Spain focus on winning, England stay distracted

ANOTHER international break – another weekend to find something else to do. No live Premier League games, no Match of the Day, no Sunday papers full of match reports and laughable opinions about your club. It’s like summer, with less daylight and even less rain.

Not this time though, maybe.

For once it might be worth giving the football, the international football, a try. England – the team that goes into every tournament it qualifies for thinking it can win it – play host to Spain – the team that went into the last two tournaments and won them. Not all Liverpool fans are English but many of those who are just don’t identify with that team from London. If anything, there’s more of an affinity with Spain than with England for many supporters. Watching the game will still mean being subjected to that infernal brass band though, unfortunately.

Arbeloa and Alonso

Arbeloa and Alonso

Liverpool are represented in England’s squad by Glen Johnson and Stewart Downing – Steven Gerrard missing out with injury and Andy Carroll not selected. Also in there is one-time reserve keeper Scott Carson.

Spain’s squad only has one current Liverpool player in it – Pepe Reina – but has a trio of former Reds (Arbeloa, Alonso and Torres) not to mention a coachload of players linked to the club or coveted by the fans in recent years. Then again, the squad is full of names that all clubs would gladly find some room for.

Spain coach Del Bosque, who took the reins in 2008, says the game is important in terms of preparation for the next big tournament when Spain bid to hold onto their European title: “Before submitting the squad list for the Euros we have only three games, there will be some games to come after the squad get together, but we have to make the most of these matches.

“England are a great team, and we will be playing in an extraordinary stadium. We tailor these games to be the best they can be for the team and for the federation.”

As Spain go about their preparations with that summer tournament in mind the England camp is busy with other distractions, as seems usual. This time it’s poppies and Terry getting in the way of discussions about tactics or anything relevant to the match itself.

England manager Fabio Capello faced the media today for his pre-game briefing and as well as asking him about poppies they asked him about picking Terry. The Chelsea captain is currently being investigated by the police for alleged racist comments towards Anton Ferdinand and as the FA concentrate on fighting FIFA on other issues they continue to make slow progress in the racism case. The press had a line that Terry should be dropped until the investigation is over – but you can probably guarantee they’d have been spouting about “innocent until guilty” if the FA had chosen to do that.

Capello with Terry

Capello and his captain (but not tomorrow) Terry

Capello said Terry will miss this game but will play the next friendly, against Sweden on Tuesday: “I decided everything before what happened. He will be on the bench against Spain but play against Sweden on Tuesday. He is innocent until proven guilty.” He wouldn’t be pressed on his own opinions on Terry’s guilt, and had to keep reminding reporters that he wasn’t in a position to speak about the case, given it’s now under investigation by the police. He invited more questions, perhaps, by announcing he’d not be starting with Terry and that Lampard would be captain for the day.

As far the poppies are concerned: “I respect the soldiers that died,” he said, before pointing to his own: “I am really proud to wear this because the sacrifice of the solders was really important.”

Meanwhile former Liverpool boss Rafa Benítez, has given his own views on Spain and why they have gone from winning nothing to winning the two biggest prizes available.

Writing for his own website, Rafa said an emphasis on youth had made a big difference: “To start with, for a long time, youth development in Spanish football has had a structure which people like Iñaki Saez, Juan Sanisteban, Gines Melendez, Fernando Hierro and others knew how to adapt to suit Spanish nature. Local competitions, regional teams and then national squads produced boys who are constantly competing and it is widely known that youth coaches in Spain are very good at their job. These are key factors in the continuity and success at all levels.”

Benitez getting the signed shirt from Del Bosque

Del Bosque signing the shirt for Benitez

Benítez said that under Del Bosque, and his predecessor Aragones, they have played to the strength of the players at their disposal and have built a squad which is strong: “They began to play a short passing game and took care of the ball. As well, because they had players like Xavi, Raul, Villa etc they were gradually creating a style based on possession while at the same time, with players like Puyol, Marchena or Casillas, they were forming a very competitive squad. The arrival of Vicente Del Bosque, a calm, intelligent man, saw a continuity which with players like Iniesta, Busquets, Pique, Torres, Alonso, Reina, Sergio Ramos, Silva, Mata or Valdes produced a quality and mentality necessary to maintain the competitive spirit but at the same time win.”

The England national side seems never to be too far away from controversy or unrest, the fans are known for turning on their own players and are often egged on by the opinion writers on the back pages who seem to think that it’s their job to hire and fire each England manager. When England, in a football sense, puts aside its differences enough to finally sound like a united force the result tends to be over-confidence and a country once again setting itself up for a fall.

Del Bosque manages a national side that is perhaps far more likely to suffer from a lack of unity than England but as Rafa says, he knows how to keep the squad and the supporters pulling in the same direction: “Del Bosque is a man respected for his knowledge and praised for his humane approach to group solidarity which gets the fans’ backing.”

Benítez goes on to discuss whether technical ability and possession football will be more effective against Spain than the physical and direct approach, but you’ll need to read it on his site.

Also on his site are details of an auction of a Spain shirt signed by Del Bosque, the World Cup winning coach of the Spanish national side, proceeds from which will go to the Montse Benítez foundation. Please support it if you can.

The goalkeeper Rafa Benítez brought to England, and Liverpool, Pepe Reina will be hoping to play at least some part in the match tomorrow. He may even get a rare start, but either way it’s a fixture he relishes: “For those of us who play our club football in England this is a very special game,” said Pepe. “I’m looking forward to it and I hope to play in it but Del Bosque must decide that.”

The Reds stopper says they’ll be taking the game seriously: “There is no such thing as a friendly these days. Whenever you go away with your national team you always want to win. We are champions of Europe and champions of the world, and we want to keep winning.”

Reina the MC

Reina, the Spanish MC

Reina has competition for the ‘keeper’s shirt from Spain’s established number one Iker Casillas, of Real Madrid, and even for the sub’s spot he has to contend with Barcelona’s Victor Valdes, meaning he’s only made 22 appearances so far for his country – but that doesn’t dampen his desire to be part of the squad. And he’s an important part of the squad too, particularly during tournaments when he plays such a big part in creating that unity: “When we go away with the national team there are 23 players who are very important players with their clubs but only 11 can start, you have to accept your role and I always feel very lucky to be there. It’s an absolute pleasure to be part of the squad. To be part of what’s been achieved over the last few years is a dream for any footballer.”

Like Rafa, Pepe says that the attitude at youth level – going back some years now – has helped Spain become what it is in world football. “We have a great generation of players of the same age. We all knew how to win because we had won at a lower level before stepping up, as a nation we found a great philosophy of playing.

“We know how to play and we all want to play the same way, but it’s not always possible for a country to play that way. It depends on the players and the team – not everybody has the quality of players that we have.”

When a goalkeeper like Pepe Reina can rarely get a game, can’t even guarantee a spot on the bench, it says a lot about the quality of a squad. So do those two trophies they won.

England v Spain is live on ITV in England on Saturday November 12, coverage starts at 4.45pm with kick-off at 5.15pm.