Sport

Spain up and running after favourites recover from first-minute Finland goal

The Finland coach, Anna Signeul, had warned that Spain have a lot of Alexia Putellases in their team, which might have been pushing it, but they can certainly play. Cruelly denied the chance to grace this stage by a torn cruciate ligament suffered 48 hours before it all began, the world’s best footballer sat in the stands, crutches at her side, and watched her teammates give a demonstration of their art with a 4-1 victory over Siegneul’s side in Milton Keynes. “Fantastic,” Finland’s coach called them after, and rightly so.

Spain needed a comeback, sure, but there can be no doubting their quality. A first minute goal scored by Linda Sallstrom which might have prompted a collapse, yet another thing going wrong, was instead overturned without hurry, their way, via almost 700 passes and 32 attempts on goal, the last of them in added time finally giving a more faithful reflection of this match. “We have shown who we are and what we came here for,” Aitana Bonmatí said.

They were scored by Irene Paredes, Bonmatí, Lucia García and Mariona Caldentey – the first three headers – but this was about everyone, a collective display that, while early and against theoretically the group’s weakest team, might be taken as a demonstration of Spain’s credentials. The deliveries from Mapi León, the movement and vision of Bonmatí , the energy of Mariona, to name three, was breathtaking at times.

And all that was in the absence of their star and despite a shock that might have hurt them. Having lost the Ballon d’or runner-up, Jenni Hermoso, at the start of preparations and the Ballon d’Or winner, Putellas, two days before they began, Spain had just wanted the ball to start rolling – before anything else went wrong. Almost as soon as it had, though, things were worse: 49 seconds into this tournament they were behind.

A swift, first-time ball from Anne Westerlund traced a path between the centre-back León and left-back Leila Ouahabi and suddenly Linda Sallstrom was away. Like Putellas, Sallstrom has suffered ACL tears – three of them, in fact – but she is Finland’s all-time top scorer and made no mistake, steering past Sandra Paños into the far corner.

This was not the way it was supposed to be but, if Spain know one thing, it is the way they play and they imposed their identity; steadily at first, completely and unequivocally by the end. “We knew they were a team that could do us damage in transitions, and it happened with the very first ball,” Jorge Vilda said. “The good thing was that there was a long time ahead and we knew that the team would react.”

On the break Finland may have occasionally threatened, León intervening with a couple of superb tackles and Adelina Engman escaping to shoot past the post, but Bonmatí came for the ball as the seleccion took control. Mariona was also involved often as Spain’s possession stats reached 70% by half time.

The number of corners rose sharply, too, and it was from one that the comeback commenced. Spain’s seventh saw Finland panic and Bonmatí head home only for the goal to be ruled out because it had gone over the line before the dynamic the Manchester United full-back Ona Batlle had pulled back. The eighth created more nerves and brought the ninth after 25 minutes, from which Paredes leapt through a crowd, no one going to get in her way, and scored.
The number of corners rose sharply, too, and it was from one that the comeback commenced. Spain’s seventh saw Finland panic and Bonmatí head home only for the goal to be ruled out because it had gone over the line before the dynamic the Manchester United full-back Ona Batlle had pulled back. The eighth created more nerves and brought the ninth after 25 minutes, from which Paredes leapt through a crowd, no one going to get in her way, and scored.

The comeback had already felt inevitable – it seemed implausible that Finland could fall so deep and resist so long – and soon it was on. Paredes was increasingly on the front foot, Irene Guerrero more and more involved and León stepping out ever further. Invited to advance, she delivered a glorious ball for Bonmatí to leap and, with a turn of the neck, bend the header high into the net.

A superb goal got a special celebration, Bonmatí running to the touchline to dedicate it to Putellas sitting in the front row and wearing the Spain shirt belonging to another absent teammate – Virigina Torrecilla, who has returned to the game but not yet Spain after overcoming cancer.

There was a response from Finland early in the second half but it was Battle’s quick feet that almost brought the next goal, Tinja-Riikka Korpela saving then and again, brilliantly, when Batlle stood up an inviting cross for the substitute Laia Aleixandri. Finland were not just in their area now; they were in their six-yard box, Spain flitting around them and soon getting the third.

Paredes headed yet another corner – Spain’s 16th – just wide before another wonderful delivery from Leon was headed in by García, a line of red shirted footballers heading towards Putellas once again. There was still time for a fourth to make the final score fit the football, Mariona hitting a penalty into the top corner with the last touch of a hugely impressive afternoon.