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England face first real test of Euro 2022 against Spain as knockouts begin

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Their 14 goals scored in the group stage was the most by one team in a Women’s European Championship. Their eight against Norway secured the biggest win in this tournament’s history, breaking their own record. Another rout against Northern Ireland made them the first to score five or more in consecutive Euros games. These records, smashed in the space of 10 days or so, are all the more impressive given the fact they kept three straight clean sheets at the other end.

If their last three games of this tournament go as well as the first three, England will win their first Women’s Euro at a canter.

If only it were that simple. Sarina Wiegman’s side may have made things look easy up to this point but they are about to become a whole lot harder. Expectations were high to start with but now they are even higher. All the good work of the group stage will be for nothing if the journey ends before the Wembley final a week on Sunday. And even if the Lionesses’ odds of glory have shortened drastically, making them well-fancied to go all the way, most people’s pre-tournament favourites await in the quarter-finals.

Spain have so far failed to live up to the hype that surrounded them at the start of the month, requiring a 90th-minute winner to guarantee progression at Denmark’s expense in Brentford on Saturday. The links to Barcelona Femeni – nine of 23-woman squad play for arguably the most dominant club side in world football – have not translated into the same sparkling attacking play. Jorge Vilda’s use of the talent at his disposal has been questionable and inconsistent, and history is not on their side either. Four knockout games at four major tournaments have all ended in defeat.

Perhaps this slow start was to be expected. The loss of Ballon d’Or holder Alexia Putellas on the eve of the tournament was a cruel blow to Spain, as was the knee injury that prevented all-time leading scorer Jennifer Hermoso from being called up. Group B was also widely viewed as the toughest of the four. The margins between second and third-place were always likely to be slim. Vilda’s side ended on the right side of them, just, and now enter the knockout stages with a clean slate. And even if expectations have been tempered, they will pose an entirely different proposition to anything England faced in the group.

Although Spain have underwhelmed, they are still a side capable of dominating proceedings, and perhaps the only one in this tournament capable of dominating the Lionesses. No team at the tournament has had a greater average share of possession and they are invariably the protagonists in any contest. Even in the 2-0 defeat to group winners Germany, Spain came away with 70 per cent of the ball. England had a healthy amount themselves in all three of their group games, but this quarter-final in Brighton is likely to take on a different complexion.

Wiegman is unbeaten in 17 games as England manager but tonight’s quarter-final is the biggest test yet

(The FA/Getty)

England will not only have to bide their time to win the ball but keep it when they do. The few moments where the Lionesses have looked vulnerable during Wiegman’s 17-game unbeaten run have been when they are pressed high and ferociously, such as in the initial stages of the curtain-raiser against Austria. Pressing is as much a part of Spain’s philosophy as their careful use of possession. No team at Euro 2022 has closed down with the intensity of the Lionesses’ quarter-final opponents. Only Sweden – potential semi-final opponents for these two teams – have won more turnovers high up the pitch.

But equally, with all that possession to play with, and all their difficulties creating chances, Spain have often thrown too much forward and looked vulnerable to being counterattacked. In the Golden Boot-chasing Beth Mead and the ball-carrying of Lauren Hemp, England’s outlets on the break might be their best chance of securing a semi-final spot. So far, the Lionesses have looked comfortable whether tasked with dismantling a low block or playing into wide, open spaces. That versatility in their attacking play could be to their advantage.

It is something Spain lack, after all. “I do expect the game that [Spain] have played all the time,” said Wiegman from England’s Teddington base on Tuesday. “They will probably have the ball a lot. I hope we will have the ball too. We played them before and they had a little more of the ball but that’s OK in certain moments of the game.” Rather than adhering to one rigid philosophy, Wiegman’s more pragmatic approach gives England options. “It’s all about trying to use our strengths and trying to exploit their weaknesses. We know there are spaces, because they have such an attacking style of play. We are absolutely aware of that.”

Spain edged past Denmark and have yet to hit top form following the loss of Putellas and Hermoso

(Getty)

It is, in any case, the type of tactical conundrum that requires Wiegman to be on the sidelines at the Amex Stadium, though it is still not certain whether she will be in charge or her assistant Arjan Veurink will take the lead again. The Lionesses head coach is feeling better after her positive Covid test last Friday and claimed to be “ready to go”. She has taken part in pre-match preparations, watching training from a distance over the weekend with a mask on, but she is still awaiting the negative test that will allow her to resume her duties fully.

It is hardly an ideal situation on the eve of a major tournament knockout tie. And all the while, expectations mount. At St Mary’s on Friday night, Northern Ireland’s head coach Kenny Shiels used his final post-match press conference before bowing out of this Euros to declare that anything but reaching the Wembley final and winning it would be a “massive failure” for England. “Everybody else should just go home,” Shiels said. It was more than a little mischievous. The wide open field of contenders that started the tournament has barely narrowed. It is still anyone’s to win.

Yet if there is a pack of favourites, England have moved right to the front of it on the strength of their group stage performances. Wiegman and her players must now prepare for their first encounter against a fellow contender to win this tournament and their first real test.

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