England progressed through Euro 2016 qualifying with an unblemished record but now face a series of tough international friendlies in preparation for the tournament proper, beginning with a visit to Alicante to take on competition-holders Spain on Friday (19:45 GMT, live on ITV 1).
Roy Hodgson took the unorthodox step of treating England’s final two qualifiers last month as an opportunity to rest players and appease clubs ahead of the trip to Spain and next Tuesday’s match at home to France. He felt that it was more important to have his best players available for these fixtures, which will provide his side with a sterner test of their ability.
England picked up just a single point in limping to a meek group stage exit at last year’s World Cup in Brazil and Hodgson is keen to avoid a repeat performance next summer. More broadly, he will be hoping to lead the Three Lions past the last eight of an international tournament for the first time since they hosted the European Championship back in 1996.
Gary Cahill (pictured), Joe Hart and Wayne Rooney return to the squad after all being excused from one or both of England’s final two qualifiers, although the strength of the squad has been diminished by the absence of more than a dozen injured players. Daniel Sturridge, Jack Wilshere and Theo Walcott are among those unavailable.
Eric Dier has been rewarded for his excellent early-season form at Tottenham Hotspur with his first call-up to a squad otherwise made up of previously selected players. His ability to play as a defensive midfielder, centre-back or full-back could very well be key to his hopes of forcing himself into Hodgson’s plans for next summer’s tournament.
England’s first XI is far from set with just seven months to go until Euro 2016. Hart, Cahill, Rooney and Raheem Sterling all appear to be guaranteed a starting spot if fit but no other player started more than six times during the qualification process.
Spain had a more settled lineup in qualification, with six players starting seven or more of their matches, but there are still a number of issues for coach Vicente del Bosque to resolve prior to the defence of their trophy next summer. They won nine of their 10 qualifiers without truly convincing and have suffered three high-profile friendly defeats over the last year or so.
David Villa, Xabi Alonso and Xavi all retired from international football following Spain’s surprising group-stage exit from Brazil 2014 and the current side is a somewhat awkward mix of the older and newer generations that is yet to really come together as a unit.
It was their defensive record that saw them through qualifying, with Del Bosque’s side recording eight consecutive clean sheets after their 2-1 defeat away to Slovakia on the second match-day. With two members – Juanfran and Sergio Ramos – of their regular back four unavailable for these November fixtures, it will be interesting to see how they hold up.
Spain’s attack didn’t impress to the same degree during qualifying and also failed to register a single goal in friendly defeats to France, Germany and Netherlands. Diego Costa has just one to his name since choosing Spain over his native Brazil last March, while four of Paco Alcacer’s five during qualifying were scored against the group’s bottom two sides.
Del Bosque still has sufficient talent at his disposal to turn things around and he, like Hodgson, will see this fixture and next week’s match away to Belgium as key opportunities to test potential configurations. Of particular interest will be the performances of Thiago Alcantara, who has been in excellent form for Bayern Munich as of late.
England and Spain are both in the top five European teams in the FIFA rankings and this encounter in Alicante will act as a decent marker as to where they stand in the build-up to Euro 2016. England are undefeated since their early exit from last summer’s World Cup and our preview’s betting tips reflect the fact that we fancy them to continue that run against a Spain side still in transition.