Women’s World Cup Takeaways: Spain edges Sweden in scintillating semifinal

What a game! 

Scoring chances were few and far between as Spain and Sweden clashed in Tuesday’s semifinal in Auckland at the FIFA Women’s World Cup. 

But then came an explosion of goals — three in the final nine minutes, including the winner in the 89th minute — as Spain booked its first appearance in a Women’s World Cup final with a dramatic win over the Swedes. 

The Result

Semifinal: Spain 2, Sweden 1 (in Auckland) — Game stats || Report  

Main Taking Points

Spanish resilience pays off 

Sweden became the latest country at this Women’s World Cup to have learned a very painful lesson: Never count out Spain. 

La Roja stormed out of the gate at this tournament with a pair of lopsided wins over minnows Costa Rica and Zambia before being spanked 4-0 by Japan in the Group C finale. That humbling loss meant Spain finished second in the group, and thus faced a more difficult path in the knockout round.   

But the Spaniards rebounded from their embarrassing effort against the Japanese with a comprehensive 5-1 win over Switzerland in the round of 16 before beating the Netherlands (World Cup finalists in 2019) in extra time in the quarterfinals. 

Sweden proved to be another tough test for Spain, who despite dominating possession and carrying the balance of play in the first half failed to conjure dangerous scoring chances or record a single shot on target. After doing an excellent job of restricting Spain to long shots and hopeful crosses through the first half, Sweden opened up and began to ask serious questions of their opponents.

Still, the game dragged on and appeared to be headed into extra time when substitute Salma Paralluelo, who bagged the winner against the Dutch, scored on a wondrous strike in the 81st minute to give Spain the lead. It was Spain’s first shot on target. Spanish celebrations were short lived, though, as Rebecka Blomqvist equalised two minutes from time off a header that beat Spanish goalkeeper Cata Coll at the far post. 

But Spain found another gear and retook the lead the very next minute when Sweden turned off for a moment. The Spaniards quickly took a free kick and an unmarked Olga Carmona hit a shot from 18 yards out that found the back of the net and ended up breaking Swedish hearts. 

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It was a resilient display by the Spaniards on the day, but that has become their calling card. A disappointing quarterfinal exit at last summer’s European Championship was a shocking result for a Spanish side that was tabbed as one of the pre-tournament favourites. 

More controversy enveloped La Roja last September when 15 players sent a letter to the Spanish FA saying they would not play for the team as long as Jorge Vilda remained in charge. The players questioned his training methods and tactical standards, and they also had complaints about his behaviour toward them. The Spanish FA backed Vilda and while some players returned to the team, the majority of them decided to sit out this tournament in protest.   

Yet, here Spain is, on the precipice of winning its first-ever Women’s World Cup. 

Sweden still the bridesmaid 

Spare a thought for Sweden, the No. 3 ranked team in the world and considered one of the favourites coming into this tournament. 

Sweden has been the perennial bridesmaid at the FIFA Women’s World Cup, having participated in all eight previous tournaments, and finishing runner-up in 2003 to go along with three other semifinal appearances. Olympic success has also eluded the Swedes, who had to settle for second place after losing consecutive gold-medal games in 2016 and 2021.  

This seemed to be the year the Swedes would finally break through after beating the United States (ranked No. 1 and the two-time reigning world champions) and Japan (2011 World Cup champions) in quick succession in the knockout round. Zećira Mušović has been the best goalkeeper in this tournament, the Swedish defence was only breached twice going into the semifinals, and centre back Amanda Ilestedt was among the tournament’s top scorers with four goals.  

But Tuesday’s heartbreaking defeat to Spain means Sweden has now lost in four of five semifinals and it will once again have to be content with playing in the third-place match.  

Goal of the Day

In the 81st minute, Sweden failed to properly deal with a cross played into the box by Spain’s Jennifer Hermoso. The ball fell comfortably to the feet of Paralluelo, who struck a shot while sandwiched between two Swedish defenders from 11 yards out that curled into the lower right corner.

Moment of the Day

Just 94 seconds after Sweden levelled the score, Spain retook the lead in the final minute of regulation off a corner kick. Left fullback and captain Carmona’s shot from just outside the penalty area went just beyond the reach of Swedish goalkeeper Mušović, kissed off the underside of the crossbar and nestled into the back of the net. It was only Carmona’s second goal for her country. 

Fan of the Day

Refereeing legend Pierluigi Collina took in Tuesday’s game in Auckland, looking on with great intent.

Quote of the Day

“It was a very tough game. It could’ve been difficult to recover from their goal, but we’ve shown that his team can deal with everything. We deserved this. We took this little step, and now we need that final push.” – Spain’s Salma Paralluelo 

Three Stars of the Day

1. Salma Paralluelo, Spain: The 19-year-old came off the bench in the 57th minute and gave the Spanish attack a big boost with her probing and dynamic play before scoring her second goal of the tournament with nine minutes left in regulation to give her team the lead.

2. Kosovare Asllani, Sweden: The veteran midfielder did an excellent job of pulling the creative strings for the Swedes. She displayed a nice touch on the ball and exquisite distribution in the attacking third of the pitch and set up Blomqvist’s goal. 

3. Cata Coll, Spain: Playing in just her third game for Spain, the 22-year-old goalkeeper provided her country with stability and a calming presence inside the 18-yard box. Her fantastic save on Nathalie Björn’s volley right before halftime was a key moment. 

Looking Ahead

The other semifinal pits England vs. Australia in Sydney on Wednesday (6 a.m. ET / 3 a.m. PT) with both teams attempting to reach the final for the first time. Spain will meet the winner in the World Cup final in Sydney on Sunday (6 a.m. ET / 3 a.m. PT). The two semifinal losers will meet in the third-place match on Saturday in Brisbane (4 a.m. ET / 1 a.m. PT). 

Australia is looking to join the United States (in 1999) as the only host nation to have ever won the Women’s World Cup. The Matildas have bowed out in the quarterfinals on three occasions (2007, 2011 and 2015). 

England’s best showing came in 2015 and 2019 when it reached the semifinals. As reigning European champions, both Norway and Germany went on to win the subsequent World Cup (2003 and 2007). England is looking to become the third member of that exclusive group. 

John Molinaro is one of the leading soccer journalists in Canada, having covered the game for over 20 years for several media outlets, including Sportsnet, CBC Sports and Sun Media. He is currently the editor-in-chief of TFC Republic, a website dedicated to in-depth coverage of Toronto FC and Canadian soccer. TFC Republic can be found here.

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