The Slovakian Football Association's National Training Centre in Senec provided the setting for what turned out to be the longest final in UEFA youth tournament history, and that is without any need for extra-time or penalties.
There was little sign of the plot which would unravel when the two teams made the short five-minute shuttle from the nearby Hotel Senec to the stadium, greeted by some of the warmest temperatures the fortnight in Slovakia had seen and a penetrating sunshine which raised the issue of whether water breaks may well be needed. It cannot be said that the over 1,000 fans, 22 players and two coaches did not witness that water break, albeit one of a different kind.
Keeping religiously in the shade to avoid the burning rays during the warm-up, both sides emerged from the dressing room for the 19:00 kick-off with the first gusts of wind greeting them. France coach Gilles Eyquem appeared finally to have settled for his first-choice 1-4-4-2 formation – the same as in the second half against the Swiss – while his Spanish counterpart Pedro López had long since seen and assured himself of the merits of the 1-4-3-3 approach he hoped would earn Spain their first WU19 title since 2004, and ensure it would be third time lucky after two straight final defeats. He was the man who guided the WU17s to glory in the 2015 final after all, with Amaia Peña, Patri Guijarro, Carmen Menayo, Maite Oroz and Lucía García all tasting success with him in Iceland.
Beyond the numbers, though, it was deeper tactical astuteness which divided the two finalists. "I didn't expect so much tactics from France," admitted UEFA technical observer Patricia González. "
They knew how to wait for Spain in their own half and then counterattack and use their strengths. From a coach's point of view, the French used their strengths very well; Spain couldn't play the positional game they play normally because France's tactical approach was too good."
Tactical organisation prevailed with the French showing they had clearly done their homework. Spain nevertheless carved out the first opportunity with Aitana Bonmati's sweet left-foot volley tipped onto the crossbar by Mylène Chavas and, just a minute before France took the lead, it could easily have been Spain celebrating instead. Bonmati's diagonal pass was inviting for Andrea Sánchez Falcón, but she slipped at the decisive moment on a pitch which was beginning to turn slick under the first showers. France captain Théa Greboval – France's reference down the left in both a defensive and attacking shape – kept her composure, on the other hand, when Maite Oroz squandered possession under pressure, and her through ball was an invitation for Grace Geyoro to slot in her second in Slovakia.
English assistant referee Lisa Rashid felt more than just the breath of López over her shoulder as Spain's coach screamed out commands, but the tactical battle in the opening 45 minutes, and indeed the scoreline, had both been won by France.
"How they chose to nullify Spain's threat was quite admirable," said UEFA technical observer Jarmo Matikainen. "
After 15-20 minutes, all of the key attacking action was done by France. They had variations in their tactical approach, and they had the best players on the field at the right time."
As the sky rumbled and the heavens opened, the half-time whistle was a welcome shrill for both teams as they sought protection and some dry attire in the dressing rooms. There they remained for two hours and 16 minutes as teams of shovel-clad volunteers sought to clear the standing water from the field, and the local fire department lent a hand as the pitch was prepared for a late-evening epilogue rather than a reconvening at a later date.
With plenty of puddles still visible, and the rain unrelenting, the game transformed. "Spain are not such a physical team," recognised Matikainen. In such conditions, it was indeed these physical qualities which were called upon more than Spain's inherent passing game. "In a more physical game, France are stronger," agreed UEFA technical observer Patricia González. "They have physical superiority, are very powerful, strong and fast and they managed very well."
Like in the first half, though, it was Spain who squandered the first opportunity. Nahikari García's heel was clipped by Estelle Cascarino and referee Eszter Urban had no hesitation in pointing to the penalty spot. Nahikari stepped up to the mark, but her placed effort was pushed onto the post by Chavas, who pounced protectively on the loose ball. For Nahikari, who overtook Isabel Kerschowski's record of 14 WU19 finals appearances and was in her fourth UEFA youth tournament final all told, it was only the first episode of a heart-breaking evening.
With areas of the field still sodden, a defensive mix-up between Spain goalkeeper Peña and Cazalla proved costly. Katoto got a telling first touch to emerge from a fountainous splash of water with the ball at her feet and an open goal at her mercy. With five goals already to her name, an immediate acceptance could be taken for granted for such an invitation. The top-scorer moved onto six and Spain were left swimming.
"The weather and pitch condition had a big impact on the game, but it's the same for both teams," noted Matikainen as Spain tried to level the playing field with their impressive substitute Lucía García muscling through to give them hope with five minutes to spare. France missed the chance to turn the screw moments later when Peña stood up to Delphine Cascarino, making a crucial block with her trailing leg.
There was another let-off for Spain when Sandra Hernández smashed Morroni's low cross onto the underside of her own crossbar. The stadium felt this enduring and enticing final was reserving one final twist, though, and it almost came in the second of the allocated three additional minutes. Hernández's low drive from outside the penalty area skid across the slick surface and was spilled out of Chavas' grasp with Nahikari showing all her game-reading intelligence and predatory instincts by following up. Hernández and half of the Spain team were already leaping to celebrate when the luckless number seven contrived to slice the ball – and plenty of water – over the gaping goal. Disconsolate, the 19-year-old collapsed to the ground, the dreams of a first final victory after four painful defeats evaporating into the humid air.
Fatigued by the four-hour final, referee Urban managed one last puff to signal the end of the contest and sanction an all-too familiar conclusion for a side now beaten an unrivalled five times in the WU19 showpiece, comprising the last three. France marked a record eighth final with a joint-record fourth victory. Suddenly and fittingly, there were more tears than there was rain.
"It hasn't really sunk in yet," were Geyoro's appropriate first words. "It's like a dream. But it isn't – we are ecstatic."
While Spain will take plenty of worthy acclaim for their consistent performances in Slovakia, it was a French crescendo peaking punctually which González noted as the key. "As a team, France were improving all the time," she said. "They were finding their way – finding their strengths as the tournament progressed, and in the final they had found their best." It was immaculate timing from France, if perhaps not from the weather.