James and Putellas create selection dilemma ahead of Women’s World Cup final

SYDNEY — Sarina Wiegman and Jorge Vilda are preparing for the biggest game of their coaching careers — the Women’s World Cup final between England and Spain here in Sydney. As the clock ticks down to kick-off, they must both make a huge decision that could shape their professional legacies.

It is about high stakes and making the right call; balancing cold, calculated judgment against emotion and the gut feeling about tactics and team selection.

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Ultimately, Sunday’s final could come down to the call that Wiegman makes about Lauren James, and Vilda’s similarly crucial judgement on the fitness of Alexia Putellas.

In normal circumstances, both James and Putellas would be named to start in Stadium Australia without a moment of hesitation. James is the 21-year-old Chelsea midfielder, regarded by many as one of the star players of the tournament and a potential future Ballon d’Or Feminin winner; Putellas has already walked that path by winning back-to-back Ballons d’Or in 2021 and 2022.

By selecting James, available again after her two-game suspension for standing on Nigeria’s Michelle Alozie during England’s round-of-16 win, Wiegman would be changing a winning team and, at the same time, risks upsetting the rhythm that the Lionesses have discovered in beating Colombia in the quarterfinal tie and Australia in the semifinals.

For Vilda the dilemma is different, but a pivotal one at the same time. Putellas is Spain’s best player, and arguably the best in the world when fully fit, but the 29-year-old is not close to being 100% and she lasted just 57 minutes of the semifinal win against Sweden before being substituted.

Having suffered a cruciate ligament injury in the buildup to Euro 2022, the Barcelona midfielder did not return to action for her club until the end of April. She then managed just 29 minutes of football in six games for Barca prior to the World Cup, where she has yet to play 90 minutes.

It was Putellas’ substitution against Sweden that helped spark Spain’s victory, with replacement Salma Paralluelo putting La Roja ahead and changing the game with her ability to stretch the opposition with her blistering pace. But Alexia Putellas is still a player of supreme ability. Her introduction as a second-half substitute in the quarterfinal win against Netherlands helped Spain turn their dominance into victory, so she has shone in this World Cup and given Vilda reason to believe she can be the key player.

If Vilda leaves Putellas out of the starting lineup, it will be a huge call. Her unhappy reaction to being taken off against Sweden underlined Putellas’ pride and determination to play a central role befitting her status in the game, but risking a player so clearly short on fitness could cost Spain the World Cup. Vilda could also regret leaving Putellas on the bench if England take control and win the game.

It’s a decision that might be causing Vilda sleepless nights, but Wiegman will also be torn over James.

In the absence of James, Ella Toone has filled the void in the forward role and it was the Manchester United player who set England on their way to victory against Australia with a clinical first-half goal.

Toone lacks the X-factor that James possesses in abundance. She is not a potential Ballon d’Or winner, but she has the priceless knack of scoring in the biggest games. Toone did so in the Euro 2022 final win against Germany, against Brazil in the Finalissima win earlier this year and again against the Matildas.

If Wiegman chooses to restore James at Toone’s expense, she will be selecting a player capable of delivering such impactful moments, but Toone is the one who has the proven record.

After suffering the psychological blow of being sent off and then having to deal with the consequences of missing England’s next two games, can Wiegman trust James to block it all out of her mind and perform at her best against Spain?

James prompted questions about her temperament by being sent off for such a reckless flash of petulance against Nigeria, so a World Cup final, and all the pressure that comes with it, will provide a severe test of James’ ability to control her emotions — which Spain could look to exploit.

The two coaches have such thorny issues to address because James and Putellas are such outstanding players. They are both potential game-changers and match-winners. But if they are not ready or at their best, their selection could tilt the balance in favour of the other side. Wiegman and Vilda face the toughest decisions of the careers ahead of the final.

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