By Martyn Herman
LONDON (Reuters) – After years of tournament failures and steadily dwindling expectations, England’s surprise run to the World Cup semi-finals infused the country’s long-suffering fans with optimism.
A visit by Spain to Wembley in the Nations League on Saturday will provide an early test of the depth of the feelgood factor emanating from Gareth Southgate’s young squad.
Victory against a country still smarting from a chaotic World Cup campaign which ended in a last-16 exit at the hands of hosts Russia in July would offer further proof that Southgate’s quiet revolution remains in full swing.
A third consecutive defeat, however, would provide ammunition to the naysayers who insist England still get found out when faced with top-class opposition.
For all the euphoria about their run in Russia, Southgate’s side lost to Belgium twice and Croatia once and only squeezed past Colombia on penalties.
To his credit, even when leading England to their first World Cup semi-final for 28 years, Southgate resisted the urge to start shouting from the rooftops, insisting his side were merely establishing solid foundations for future success.
In keeper Jordan Pickford, centre back Harry Maguire and right back Kieran Tripper — three players elevated from fringes to the centre stage during the Russian campaign — England certainly have a freshness that has long been lacking.
For once, the pause in the Premier League programme for the early-season international break is not being greeted with sighs but with genuine curiosity.
With Euro 2020 on the horizon, Southgate will be anxious to maintain momentum and the fact the 26th meeting between England and Spain takes place in UEFA’s new-fangled Nations League means the fixture, rather than simply a high-profile friendly, is assured a competitive edge.
It would be a surprise if his starting 11 did not closely resemble the team that began against Croatia.
“We only have 20 matches between now and the European Championships so we don’t want to waste time looking at new things but to embed principles that are going to be with us over a period of time,” he said.
While Southgate’s blueprint is already established, Spain are in a state of flux as former Barcelona boss Luis Enrique takes charge of the national team for the first time.
They arrived at the World Cup as many people’s favourites but, after sacking coach Julen Lopetegui on the eve of the tournament and putting Fernando Hierro in temporary charge, their challenge spluttered before fizzling out in the last 16.
Enrique is likely to take Spain in a different direction, away from the tiki-taka possession football that made them almost unbeatable between 2008 and 2012 but had begun to look a little stale and predictable.
He will have to make do without stalwarts Andres Iniesta, David Silva and Gerard Pique, all of whom have retired from international football, while others such as Jordi Alba and Iago Aspas have been left out of Enrique’s first squad.
Their absences means chances for the likes of Atletico Madrid midfield duo midfielder Saul and Rodri and Real Madrid attacking midfielder Marco Asensio to stake their claims as Spain begin the task of rebuilding their reputation.
(Reporting by Martyn Herman; editing by John Stonestreet)