After England’s thumping 6-0 win over Scotland in Utrecht on Wednesday night, attentions in the Lionesses’ camp quickly turned to possibly the toughest match of Group D – Spain.
The thorn in England’s side four years ago when a 93rd-minute Alexia Putellas winner cancelled out Laura Bassett 89th-minute equalizer, both sides have improved a lot since that meeting in Sweden.
It was Mark Sampson’s side who came away the winners in a friendly between the two less than 12 months ago, and the head coach is wary of the different problems Jorge Vilda’s side bring to the table.
“We’ve been working on a lot of things to make sure we’re ready for what Spain are going to bring on Sunday,” said Sampson.
“Spain are one of those teams that on the one hand are a football purist’s dream; on the other hand, they’re incredibly frustrating.”
Expanding on his point, Sampson said, “No one would argue that their tippy-tappy football is pleasing on the eye, if that was just the one element of their game I think you’d be really happy to go and watch them, but one of the reasons I think people find it hard to fall in love with Spain is because they’ve got the other bit as well.
“They’ve got the indiscipline, the feigning injury, the getting around the referee. We’re aware of the Spanish team in terms of both those qualities and we’ll have to be ready for the potential possession game they’ll try to bring and also those dark arts that aren’t the nicest part but you have to manage that side of it.”
It was a point Sampson had already made in his postmatch press conference after the Scotland game, claiming Spain might “fall over a bit more” than the Scots.
With Vilda’s side also winning their first match, albeit by a smaller margin, it looks likely that the winner in Breda will take top spot in Group D and avoid a potential quarterfinal encounter with many people’s favorites, France.
Sampson said the defeat four years ago hasn’t been discussed during preparations for Sunday’s match, but admitted Wednesday’s game against Scotland causes more problems for him in terms of selection.
“We try not to go too much with the emotional side of selection and try to be very clear with the facts,” he said. “What is the evidence that tells us this is the best team? So, it’s 75 percent facts, but you still need that 25 percent of how you think that player is in this moment of time.”
Sampson added, “It goes without saying that if you’ve just played a game where you’ve won 6-0, like we did the other night, the confidence is high. But we’ll do what we always do, we’ll look at Spain and identify what we need to do and pick the best players to do the job for the team.”
Referees have also been a big talking point for Sampson during the tournament so far. With captain Steph Houghton and her Manchester City teammate Jill Scott already on cautions, both would miss the final group match against Portugal should they see yellow again on Sunday.
Italian Carina Vitulano — who gave France a late penalty against Iceland — will be the woman in the middle, and Sampson said his team can only “play what we are given.”
“Ideally, we don’t want bookings but we’ve just got to make good decisions on the field,” said Sampson. “We have to be aware of Jill and Steph’s situation, but our focus is on Spain and we haven’t thought any further ahead than that.
“We need to do what we need to do to win and if Jill and Steph get a booking then so what? We will deal with it because we have such a strong squad.”