This was the game England feared. Except they no longer fear it. From the moment the draw was made in October, the spectre of Group B loomed large: a potential nightmare quarter-final against either the eight-time champions Germany or the pre-tournament favourites, Spain. And yet if the past fortnight has exposed the flaws and inefficiencies in Jorge Vilda’s team, it has also put a spring in the step of the hosts, a team and a squad and a nation who walk scared of nobody.
The weight of expectation hangs heavily but by no means uncomfortably. England have been the outstanding team so far, scoring 14 goals in three games, overcoming the Covid-enforced absence of their coach, Sarina Wiegman, demolishing not just Norway but the very idea of Norwegian football, sending one of the game’s great powers spiralling into crisis. This is the sweet spot all national teams dream of: a tight-knit unit, form and confidence at their peak, a well-drilled first XI with plenty of room for further growth.
And so to sun-scorched Brighton, where England’s hot streak will meet its sternest test yet. These are the two teams who had the most possession during the group stage, who had the most attempts on goal, who have the highest rate of pass completion. England are yet to concede in this tournament and are yet to look like doing so. Spain keep the ball as well as any team in the world, and even without the generational talents of Jenni Hermoso and Alexia Putellas have the technical quality to tie opponents in knots, to make them chase, to force them to experience the game as a whirlwind blur of red.
What Spain have lacked is a cutting edge. In their group games against Finland, Germany and Denmark, too often they ended up in holding patterns, playing safe harmless passes, failing to move the ball quickly enough. Stylistically they bear comparison with the all-conquering Barcelona side that provide nine of the Spanish squad at this tournament. But Lucía García is not Caroline Graham Hansen, Esther González is not Fridolina Rolfö and it is in that final third where the contrast is most apparent.
It remains to be seen whether Vilda will persist with the Athletic Bilbao striker García up front against England, having replaced her after an hour against Germany and only 45 minutes against Denmark. Small and slippery, García’s main strength is in running at defenders, isolating them, taking them on. Against the physical, deep-set defences Spain have encountered she has often been crowded out. England, meanwhile, will not simply sit back and allow Spain to play, which has the potential to generate an entirely different dynamic.
“We’ve played teams who didn’t want the ball,” the defender Laia Aleixandri said. “England will open up more.” And the tussle for supremacy of the ball will be one of the more fascinating subplots all over the pitch. In midfield Keira Walsh has been outstanding but will need support if England are to compete in that area. The quick long diagonals to Beth Mead and Lauren Hemp, so devastating against Norway, will need to be played more sparingly against a better-organised defence. A breathless, ragged game of permanent transitions will probably suit Spain better.
Yet perhaps England’s most encouraging trait so far has been their ability to adapt to circumstances, to plot different ways through the game. The lawless pillage of Norway was a striking contrast with the attritional slow-burn of their opening game against Austria. Northern Ireland last Friday was different again: a game that required patience and persistence, a faith in their method, a gradual and relentless build of pressure that ultimately produced an easy 5-0 win. Even Wiegman’s absence, with the coach at first isolating and then overseeing training from a distance, was a scenario the squad had mapped out and prepared for in advance. It is possible to test England, even to beat them. But it is no longer possible to surprise them.
And for all their poise and panache, Spain are susceptible to pressure. Arguably their underwhelming progress from Group B has been a product of the immense expectation invested in a team that have not reached a major tournament semi-final since 1997. Their buildup play is also vulnerable to disruption from a team that presses and chases as ruthlessly as England’s front three. Witness Germany’s opening goal in their 2-0 win at Brentford: a coordinated front press culminating in a terrible error by the goalkeeper Sandra Paños.
England can win this in any number of ways. Spain, on the other hand, will need to play an almost flawless game to do so. A restless and partisan home crowd will also have a role to play: keeping England’s tempo high, fortifying them at the back. A penalty shootout is no one’s favoured scenario, but even here the runes favour England: while Georgia Stanway, Ella Toone and Fran Kirby are all regular takers at club level, Spain’s favoured taker, Hermoso, is injured, and so is her understudy, Putellas.
There was a time when the burden of favouritism might have had an inhibiting effect on England, a team that have for so long harboured a certain inferiority complex in major tournaments. Even now you sense a certain trepidation among their most loyal fans, casting nervous looks over at Germany and France and what they may yet be capable of. But remarkably, of the eight teams remaining it is England who still seem to have most in reserve, England who are feared most of all. Wednesday night seems as good a moment as any to show why.