder Ross Barkley.
There has similarly been much interest in the makeup of Spain’s front line. Diego Costa was left out of the climax of Spain’s qualification campaign last month and has been in poor form for Chelsea this season, scoring just three times in 15 appearances. His performances for Spain have been little better since the Brazilian-born striker declared his allegiance to his adopted country. In nine international appearances, he has netted just once. Yet he finds himself back in the squad, and is expected to start up front alongside Valencia’s Paco Álcacer.
Vicente del Bosque’s side topped their qualification group ahead of Slovakia, after bouncing back from an early loss to their closest challengers to win eight straight matches. And after a dismal World Cup title defense in Brazil was followed by the international retirement of several glory-laden veterans, a new generation is beginning to make its mark. Now one of the more experienced faces, Manchester United midfielder Juan Mata believes his country has the quality to go all the way in France and win a third straight European Championship.
“As the reigning champions, we’ll be trying to defend the trophy,” he said, reports Spanish sports daily AS. “We are in a generational change, with younger players coming on board while other teams are a bit more mature than us. I think we still have a competitive level which is sufficiently high enough to win it again.”
Kickoff time: 2:45 p.m. EST
TV channel: ESPN Deportes (delayed at 6:55 p.m.)