Spain have won in every way possible – now there is just one step left

If there is one thing Spain have not been good at during this Women’s World Cup, it is set pieces.

Jorge Vilda’s team had taken 10.6 corners per game before their semi-final against Sweden, with an average of 26.5 needed per goal. Contrast that with their opponents on Tuesday night, who had needed just 7.5 per goal. The Spanish knew this was the Swedes’ speciality and that their hopes of reaching a first-ever senior World Cup final rested on defending well at set pieces.

So there was a special kind of irony in left-back Olga Carmona scoring the winning goal from a corner to make history — a sweet strike following Teresa Abelleira’s pass that bounced in off the crossbar after evading the grasp of Sweden goalkeeper Zecira Musovic.

It had looked as if Salma Paralluelo would be Spain’s hero once again before Sweden equalised through Rebecka Blomqvist in the 88th minute. The 19-year-old Barcelona winger scored her country’s winner in the quarter-final against the Netherlands and put Spain ahead here, too. This time it was not a result of the former athlete’s sprinting prowess, but rather a loose ball turned home in the area.

Paralluelo had come off the bench for Alexia Putellas when Spain were stagnating in possession. Her fresh legs were immediately noticeable, as was her ability to push her side close to the opposition penalty area. She played as a centre-forward and once again showed why she has become indispensable under Vilda at this tournament.

When Blomqvist’s goal went in, all of Spain’s ghosts reappeared.

(Photo by Fiona Goodall – FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)

The players may have thought about past occasions when they fell apart, such as in last year’s European Championship quarter-final against England or their demolition by Japan earlier in this tournament. It has been a whirlwind year for them — one in which they have gone from never reaching the World Cup quarter-finals before to making their first final at the competition, despite off-pitch conflict which means they are without some of the world’s best players.

It was time to show they had learned from those experiences against Japan and England, that they could overcome their own doubts. And they took less than a minute to do that through Carmona’s goal.

Eden Park was sent into meltdown and the players celebrated wildly. This time, they had broken down all barriers.

They had done it in a different way to their past victories, showing they have all the resources you could ask of World Cup finalists.

They have won by dominating games, like they did against Switzerland. They have bounced back from their worst defeat in 11 years against Japan. They have beaten a World Cup powerhouse, the Netherlands, in extra time. And now they have won in a way not usually associated with Spanish teams — with a set piece — against a side they had never beaten before and who had eliminated the United States and their bogey team Japan.

In the first half, Spain were better in possession despite the Swedes’ uncomfortable high press. Spain had been warned by Japan’s defeat against Sweden: if they wanted the ball, Sweden would suffocate them. But they didn’t and Vilda’s side were able to survive.

They had also been warned beforehand about Sweden’s physical ability and potential from set pieces. They were highly attentive to this throughout the match and took extra care to avoid fouls just outside the box.

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(Photo by Maja Hitij – FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)

“We had talked a lot about that,” centre-back Laia Codina said after the game. “We were told that Sweden scored 70 per cent of their goals from set pieces. It was clear to us and at every corner we had to communicate. We knew it was important to keep marking and (show) individual responsibility.

“It’s basic — not only against Sweden — to avoid corners or close fouls. But we worked on it very specifically. It worked out well for us.”

“We knew it was their biggest danger and we had to stay focused,” Carmona added. “We tried to get in their way, even if we didn’t reach their height.”

One of the reasons Sweden are known for their set-piece prowess is their height. Their squad has an average height of 5ft 7in compared to Spain’s 5ft 6in.

But Spain managed to nullify that threat, with Sweden restricted to just three corners and seven free kicks — before using it against them at the last.

“It was a surprise,” midfielder Aitana Bonmati said. “We didn’t prepare that play. We saw Olga alone, out of the box, and we had to make a decision.”

There was joy at the final whistle, but attention will quickly turn to Sunday’s final against co-hosts Australia or England — where Spain could add to the Under-17 and Under-20 World Cups they currently hold.

After overcoming so many obstacles to get this far, you wouldn’t bet against them doing just that.

(Top photo: Fiona Goodall – FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)

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