England and Spain go into this weekend's friendly both sporting formidable records and sitting comfortably at the top of their Euro 2012 groups. Spain, the defending Euro and World Cup champions, look particularly comfortable as only one of two teams in the competition so far to have won all their matches (the other being Germany).
That's not to say all hope is lost for the Three Lions. Both teams have a fantastic opportunity to make some key decisions before the real competitions start, and it might be high time to employ those winning tactics against a formidable opponent.
Here are five things each side can do to tip the scales in their favor. If you have other suggestions for either side you'd like to share, as always, have at it in the comments section.
1. Choose starting strikers wisely.
With Wayne Rooney still out on suspension, this will be a lot harder than it looks. Darren Bent lacks completeness, but Daniel Sturridge and Danny Welbeck lack international experience.
If Fabio Capello opts to go with his favored loose 4-2-3-1 formation, the best option to put out front would really be Bent as far as experience and ability goes, and with Bent being aware that this could be a make-or-break moment for him in the England squad, it could be a nice motivating factor.
Sturridge or Welbeck could back him up, but against a tough opponent like Spain and with the young hitmen still being relatively untested on the international front, it may be better to start them in the next friendly against Sweden. Gabriel Agbonlahor is another option, but he doesn't seem reliable enough to start up front.
Capello will have an easier time with wingers—James Milner has really shown up for Manchester City lately, Ashley Young has done well in European competition and, if he can get his finishing together, Theo Walcott's breakneck speed could be enough to outrun the likes of Puyol and Piqué.
Even some of the defenders—most notably Manchester United's Phil Jones after his Man of the Match-worthy performance in the Champions League—are good at getting forward and can help supplement the attack in Rooney's absence.
2. Find a way to counter the tiki-taka.
It's not the most ideal situation for the Three Lions going into this match: Spain's central midfield, built on the Iniesta-Xavi or Iniesta-Fabregas (as the case may be this weekend) binary and that fluid short-passing game with the funny name, is one of its strongest attributes.
England's midfield has talent (Lampard still has his good days, newcomer Jack Rodwell shows promise, Milner has been great this season but would be better on the wings), but with Jack Wilshere still on the bench, it's in a state of flux. Conquering the tiki-taka will be England's key challenge on the night.
Italy was able to beat Spain's strong passing game by playing deep and serving them with strong counter-attacks. Granted, it wasn't a first-choice lineup for the Furia Roja and the squad had some cohesion problems, but it's one that could work, especially if the promising young defenders—especially Phil Jones, who was a lightning rod against Otelul and worked on the attack as well—can put in a good effort.
3. Keep Glen Johnson far, far away from everything.
When Micah Richards found out he had been dropped from the England squad for the next round of friendlies, he took to Twitter (like most young athletes), raging to his fans: "Well well well!!!! Disappointed is an understatement!!"
As well he should be. The fact that Johnson was chosen over Richards, who hasn't gotten a whole lot of playing time this season but significantly more than Johnson, is nothing short of mind-boggling on Capello's part.
Richards has asserted himself as one of the best young right-backs in the Premiership, whereas Johnson, who has been on the bench with injury for much of the first part of the season, isn't close to the first-choice right-back at his own club, let alone in form enough to play for England right now. He can make interceptions, but that's about it.
4. On that note, give Kyle Walker the spotlight.
That's not to say both of Capello's right-back choices were bad. His other key pick, 21-year-old Tottenham Hotspur defender Kyle Walker, has had a great season so far, impressing enough to get the England cap. In terms of tackling, he's on par with Richards and is great at clearing the ball in tight situations.
And he's proved he's capable of scoring goals after that headline-making cracker during the North London derby not too long ago. He's got a lot of work ahead of him with Spain's tiki-taka attack and some deadly attacking figures, among them likely a resurgent Fernando Torres, but if there's anyone who can hold his own in that position of the available options, it's Walker.
5. Avoid self-fulfilling prophecy.
This sounds silly, but it's true. Perhaps one of the best things for England to keep in focus before this match is their mindset. There's always the psychological traps—the Wembley curse (even though England won their last match at Wembley), the fact that it's Spain. If the Three Lions get caught up in matters like these, they'll end up a self-fulfilling prophecy.
1. Maintain possession.
It's a lot easier to stay focused and energized with the ball than without it, and a lot easier to dictate pace when you're not chasing after the ball, so if Spain can maintain a cohesive passing game and get the flow of the tiki-taka just right, they will be able to outlast England's defense and get the win at Wembley.
2. Concentrate the power in centre midfield.
If there's one major advantage Spain has over England in terms of personnel coming into this match, it's that Spain's starting centre midfielder choices look a bit stronger. If Iniesta and whoever his partner in centre midfield is (Xavi's injuries make him a doubtful prospect, so probably Cesc Fábregas or perhaps Thiago Alcântara) can maintain possession centrally and get the tiki-taka going, it'll be an effortless victory.
3. If Xavi's out, give Cesc Fábregas the start in central midfield.
Xavi is the architect behind the fluid, controlled, tiki-taka passing movement that is the hallmark of Spain's gameplay. When he was absent for Spain's friendly against Italy, the attacking trio in his stead—Andrés Iniesta, David Silva and Santi Cazorla on the wing—although all technically gifted individually, couldn't quite get that perfect flow of play going and kept losing possession.
With Fabregas already trained in the way of the tiki-taka and performing well so far this season in La Liga and European competition, he seems like the logical backup to Xavi. Additionally, from his time in the Premiership at Arsenal, Cesc has faced many of the England stars before and will have a good sense of what he's up against.
Thiago Alcântara, another La Masia alumnus who has had some strong performances for Barça and heightened his national team's momentum when he came in as a sub in the 2-1 defeat to Italy, could very well come in as an impact alternate again and do rather well.
4. Keep Villa and Llorente up front.
This competition has seen some great form from David Villa, who has scored seven times in the qualifiers—four since the start of the 2011-2012 season. Last month, he surpassed Real Madrid great Raúl to be the highest international goal-scorer in Spain's national team history by scoring his 50th goal.
Although Fernando Torres has been solid lately, Athletic Bilbao's Fernando Llorente has been on form in the league, scoring a brace against Atlético Madird to net his fifth and sixth goals so far this season. England could be a great international test for him.
5. Prevent any injuries from happening in the next several days.
One of the biggest problems that seems to be plaguing the Spanish national team this season is the frequency of injury, particularly among the veteran Barcelona members of the squad.
Andrés Iniesta was out at the beginning of the season for three weeks following a hamstring injury in Barcelona's opening Champions League match, Cesc Fábregas had to miss the last round of Euro qualifying matches because of injury, Xavi is doubtful with muscle problems, Pedro is on the injury list and Carles Puyol has struggled with injuries this season.
So La Furia Roja should probably try to prevent, if they can, any injuries from happening prior to match day. Not sure how they could accomplish this though, other than training consciously and maybe covering Puyol in bubble wrap.