Pain for Spain? English hopes high as battle is rejoined at Women’s Euros
Manager prepares squad for underhand tactics England can secure place in last eight with victory
Mark Sampson, the England manager, has accused Spain of tarnishing their country’s reputation for football as he warned his players to be wary of their opposition’s mastery of the dark arts.
Sampson’s comments could be seen as inflammatory, but they were very deliberate. Having thrashed Scotland in their opening game in Group D, Spain will look to frustrate England in a variety of different ways and he needs his team to control their emotions.
Spain knocked England out of the European Championship four years ago and are dangerous opponents, particularly if they can set the pace of the game.
Sampson, though, believes they are likely to use underhand methods to do so, not only to keep stopping the game, but also to get under the skin of England’s players in the hope of provoking a costly reaction.
“Spain are one of those teams that, on the one hand, they’re the football purists’ dream,” said Sampson, who knows his side will guarantee a place in the quarter-finals if they can beat a Spain side that is ranked eight places below them.
“On the other hand, they’re incredibly frustrating. No one would argue that their tippy-tappy football, their possession-based style, is pleasing on the eye. If that was just the one element of their game, I think you’d be really happy to go and watch the team.
“But one of the reasons, I think, people find it hard to fall in love with the Spanish team is because they’ve got the other bit as well, the indiscipline, the feigning injury, the getting around the referee.
“So, we’re aware of the Spanish team in terms of both those qualities and we’ll have to be ready for the potential possession game they’ll try and bring to the game – but also those dark arts that aren’t the nicest part. You have to manage that side of it.”
England teams have often struggled to do so at major tournaments, not just in the women’s game, but also the men’s. Spain will look to disrupt England’s attacking momentum, while also looking to starve them of possession, causing frustration and irritation to escalate.
Sampson, though, insisted it is some- thing they have spoken about regularly in the build-up to the Euros and he is confident his players will not be sucked into a draining emotional battle with Spain.
“It’s about making rational decisions on the field,” he added. “It can’t be that you just choose not to react, but you want to choose your reaction.
“When you make a mistake, emotionally, is when you act without thinking. We’ve got to make sure that we perform emotionally, but that we always have that clarity of thought in the pressurised moment.
“It’s a shame [about Spain] because for football purists, if it was just that one half of the team, they’d be the team that everyone wants to watch.
“But the reason people find it difficult to get on the bandwagon is because they have that other side of it that can frustrate, not just the opponents, but the supporters as well.
“I don’t know if it’s part of their football culture. A lot of the Spanish girls have come over and played in our competition and we obviously played them in October, it’s something from the outside you might not got a perception of, but when you’re in the middle – in the heart of it – it suddenly all becomes very clear.
“It’s always based on the flow of the game. If the Spanish team are getting it their way and they’re controlling the ball, the sun’s out and its pass and move and pass move and not many shots.
“But if it’s the other way around, and they’re facing their own goal or chasing a bit more, they’re having to compete for possession, then you start to see this other side of the game.
“Like I say, it’s a shame, but it’s something you’ve got to deal with and man- age, both the officials and the players. In these major tournaments, it is about making good decisions and executing under pressure.”
England have already picked up two yellow cards, with arguably their most combative players, Steph Houghton and Jill Scott, one more booking away from a suspension. Given Spain’s tactics, more bookings are likely tonight, although Sampson insisted he will not be asking any of his players to change their style of play by pulling out of a tackle.
“We just want to stay clear of the silly bookings,” explained Sampson. “But if both Jill or Steph pick up another booking on Sunday night and we win the game, that’s all that matters. We’ve got a squad of 23 and I’m confident in every single one of them, which is what you need to have in a tournament.”
On the run: England forward Toni Duggan (left) trains with her team-mates in Utrecht yesterday ahead of their European Championship tie against Spain this evening