England and Brazil meet in the first-ever Women’s Finalissima, a one-off game pitting the reigning champions of Europe against South America’s reigning champions. The two sides will do battle in front of a sold-out Wembley Stadium.
Here are the major storylines swirling around each side ahead of the clash.
England head into the first ever Finalissima in comfortable form having smoothly negotiated an Arnold Clark Cup victory in the previous international break against a selection of teams ranked 16th-19th in the world. This match against Brazil will be a sterner challenge though, with Pia Sundhange’s side set to be the highest-ranked team England have faced since they beat the USA in their last match at Wembley.
With only a handful of matches to go before the Lionesses head to Australia for the World Cup, this is not just a showpiece match for England. It will represent one of the few opportunities that manager Sarina Wiegman still has to settle on her starting XI and squad.
A Not-So-Bright Future
The biggest potential challenge to England’s unbeaten run under Wiegman will be the absence of Millie Bright. Bright has featured in 27 of 29 games since the Dutch coach took charge and, despite not always getting the same recognition as some of her peers, has been the lynchpin for this side.
Yet a knee injury sustained in the first leg of Chelsea’s Champions League quarter-final against Lyon has left her ruled for an indeterminate amount of time, leaving England fans nervously checking their calendars as the World Cup looms large. In the short term, Wiegman will be forced to reshuffle her defence against a Brazilian team that boasts the attacking talents of Debinha and Geyse Ferreira.
Bright’s aggressive defensive approach makes it hard to see an exact replacement for her. Wiegman could partner Leah Williamson and Alex Greenwood, but Greenwood has been preferred at left-back recently, and that combination would change the make-up of the defence considerably. Jess Carter has predominantly played at full-back for Chelsea this season but has shown herself proficient at playing anywhere across the back line.
Of the players called up to the England squad, only Lucy Parker has made more tackles and interceptions per 90 in the WSL this season than Carter. With Parker having never been capped before, Carter would be a logical stylistic replacement for Bright.
The sense that Carter has developed a cool head on the pitch will only have been reinforced by her scoring Chelsea’s winning penalty against Lyon in the UWCL quarter-final.
Who Starts Up Top?
The most immediate question Sarina Wiegman faced following the Euros was how she would replace Ellen White. England’s all-time top scorer announced her retirement in August having started every game on the way to winning the Euros. Obvious bets would suggest that Alessia Russo becomes Wiegman’s first choice, but the season Rachel Daly has had with Aston Villa will give her pause for thought.
Daly is currently second in the WSL scoring charts with 13 strikes, and she is averaging a non-penalty xG of 0.42 per 90. Russo, meanwhile, is on eight and averaging a non-penalty xG of 0.40 per 90. There’s really not much between them in the underlying numbers. Russo is just slightly ahead on shots and shots on target per 90: 4.03 and 1.78 to Daly’s 3.47 and 1.25.
Clearly Wiegman feels happy that she has enough cover to potentially just take two out-and-out strikers to the World Cup. She used left-winger Lauren Hemp in the number 9 role against the USA to decent effect whilst Lauren James has also been mooted as an option up front if required.
Whoever starts at Wembley on Thursday will be going up against one of the most in-form defenders in the world in Rafaelle Souza. The Arsenal centre-back has been a key part of the Gunners’ exceptional recent run of form and will be a worthy opponent for whoever gets the nod out of Russo and Daly.
Wiegman has consistently offered opportunities to players from outside the England set-up. Seven players have made their debuts under her, with a cap surely in line for Lucy Parker whilst players like Laura Coombs have been brought back into the fold. Yet she is notoriously regimented when it comes to who actually plays, starting the same eleven players for every game in England’s run to the Euros win.
Of the 25 players in the squad for the Finalissima, only 13 or so feel nailed on right now to be on the plane to the World Cup. Players like Katie Robinson and Jess Park (who have 21 and 20 chance-creating carries respectively in the WSL this season) will be looking to show they deserve to make their first-ever tournament squads. Equally Niamh Charles who was cut from the Euros squad at the final hurdle last year will be hoping to prove that her defensive acumen has improved – her 25 tackles won (seventh overall) is an interesting data point in opposition to the eye test that she still struggles defensively.
“What is this team really capable of?” is a question that goes around Brazil all the time when it comes to global competitions. Brazil are an absolute powerhouse on the continental stage – winning eight of the nine editions of the Copa América Femenina – but it is these kind of matches that have been a step too far for Brazil, who always looks on the verge of great things but never quite get there.
However, things are changing within the CBF structure. A combination of the arrival of Pia Sundhage as head coach, the strengthening of Brazil’s domestic league and the increased professionalism that goes into the development and nurturing of talent, this might be the most stable and solid Brazil squad we’ve seen for a while. It boasts a great mixture of experience and youth, even with Marta out for the Finalissima.
A New Way to Win
One of the main things that ex-Sweden and USA coach Sundhage has instilled since she took over in Brazil is a sense of pragmatism.
For years the team has embodied the true DNA of Brazilian football, with flair and expansive play, but that came at the cost of managing matches. There were criticisms that the team were lacking mental resilience.
But now – despite an underwhelming She Believes Cup last February – Brazil have become a more stable team, securing recent results that seemed improbable a few years ago: the win against Norway 4-1 in October along with the draws against Netherlands and Spain earlier this year. These are all examples that Sundhage is moulding this team, allowing them space to express that Brazilian “jogo bonito” but always underlined with a clear objective: get the result. In fact, if the Verde Amarela can snatch the win in Wembley, they will record three consecutive wins against UEFA opposition for the first time since 2016, when they beat Italy (twice) and Russia.
As you might expect though, this more pragmatic approach has been met with some criticism in Brazil. Detractors have labelled this team as “boring” and playing in a style that goes away from the roots of the team. Their 2022 Copa América win, in particular, felt like Brazil were constantly in cruise control, getting the results they wanted but without dazzling.
Bia Zaneratto To Step Up?
As mentioned, Marta won’t be available for selection as she continues her rehab after suffering an ACL injury back in March 2022. Neither will Debinha. With those two absent, Brazil will be shorn of a combined 173 international goals.
However, Sundhage has other options, notably Bia Zaneratto.
Bia scored three goals in the 2022 Copa América, and six more when Brazil also won four years earlier. She doesn’t only provide goals though, with her 31 open-play attacking sequence involvements at Copa America 2022 the most of any Brazil player. That shows how integral she is not only in the finishing of moves but in the build-up of them too.
Tamires The Cornerstone
If there’s anything more Brazilian than flair and confidence on the ball, then it’s a marauding, attacking full-back. Granted, the men’s team have lacked one of those for a while, but in Tamires the women’s side has one of the most attacking full-backs on the continent.
The 35-year-old from Corinthians, who boasts three Copa Américas, two Copa Libertadores, four Brasileiraos, three Paulistaos and two titles in the Danish First Division, is one of the most decorated players in Brazil.
She is a vastly experienced and consistent performer for her national team. Since Sundhage’s arrival, she’s played 41 games for La Canarinha and has played more minutes (3077) than anyone else. She has created 42 chances over that time, putting her third in that regard, and delivered five assists. She’s whipped in 129 crosses from open play – four times more than any other player – and her attacking stats show her importance to the build-up of the team.
But it’s not only in attack that Tamires proves her worth. Since Sundhage’s appointment, she averages 2.9 tackles per game (fourth highest), 1.1 clearances (fourth highest), 2.0 interceptions (second highest) and 5.9 recoveries (second highest) amongst players in Brazil who have played 20 or more games.
Averaging 31 carries per game and 6.7 passes into the attacking third, Tamires has shown time and time again to be one of the most dependent performers for Brazil.
Trial by Fire
With Brazil’s first-choice goalkeeper Lorena out with injury, and in a race against the clock to be available for the World Cup, the position in between the sticks is up in the air. Camila (Santos), Leticia (Corinthians) and Luciana (Ferroviaria) have been called up but only the latter has seen minutes since Sundhage’s appointment, and only 90 minutes at that in a 4-0 win against Mexico in 2019.
Elsewhere, Luana Bertocelli (Corinthians) and Andressa Alves (Roma’s second-highest goalscorer in Serie A) have returned after long absences and some young talent – like Ferroviaria’s youngster Aline Gomes – will vie for the last remaining spots as we approach the World Cup.
And that’s perhaps the even bigger story at play. Not only are these two sides in competition for a trophy, something that in Brazil’s case would show they’re worthy contenders at the top of the sport, but these players are all playing for crucial squad spots ahead of Australia & New Zealand 2023.