By Nick Mulvenney
SYDNEY (Reuters) – Women’s football will crown a first-time champion on Sunday when the ninth Women’s World Cup concludes with England and Spain, both proud footballing nations, facing off in an intriguing final in Sydney.
The highly-successful tournament in Australia and New Zealand was destined to have a fresh winner from the quarter-finals when Japan joined the United States, Germany and Norway in making a premature exit.
For all the excitement that accompanied Australia’s run to the semi-finals and Japan’s brilliance in the early rounds, the consensus is that England and Spain are worthy first-time finalists.
“I think it’s going to be a brilliant game,” England captain Millie Bright enthused on Saturday.
“Two top teams coming head-to-head. And ultimately the game is about getting the ball in the back of the net and executing the game plan. So find a way to win.”
The tournament has showcased the development of the women’s game but the finalists do present a contrast in styles — England pragmatic, ruthless, resilient and Spain displaying all the technical skill the country’s football is famed for.
Midfield maestro Aitana Bonmati and the fresh young talent of winger Salma Paralluelo have shone brightly for Spain, while Lauren James, before her two-match ban for a red card, and Lauren Hemp have been among England’s standouts.
The finalists have had their blips — Spain thrashed 4-0 by Japan in their last group game and England taken to penalties by Nigeria in the last 16 — but both have grown into the tournament and were convincing semi-final winners.
Expectations of a tight final in front of another sellout crowd of 75,000 at Stadium Australia might not be too wide of the mark if England’s 2-1 win in the European Championship quarter-final between the sides last year is any guide.
“This was a game we know were on top of, but it’s the result that counts,” said Spain coach Jorge Vilda.
“England knows what they have in front of them tomorrow. Our team has evolved, our team has grown in this World Cup and mentally we’ve taken a step up.”
‘WE ARE READY’
England needed an extra time goal to beat Spain last year and continue their run to their first major title, a campaign on home soil conducted to the strains of ‘Football’s Coming Home’ during which the Lionesses captured the hearts of a nation.
Although they have had their share of injury setbacks this year, they have maintained the self-belief the Euros triumph and their calm Dutch coach Sarina Wiegman has imbued in them.
“We are ready,” Wiegman said on Saturday. “Technically, tactically. We have watched Spain, of course, analysed them with our analysis team, and I think we’re ready.”
For Spain, the defeat in Brighton marked the start of rumblings of discontent in the dressing room which ended in outright mutiny against Vilda earlier this year.
The coach has kept his counsel on the dispute which robbed Spain of a handful of their top players for the tournament and if there is a split in the camp it was not in evidence when they celebrated their semi-final win over Sweden.
“What we want to do tomorrow is to be the best in the world,” he said in response to the last of many questions about the issue he faced on Saturday.
“And we’ll do this by winning the final.”
(Reporting by Nick Mulvenney, editing by Peter Rutherford)
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