LONDON – Two of the most high-profile strikers in Europe are set to go head-to-head in Alicante on Friday when Spain plays England, battling to prove it is still among the best in the business.
Diego Costa and Wayne Rooney have massive reputations, but as the countdown to Euro 2016 begins with some prestige friendlies, their form for their countries is under the microscope.
Costa has three goals in 17 games this season and only one in nine internationals since abandoning his native Brazil for Spain. He is a poor imitation of the player who plundered 20 goals last season as Chelsea romped to the title, a striker too often more concerned with striking opponents than hitting the back of the net.
Rooney has nine goals in 20 appearances for club and country though only two, against Everton and CSKA Moscow, were scored in games where the opposition was really testing.
Costa is fortunate that for all Spain’s riches in other positions, the one where Vicente Del Bosque is short of options is in the center-forward role. Apart from Costa, Del Bosque has only two younger options — Juventus’ Alvaro Morata and Valencia’s Paco Alcacer — with just six international goals between them, plus Pedro of Chelsea who, like his team-mate, is struggling for form.
A master of football’s dark arts, Costa plays opponents as much as the game, trying to niggle them with every trick in the book and some that aren’t included. He will batter a defender before giving him the Costa glare plus a few choice words, hoping for a reaction that will see the opponent cautioned or dismissed.
Costa is indulged by Jose Mourinho who probably sees much of himself in the striker. But Costa has lost the magic touch that made him such a feared finisher and must concentrate more on football than fist-ball.
It would be a huge call for Roy Hodgson to drop England’s record goal scorer and captain. Rooney has not been playing badly; just that the goals and the yard of explosive pace are not what they were. His work rate and unselfish running for the team cannot be doubted and there is more of a case to move the Manchester United player to a slightly deeper role behind the main striker than leaving him out.
Hodgson will stand by Rooney despite a growing doubt whether he can still do it at the highest level.
Though Daniel Sturridge, Danny Welbeck and Theo Walcott are injured, Tottenham’s Harry Kane has hit form with six goals in his last four appearances, while Jamie Vardy of Leicester is in better form than any striker in England and, indeed, most in Europe after scoring in nine consecutive Premier League appearances.
After losing 2-1 to Slovakia in an early qualifier, Spain, holder of the European Championship, finished with eight consecutive victories. England reached the finals rarely having to move out of third gear, though Switzerland, Slovenia, San Marino, Lithuania and Estonia provided the kindest of opposition.
England fans have been there so many times — seeing the side qualify in style, only to fall flat at the finals, so judgment on the progress the team has made since the debacle of Brazil 2014 will be put on hold until the real thing in France next summer.
“It’ll be an opportunity to learn more about those players we believe in and give them a chance to stake an even greater claim to be in the 23-man squad next year,” said Hodgson. “And to test ourselves against top class opponents, because we all know that Spain and France (which England hosts on Tuesday) at the moment are two of the top teams in world football.”
Cause for concern: Whenever the Republic of Ireland plays one of Europe’s middle to upper class teams it is difficult to see how it will win or even avoid defeat. Man-for-man many opponents are superior to Ireland, not least world champion Germany — the Germany which failed to beat the Republic at home and which lost in Dublin.
Ireland, whose desire, spirit, determination and commitment can make up for any technical shortcomings, secured its place in the Euro 2016 playoffs by finishing third in Group D behind the Germans and Poland, edging out Scotland in the process.
Friday it travels to Zenica to play Bosnia and Herzegovina for the first-leg and inevitably the worry beads are out in Ireland.
Edin Dzeko represents the most serious threat to the Irish defense, which will be without goalkeeper Shay Given (injured) and John O’Shay (suspended).
Dzeko, who joined Roma from Manchester City last August, has scored seven of his country’s 17 qualifying goals while his highly-rated compatriot Miralem Pjanic is an able foil for the main man.
Ireland manager Martin O’Neill said: “We have earned the right to be here, particularly with our results against the world champions and we have accumulated the points. We are pleased to be here.
“I think if you had mentioned to me a way back when the group was first introduced that we would have a home and away match in the playoffs to try to qualify regardless of who was available for us at the time, I probably would have taken that.”
Ireland has the advantage of the second leg being in Dublin, and the suspicion is it will need every bit of help to join England and Wales in next summer’s finals.
Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.
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