England suffer World Cup heartache as brilliant Spain show Lionesses what’s missing

England 0-1 Spain: Mary Earps stopped Jennifer Hermoso’s penalty, but the Lionesses were beaten by Olga Carmona’s goal

Miguel Delaney
in Sydney
Sunday 20 August 2023 18:25 BST

An exhibition in how to win a World Cup and a final that delivered a painful example of what England need to do. Sarina Wiegman took her side to the very brink, but something was still just missing against a brilliant Spain. The Women’s World Cup has new champions, but it isn’t England. Spain had the one element that the European champions still lack, beyond that glorious trophy itself. They are the only women’s side with a profound football identity, which amplifies everything they do from within and was visible in the Olga Carmona goal that settled this contest. It was a fittingly divine strike to win a fixture like this.

Against that, Wiegman could only try to rearrange the pieces to give Spain more of a puzzle to solve. It has been her great strength, but it wasn’t enough. She sadly experiences defeat in successive World Cup finals, this one may be all the more painful because her side had seemed more primed for it.

It was only 1-0 but the gap in pure football terms felt far greater. This is the immense challenge in facing this Spain, what space to protect, how far you can go. Even Wiegman eventually found a problem she couldn’t solve. It was a challenge – and a game – too far.

There is no shame in that. Spain are undeniably the finest squad in the world, as symbolised by that trophy. There will be a far bigger discussion about the meaning of it all, especially as that squad won in spite of an unprecedented series of problems, culminating in the grand debate about the manager.

Jorge Vilda was booed when his name was called out before the game. That won’t matter to him or the divisive Luis Rubiales, president of the Spanish football federation, amid the cheers of victory.

Such is the Spanish football identity that precedes both, though, that the Spanish players essentially make Vilda a passenger in their journey.

That, lamentably, is also what they did to England for long stretches of this final. Georgia Stanway chased everything, Millie Bright won so many important balls, Jess Carter made some crucial interceptions, but it constantly felt like there was an extra Spanish player on the pitch.

Their ability in the tightest of spaces is truly special.

It very quickly became apparent that this entire game would come down to whether Spain could maximize their majority of possession or allow a resolute England to play on those remaining doubts. It is, after all, a basic fact that Spain have by far the most sophisticated football identity in the women’s game, and that translated into some supremely choreographed passing moves. There was one made up of one-touch balls right up the pitch after about 10 minutes that was really an exhibition of how football should be played. It was also a warning to England.

Olga Carmona celebrates scoring for Spain

It was not heeded, as it was from that exact area on the right that Lucy Bronze decided to surge into central midfield. She only ran into a phalanx of Spanish ball players, leaving a huge gap behind.

It was quickly exploited in the most exquisite fashion.

This was the kind of goal that should come in a World Cup final, a moment of quality befitting the stage. Teresa Abelleira lofted over a luscious crossfield ball, the immediate contrast with Mariona Caldentey’s quick touch inside making it all the more impressive. Then, without breaking stride, Carmona arrowed the ball into the far corner, past the outstretched glove of Mary Earps.

It was all so thrillingly fluid.

If that was the perfect goal that had been coming, it wasn’t quite the perfect performance. For all that Aitana Bonmati did to make the World Cup final stage her own, Spain didn’t have complete control. They were susceptible to those sudden breaks from Alessia Russo, although the energy required for them left her looking exhausted by half time.

There was also the issue that, as majestic as 99 per cent of Spain’s passes are, they so often struggled with the final ball from out wide.

There were about three occasions that could have put them out of sight. When one ball did get through, Salma Paralluelo put it just the wrong side of the post. As it was, at 1-0, England still had a chance.

A pitch invader wearing a T-shirt protesting against Russia’s president Vladimir Putin is detained by a steward

The longer it stayed at that scoreline the likelier Spain were to let it get to them – something that became apparent after Jennifer Hermoso’s penalty miss.

Wiegman, for her part, had proactively looked to improve that chance. She again displayed the type of assertiveness that makes her the best coach in the women’s game, switching to a 4-2-3-1 by bringing Chloe Kelly and – of course – Lauren James on for Russo and Rachel Daly.

Keira Walsh began to come into the game much more, which made it all the more unfortunate that it was her innocuous handball that brought a penalty.

The length of time referee Tori Penso needed to rewatch it showed how debatable it was. It may well have created doubt for Hermoso. Her penalty was poor, but Earps – yet again – made the right decision. The goalkeeper understandably celebrated as if, well, she’d saved the World Cup.

Mary Earps denies Jennifer Hermoso from the spot

There was still some way to go. England were still in it.

It was the sort of moment that can completely scramble the psychology of a game.

England were beginning to break through more. James forced Cata Coll into a reaction save. That was about it, though. England got a little desperate by the end, but that is perhaps inevitable from the physical and mental fatigue that comes from chasing the ball this long.

These Spanish players have come through so much themselves. Alexia Putellas came on to get them over the final hurdle and enjoy the moment her own career deserves.

They show how the game should be played. They show you how to win a World Cup. England should not look at that with shame. They should look at it as the final step required.

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