AUCKLAND, New Zealand — It was written in the script that this semifinal would be settled by a decisive set piece. The twist in the tale, however, was that it was scored by Spain, rather than Sweden, to secure La Roja‘s first-ever Women’s World Cup final appearance.
By doing so with their 2-1 win at Eden Park, Spain sent a message to their potential opponents in the final on Sunday — the winners of Wednesday’s semifinal between England and Australia — that their supposed weaknesses are no more. This Spain team is the real deal.
“The feeling is just happiness,” coach Jorge Vilda said. “We picked ourselves up against after they [Sweden] equalised, but with soul, with magic, the team keeps overcoming [hurdles].”
Vilda’s players had already banished the question marks hanging over their credentials prior to Olga Carmona‘s 90th-minute winner, which crashed in off the underside of goalkeeper Zecira Musovic‘s crossbar, but by sealing the win with a clever dead-ball routine, they also beat Sweden at their own game.
Sweden’s ruthless ability to capitalise on set pieces dominated the build-up to this tie. Their top scorer in this competition is Amanda Ilestedt — a centre-back with four goals. Spain coach Vilda was asked how his side would deal with a team that had scored the bulk of its goals in this tournament from free kicks and corners, while his counterpart, Peter Gerhardsson, appeared irritated by the inference that his side were nothing more than one which expertly played a game of percentages from dead balls.
But in the end, the team which made the set piece count most of all was Spain, when Teresa Abelleira spotted Carmona unmarked on the edge of the Sweden penalty area and played a short corner to the full-back, who took a touch to control before scoring from 20 yards. “I am euphoric,” Carmona said. “I can’t wait for the final. I have never experienced anything like it in football.”
Just 94 seconds earlier, Sweden’s two late substitutes had combined to cancel out Salma Paralluelo‘s 81st-minute opener when Lina Hurtig headed down for Rebecka Blomqvist to seemingly take the game into extra time. But Spain showed grit and determination by bouncing back immediately through Carmona. It was a deserved winner. They had been the better team, the one which dominated possession, and they also created 13 chances to Sweden’s five.
Yet Spain’s 4-0 group-stage defeat against Japan, and the fall-out from last October’s squad mutiny when 15 players wrote to the Spanish Federation (RFEF) demanding changes behind the scenes, had left a cloud of doubt over this team as to whether they really had the ability to win against a team as strong, tactically and physically, as Sweden.
Sweden aren’t easy on the eye, but they are supremely well drilled. Had they won, it would have been a victory of steel over style, but Spain had too much for them and they will go into Sunday’s final as the favourites, no matter who they face. That’s because they showed they can not only control the game against more imposing teams, but they are also able to withstand the challenges that Sweden, and England and Australia, can pose.
Vilda has a goalkeeper in Cata Coll who, despite her inexperience, is brave and committed, while defenders Carmona and Ona Batlle play with such poise and purpose that they are able to own the flanks on which they play. Spain also have two superstars, at either end of the scale of experience, in Alexia Putellas and Salma Paralluelo who can decide the outcome of Sunday’s final with one moment of magic.
The issue for Vilda is whether Putellas, winner of the Ballon d’Or in each of the last two years, is fit enough to play and perform in the final. The 29-year-old Barcelona midfielder was starting only her third game for club and country since suffering a cruciate ligament injury 13 months ago. She lasted 57 minutes before being replaced by Paralluelo, her 19-year-old Barcelona teammate, and has yet to complete a full match since returning to action at this tournament.
“In the second half, the first 10 minutes were tough for us, Sweden were getting closer,” Vilda said. “The substitution changed the game, we got further forward, we had more bite. It came off well.”
If fully fit, Putellas would be the first name on Vilda’s teamsheet, but she is still some distance from being back to her best. The coach may have to name her on the substitutes’ bench, as he did in the quarterfinal win against Netherlands, in order to give his side the best chance of victory.
But Vilda also faces a dilemma with Paralluelo. She has now scored in the quarterfinal and semifinal after being introduced as a second-half substitute. Her blistering pace and silky ability on the ball make her a devastating option from the bench, but perhaps the time has come to play Paralluelo from the start. It may boil down to a choice of Putellas or Paralluelo, depending on the formation Vilda chooses to go with on Sunday.
Vilda and Spain are in a position of strength, though. They only have good options, and their belief and results now match their talent. England and Australia have been warned.
POST AUTHOR: Mark Ogden