Spain’s chances coming into the Women’s World Cup seemed to hinge on the fitness of Alexia Putellas but they have enjoyed a remarkable run to the final despite their star player struggling to make an impact.
Instead, the likes of Salma Paralluelo, Aitana Bonmati and unsung midfield hero Teresa Abelleira have stood out for Jorge Vilda’s team, who beat Sweden 2-1 on Tuesday to secure a place in Sunday’s showpiece in Sydney.
Putellas had to fight to make the squad after spending more than nine months out with a ruptured anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in her left knee suffered on the eve of the European Championship last year.
The player, who has won the Ballon d’Or and FIFA Best award in each of the last two years, has started just three times on Spain’s run to their first World Cup final.
Her longest involvement was 62 minutes in the final group game against Japan, which ended in a 4-0 hammering that did not augur well for the knockout stages.
After brief substitute appearances in wins over Switzerland and the Netherlands, Putellas returned to the starting line-up against Sweden.
However, she was withdrawn before the hour mark to make way for Paralluelo, the 19-year-old winger who is one of the most exciting prospects to emerge at this World Cup.
Vilda later admitted his strategy had been to use Putellas to help wear down Sweden before unleashing game-changer Paralluelo.
The teenager, who only gave up on an athletics career a year ago to focus on football, had scored the extra-time winner in the quarter-final against the Netherlands.
Deployed through the middle at Eden Park, it was Paralluelo who got the opening goal before Olga Carmona netted the winner.
“The plan was to control the game, try to tire them out with our possession and passing, and keep the pace, talent and quality of Salma and other players who we could bring on in the second half,” said Vilda, who was full of praise for the Barcelona starlet.
“Remember she is very young and has only been focusing exclusively on football for a year now.
“We need to just try to help her to see how far she can go. Nobody can say what her ceiling is.”
While Paralluelo spoke to the media after being named player of the match against Sweden, Putellas walked past reporters without a word.
That has become customary for her during the tournament, as the 29-year-old has stayed firmly out of the limelight, in contrast to the radiant figure who appeared before the world on stage at so many recent award ceremonies.
Vilda said during the tournament that he had a squad of “23 Ballons d’Or” after it was put to him that Aitana Bonmati could succeed her Barcelona teammate Putellas to win that particular prize this year.
She has enjoyed a fine World Cup on the back of being named the best player in the Champions League as her club lifted that trophy despite playing most of the campaign without Putellas.
Vilda will now have to decide whether Putellas starts Sunday’s final, but there are others that the Spain coach simply cannot do without.
Jennifer Hermoso has made a precious contribution either in attack, or in midfield when Putellas has not started.
And Abelleira of Real Madrid has surely been the best holding midfielder in the tournament.
“The spirit in this team is amazing,” said Abelleira, with Spain having overcome off-field turbulence in the months before the World Cup.
Of 15 rebels who said last year they no longer wanted to be selected in a protest against the Spanish federation and Vilda, only three returned for the tournament, including Bonmati.
Putellas did not join the boycott because she was injured at the time, although she did back the complaints and reportedly acted as a mediator between the players and the federation.
“We have all come together to achieve our objective and it is just a brilliant experience,” added Abelleira.
“We have grown so much and now we can start talking about being in the final.”
POST AUTHOR: AFP