As the Iberians land on English shores, they bring with them a remarkable record. Since February 2007, la Furia Roja has played 71 matches for 62 wins, four draws and five losses; they score an average of 2.25 goals per game. That's an 87% win ratio. For some brief perspective, the all-powerful Barcelona side of 2010-11 won just under 74 percent of their matches.
Spain should have no reason to fear. But they find themselves matched against an opponent of whom they should be extremely mindful.
Why such anglocentric sentiments coming from a critic of both Fabio Capello and the English football hierarchy? It is encouraging for the men in white that the gaffer has called up a (relatively) youthful squad including first-timers Jack Rodwell and Daniel Sturridge. However, Three Lion optimism shouldn't come from any potential debutant but how the match suits England's ageing or faded stars.
The conditions both teams find themselves under generally sees England perform better than any other set. There are a minimum of expectation, a (relatively) understated buildup - for English football - and a self-inflicted crisis surrounding John Terry. Thursday's match should be appealing to partisan and neutrals alike because it gives those England players who have for so long disappointed the chance to perform on a high stage without pressure.
Aside from deserving trio Kyle Walker, Rodwell and Sturridge, Capello's most recent squad features staid, expected names: Lescott, Cole, Terry, Lampard, Rooney. It also includes speedy, tricksy wingers Adam Johnson and Theo Walcott and the (relatively) precise Stewart Downing. In comparing the squad there is a gap in quality between the players in the Spanish squad and those who will represent England but it is hardly a chasm. A larger gap, however, lies in the empowerment of those players and their ability to play as a team.
The psychological benefits of playing as vast underdogs on a big, hopeful stage should be enough to stir a performance out of players who have tempted us with occasional performances only to revert to type in later matches; guys like Frank Lampard, Glen Johnson and Walcott. If they are allowed to play with freedom, this game could be a years-delayed coming out party: (relatively) few have doubted English talent - just the application and heart thereof.
Tactically, wingers Sturridge, Walcott and Johnson could prove decisive as the Red Fury exhibit perhaps their greatest weakness against speed merchants on the flanks. Full backs Puyol, Monreal, Ramos and Alba all have obvious quality but, like most, are vulnerable to pace. Sturridge in particular should be a monty to start as his Stamford Bridge form continues to impress.
|Spain v England, 2009: courtesy: myfootballfacts.com|
It's in matches like this Thursday's that the Three Lions seem to do well: clashes where excitable expectation gives way to a pessimistic realism. Even though understatement and English football rarely go together, there has been a gathering mood of "blah" about recent Three Lions excursions as weary pundits refuse to be tempted into notable proclamations. This play into the hands of Capello and his men.
Don't be surprised if England defeat Spain on Thursday. They should have all the tools to do so - talent, vocal crowds and the perfect scenario to highlight the talents of underachieving stars. Spain are still favourites - 87.3 percent! - but the match is not the foregone conclusion many suggest.