Football Features

“Hasn’t missed a beat”: Alexia Putellas returns as Spain secure Women’s World Cup last 16 spot

By Harry Edwards

Published: 10:34, 26 July 2023

Spain secured their spot in the last 16 of the Women’s World Cup thanks to a 5-0 win over Zambia on Wednesday morning.

Just their third showing at the tournament, Spain have now reached the knockout stages in each of the past two World Cups and are among the favourites to emerge as winners come August 20th.

La Roja were also among the favourites for Euro 2022 last summer but were beaten in the quarter-finals by England. Spain weren’t at their best at last summer’s tournament, losing to Germany and labouring to a win over Denmark thanks to a 90th-minute winner and they weren’t exactly playing at full strength.

Firstly, Jenni Hermoso had been ruled out of the tournament and then on the eve of Euro 2022, Alexia Putellas suffered an ACL injury which kept her out for club and country until April. Her return for Barcelona was managed as they didn’t really need her starting, having enough quality dominate in the Liga F and Women’s Champions League. And you wonder whether there were conversations between Barcelona and Spain to ensure she’d be okay for the World Cup.

We first saw Putellas back on the bench in Barcelona’s Women’s Champions League semi-final against Chelsea when she was an unused substitute in the second leg. She made her return at the end of April in a 3-0 league win over Hueva, coming on for Claudia Pina for the final 15 minutes. There were five more appearances for Barcelona, with one goal, but none of them came from the start.

Putellas did start for Spain in their pre-World Cup friendly against Panama, also scoring in the 7-0 win and she also started against Denmark in another friendly, which led some to believe she had made her way back into the XI. But when Spain lined up against Costa Rica in their World Cup opener, Putellas was only found on the bench. She did come on for 13 minutes and created one chance with one shot on target, a decent return to competitive action.

Fast forward a few days and Putellas was back in the starting XI for Spain, her first competitive start since the 2022 Copa de la Reina final, and her first for her country since a 2-0 win over Scotland in World Cup qualifying in April 2022. It was the perfect game for Putellas to start as Zambia’s midfield was so open, giving her time and space to get comfortable without too much pressure, pulling the strings.

Spain took the lead inside 10 minutes through a rocket from Teresa Abelleira which allowed Putellas more space and control, and the 29-year-old made them pay. With a good off-the-ball run, Putellas found room on the flank to float in a cross to Hermoso who headed in from close range, marking her 100th appearance in fine fashion.

A comfortable advantage, Spain knew they could take their foot off the gas slightly but Putellas and co still looked to punish Zambia in the first half. But come half time, Putellas was taken off, understandably rested with Spain already planning for the last 16. In just 45 minutes though, Putellas had one shot, one chance created with one assist, two passes into the final third, four passes into the box, three crosses and 84.4% pass accuracy, a good return.

“Fara (Williams) and I are just delighting watching her back on the pitch,” former England international Anita Asante said on BBC’s coverage of the game.

“She seems hungry, she seems busy, it’s like she’s not been away. The touches she’s making, the flicks, the tricks, she’s got that composure and you can see that she’s an experienced player and two-time Ballon d’Or winner. It shows.”

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“She’s absolutely quality,” Karen Bardsley added.

“She hasn’t missed a trick, she hasn’t missed a beat since she’s been out injured. You can just see the fun and the enjoyment, she’s playing with a smile on her face, she’s getting across the pitch.

“She’s always providing options for her teammates, she’s linking up play, she’s always available and connected and those are the signs of a really confident player.

“It’s been really fantastic to see her back. A really positive story off the end of a really terrible injury.”

As the game went on, Zambia tired and Spain showed their quality with an Alba Redondo brace and Hermoso’s second — to take her La Roja tally to 50 making — it a 5-0 win for the European nation. Up next is a winner-takes-all battle with Japan, who have also qualified for the last 16, for top spot in Group C.