Spain v England: Gareth Southgate could use a Nations League win to revive World Cup feel-good factor

Frank Dalleres
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Croatia v England - UEFA Nations League A
England have won just one of their last five matches ahead of the trip to Spain (Source: Getty)

Three months ago, as England sweltered in its endless summer, the nation was giddy at the prospect of a World Cup semi-final and Gareth Southgate was enjoying his unlikely ascension to the status of national treasure.

Five matches on, the Three Lions have mustered just one more win and are in real danger of being relegated to the second tier of the Nations League at the first attempt. Oh well; the resurgence was fun while it lasted.

Of course, the picture is not as gloomy as all that, and England can revive their Nations League hopes – as well as some of the feel-good factor generated by their run in Russia – with a win against Spain in Seville tonight.

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Unfortunately for Southgate and his team, who drew 0-0 in Croatia on Friday night, they have lost on their last four visits – the most recent triumph on Spanish soil coming in a 1987 friendly, courtesy of four goals from Gary Lineker.

On top of that, Spain look fearsome once again under new coach Luis Enrique. Like England, they have undergone a reversal of fortunes since the World Cup, only for them it has been a vast improvement.

Since a penalty shoot-out exit at the hands of the hosts brought their miserable and chaotic tournament to an end, they have won three games out of three and rediscovered an attacking flair that had waned.

They came from behind to beat Southgate’s England at Wembley in the Nations League group opener, albeit with a degree of good fortune given that Danny Welbeck had a fair-looking equaliser ruled out.

Next came a 6-0 obliteration of World Cup finalists Croatia, in which Real Madrid midfielder Marco Asensio scored one and set up three more goals.

Then on Thursday they swatted aside Wales 4-1 in Cardiff, Barcelona’s Paco Alcacer continuing the lethal form he has shown on loan at Borussia Dortmund this season with two strikes.

What England would give for an in-form goalscorer to call on.

Harry Kane hasn’t netted in six games and, despite his protestations to the contrary, looks short of his best; Marcus Rashford has scored the team’s last two goals but illustrated his unreliability with glaring misses in Croatia; and Raheem Sterling looks no closer to converting his prolofic club form to the international stage.

Southgate’s back-up is the game but erratic Danny Welbeck, since Jamie Vardy has opted out of further England duty, Daniel Sturridge appears to have been deemed yesterday’s man, while the likes of Callum Wilson and Andre Gray continue to be overlooked.

All the while England struggle to threaten beyond set-pieces, which produced two efforts against the woodwork in Rijeka.

A fourth win in a row for Spain would leave England needing to beat Croatia in their final Nations League match to avoid dropping down to the second tier of the competition in its next iteration.

Perhaps more importantly, it would strip away further positivity that Southgate’s refreshing approach and England’s best World Cup for 28 years succeeded in generating.

A defining feature of the manager’s tenure has been the transformation of the nation’s relationship with the team from weary fatalism to genuine hope and excitement.

While Southgate’s popularity and job remain solid, further dents to the progress of this team jeopardise that new-found optimism and the youthful exuberance within the squad that has fuelled it.

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