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Day 22 and 23: England and Spain head into the World Cup final
Sunday sets up the biggest Anglo-Spanish conflict since the Armada
Australia 1 - England 3
In the cacophonous Stadium Australia, England finally reached a World Cup final. There had been near misses before in 2015 and 2019, but there could be no doubting the result here. Goals from Ella Toone, Lauren Hemp and Alessia Russo put this one beyond the Matildas, despite an emphatic solo goal from Sam Kerr to initially pull the scores back level.
Kerr’s inclusion from the start was one of two changes Australia made. She replaced Emily van Egmond whilst Clare Polkinghorne came in for Alanna Kennedy who was unavailable due to illness. They were pretty like for like changes, although Kerr playing did alter Mary Fowler’s role who found herself sitting a bit deeper than she has so far this World Cup. England meanwhile were unchanged in their 3-5-2.
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So much of England’s success in this match came down to the interplay between Alessia Russo and Lauren Hemp who Australia’s defence struggled to pin down. With England able to pass the ball around with ease as Australia sat back, Russo and Hemp were free to try and sniff out the spaces available for them, joined at points by Georgia Stanway and Ella Toone. In fact it was those two who had the best chances early on - Stanway seeing hers saved but Toone scoring to give England a lead.
For England, the key was how they were going to marshall Sam Kerr, starting for the first time this World Cup. Broadly they dealt with her well, as her teammates Jess Carter and Millie Bright looked confident playing against her when she had her back to goal. But it was when she turned and saw space for them to run into. There can’t be many players other than Carter and Bright who would have known better what Kerr was about to do but they were powerless to stop it, backing off until Kerr unleashed an incredible strike to once again beat Mary Earps in goal.
That saw England unleash Plan B. Everything about England’s World Cup campaign has focused on versatility. In the face of injuries, suspensions and tactical issues, they have always felt equipped in the knowledge of what they were going to do next. In this case, it was route one football, with Millie Bright relieving Australian pressure by passing the ball behind their defence. She found space out on the right with Lucy Bronze to no avail but when Ellie Carpenter could not deal with the ball out towards the left, Hemp capitalised to put England back in front.
Kerr had two more opportunities to equalise again, both of them far easier than the one she scored, but nothing could sum up her more as a striker. As Australia rejigged their defence to push on, Hemp and Russo combined to put the nail in the coffin. It was a performance from England that emphasised both preparation and experience, against an Australian team who felt a bit more tentative in what they wanted to do. Caitlin Foord - who has looked so confident this tournament - failed to manage a single shot, evidence once again of Carter’s magnificence as the right-sided centre-back.
For the Matildas, it was the end of their fairytale. For England, it was the culmination of a dream.
Spain 2 - Sweden 1
The other semi-final saw Sweden continue to be cursed by their bridesmaid’s tag as they lost their third World Cup semi in four tournaments. They are still yet to win an international tournament since 1984 despite making the final four of the last four they have participated in (WWC23, Euro22, Olympics 2020, WWC19). They looked to approach the match against Spain in much the same way they had beaten Japan and the USA in earlier rounds - by being happy to sit back and soak up pressure before making the most of breaking when possible.
Spain meanwhile had switched things up since their quarter-final win over The Netherlands. Alexia Putellas came back into the midfield with Jenni Hermoso replacing Esther Gonzalez up front. The suspended Oihane Hernandez was replaced by Olga Carmona.
Sweden’s key issue in this match was that their passing was nowhere near as good as it was in previous games, making it far too easy for Spain to turn the ball back over and keep up pressure. Against the USA and Japan, they managed a passing accuracy of 69% and 80% respectively. In this semi-final it was only 62.7%.
Spain attacked repeatedly down their right hand side with 51% of their final third entries coming from that area of the pitch. They also attempted to play passes over the entirety of Sweden - on four occasions they attempted a pass which would break the lines in attack, midfield and defence, being successful on one occasion. This was a key difference between when they were playing against the compact defensive shape of Japan (and lost), where they did not even attempt that kind of ball. When Sweden tried to do the same - and on a number of times they did get into good positions - they struggled to put accurate crosses in, with Fridolina Rolfö’s decision to tuck in centrally regularly leaving nobody at the back post.
The game swung decisively in Spain’s favour when Salma Paralluelo came on. The teenager had scored the winner in extra time against The Netherlands but was used in a central 9 role here, rather than on the left wing as she is normally. Her speed immediately put the Swedish defence under pressure, with her four progressive carries ranking her first for Spain despite only playing 34 minutes. Her three shot creating actions also ranked her fourth, behind Jenni, Mariona Caldentey and Teresa Abeilleira. Salma’s right-footed shot put Spain in front and despite Sweden managing to secure an equaliser, they conceded just a minute later as they failed to stop Olga Carmona scoring from the edge of the area. It was an attempt Zecira Musovic - for all her heroics this World Cup - should have saved.
In the end, Spain deserved the win. The introduction of Salma and the way she was used was key to getting the victory whilst Peter Gerhardsson looked unable to tweak his team to the issues that Spain were causing them throughout the match.