There’s something so much more serious about a tournament when they cut straight from the group stages to the quarter-finals.
Whether it’s the fact that once a side qualifies from the group they’re only two games from a final, or that eight is a quantifiable number in terms of the elite at a given time — it’s got the feel of all or nothing, now or never, win at all costs — business time.
We’re about to half the field again as we dwindle the field to the finest four.
ENGLAND vs. SPAIN
The hosts versus the favourites.
The fact that England are the hosts is undisputed, but the fact that Spain were favourites is probably reserved for pre-tournament. Though they showed their might against Finland, they were put over the knee of the Germans and then struggled tactically against a lacklustre Danish side. On the flipside, England have recovered from a nervy opener against Austria to dominate their way through Norway and Northern Ireland.
By the nature of the quarter-finals though, one bad day can see you on your ear, and while these two sides find bad days few and far between, good days can be just as detrimental, for the opponent of course.
The two behemoths clashed in what immediately felt like a titanic encounter. There was the beating around the bush that you get when two biggies collide, but that seemed done away with early on as they locked horns and began cancelling each other out. Spain held the ball up in an attempt to break through the English backline, but Bright and Williamson limited them to long-distance shots, a rarity in Spain’s game — and they didn’t come off here either. When England got the ball, they drove at Spain, but a united defence blocked them off and Aitana Bonmatí played the role of a brilliantly vital link, springing Spain out of jail and right back in control of the game. Minus one offside goal, these two bulls were locked in a stalemate.
But as various things shuffled around for the second half, gaps began to reveal themselves, and it took only one being exploited, as always seems to be the way. A marauding run from substitute Athenea del Castillo teed up Esther González to slide home and put the hosts on the backfoot.
England had to remain composed.
And they did.
They continued to come forward, and carved out chances every time they did, with Spain standing up to see them off, but clearly wilting under the pressure as any team would. Then the wilting told. A ball in, a knock down, and a finish. Ella Toone equalises with six minutes to go — the depth of the hosts paying off once more. Extra time to play, and the pressure wasn’t done there. England were in the ascendency and Spain couldn’t deal with it. It became clear to all that Spain needed to see this game out and play for penalties because they were not coping with the England onslaught.
We talked about one bad day being all that was needed to lose your footing on this ascent to the trophy, but that can be boiled down to one half, one sequence, or even one moment.
Spain’s bad moment saw them stand off Georgia Stanway. They gave her space to unleash a belter that nestled in the back of the net and give England the lead for the first time in the game.
And that’s all they would need.
It was the aforementioned depth that told, and Spain risking secure footing for a goal. Their changes in personnel and formation may have seen them take the lead, but it made them more susceptible to England’s raids forward. For a clear shot, they risked their footing, and they fell through the ice.
England 2–1 Spain
The hosts are the first semi-finalists, the first quarter in place. They know they’ll have one of the dark horses to play for a spot in the Wembley showcase, and though they’d got all the momentum as the hosts who’ve beaten the favourites, they’ll know that it only takes one bad day, one bad sequence, or one bad moment to be toppled out of the tournament.
GERMANY vs. AUSTRIA
A load of folk had Austria down as some kind of massive underdog here. When you look at their opponents, sure, you can see why they might think that, but I reckon it’s actually just some leftovers of the men’s game, where there’s a larger gulf between the two nations.
In this game however, no such gulf appeared. There was a difference, and it was clear, but any kind of textbook victory was to be found in the fiction section.
The first competitive fixture between these two sides was a complicated one to traverse. Austria were defensive giants, but Germany were no slouches either in that department either. Austria went forward when they saw the opportunity, Germany went forward like it was going out of fashion. On the surface, this was to be a lot of soaking up for the Austrians, waiting to counter on their shared-language enemy.
But as is always the way when you fight your sibling, you know their moves, you know what they’re gonna pull, and so, you have to pull something fresh out the bag. This is what Austria did, surprising their sister with a focused early campaign upon their goal — to no avail, however. Germany needed to ‘simply’ weather the storm and get back to their tournament-spanning gameplan of ‘score goals against our opponents’. This is where Austria began to help the Germans. As much as they were pushing up and forcing the Germans to commit back, they invited them forward far too often with lacklustre clearances and indecisive back-line interchange. Prior to the match, Rachel Brown-Finnis referred to the Germans as ‘imperious’ and it immediately struck me as the absolute correct word to describe them. They dominate, not just their area, but the pitch, as if they have an agent on every station holding down the fort — which is how football works when it’s played well — eleven players each doing a job. This became apparent when Austria’s bread and butter, their defensive shape, was neutralised. It’d be getting towards double-figures that they were caught in possession or chased towards their own net unsafely from their own restart due to the German press, and twice they would be caught out — the first, a failure to reorganise after a rash clearance, the second, a clearance chased down. Austria stuck to their guns even though they were jammed, and it blew up in their face.
Now that might make it sound like Austria should have been considered the underdogs, and to some degree at least, they should have been, but they frustrated the Germans often here, something that none of their group opponents, including Spain, managed to do. It was as if they squeezed them into errors or openings, but when clearings appeared, they plainly failed to capitalise. This is where they would skew wide, or fire straight at Frohms, but then there were occasions where the footballing gods just weren’t on their side. Like that time they hit the woodwork — four times.
When it isn’t your day, the woodwork chimes at least three times, and it really wasn’t Austria’s day. They went in with a gameplan that could’ve, and maybe should’ve, worked against the domineering Deutsch, but in the end, it reaped nichts.
Germany 2–0 Austria
From this point, anyone who gets through can be considered a favourite in one way or another, but Germany have come through with such potency and character that they are one of those special forces to be reckoned with. At some point in this tournament, an unstoppable force will meet an immovable object, and Germany are certainly on track to be one of those, with eleven goals scored, zero conceded, and post-game heat-maps that give more coverage than a big top, with none of the clowning.
SWEDEN vs. BELGIUM
In the stable of Black Beauty for this battle of the dark horses. Belgium hold the mantle due to their lower ranking and the fact that they were the closest of the eight not to make it to this stage. Sweden hold it because of a conservative style that doesn’t inspire thrashings in the traditional sense, but can absolutely do an opponent in mentally. The latter went in as favourites, and they’ve purred throughout the tournament, anticipating the right time to pounce.
This was taught, certainly in the first half. But that’s just how Sweden play. They held the ball hostage in any area Belgium might want it as they won near every ball coming through, and for those they missed, they defended the resulting cross, shot, or corner as if they were always meant to and always going to. De Caigny and Wullaert couldn’t get any purchase on the ball, and Sweden were happy for the rest of the Belgians to attempt to afford them some. Those in blue and gold struck when the time was right, but on the one occasion they had a clear shot, VAR extinguished the flame. Any other chance the Swedes carved out was seen to by Nicky Evrard, a ‘keeper having a pretty exquisite tournament thus far looking to extend her nation’s.
Overall, Sweden were playing effortlessly. Moments when they did light a spark were obvious due to the disparity of how they were sitting prior — at the back, they were comfortable and accomplished, but going forward, urgency was increasingly urgently required before the bright-eyed Belgians deciphered their defence.
The second-half went on as the first had though. The Swedes had stepped it up a gear, but they still weren’t firing on all pistons despite firing one off the crossbar early doors. Creatively, they were easily stifled by the Belgians. But there was just a feeling — a feeling that no matter how uninspired they might have seemed at times, no matter how much their supporters in attendance quietened and waned, that they were going to pull this one out, not by eventually grinding down the Belgians, but just by taking one of their 30+ opportunities. Belgium weren’t producing anything of note, a snapshot from one helluvan angle surprising Lindahl as it flew into the side netting being a memorable exception, and Sweden weren’t so much pressing as they were… Repeating. To many, the definition of insanity, to Sweden, a football game.
And so it would transpire. We doubt them time and again when they pull out a performance like this, but as they purr along, they always seem to know when to pounce, and scratch, and score. Less than sixty seconds from extra time, and an uncleared corner rebounded off another Evrard save straight to the feet of veteran defender Linda Sembrandt, and she couldn’t miss. This cat has a flair for the dramatic, and a taste for the semi-finals.
Sweden 1–0 Belgium
You do not want to play this Sweden side. They’re not flashy, but they will grind you down through sheer repetition — it’s the closest thing we’ve got to machinery in these championships so far. And Belgium were caught in the mechanism. They weren’t allowed to operate freely, and their spirit was crushed by the blue and gold bionics. With the first semi-final of England vs. Sweden set, the hosts could be juiced of their joie de vivre right in their living room — or will they be able to cast off the shackles imposed by the förman and make it to the Wembley showpiece?
FRANCE vs. NETHERLANDS
Hailed as the clash of the quarters and the tourney having saved the best for last, England and Spain must have felt pushed to the side. The defending champions in a greater state of disarray then they’ve ever seen (not that much of one) versus the giants of the game who have never advanced beyond this stage, reaching the final eight and no further three times in seven appearances. Either the curse would continue, or we were guaranteed fresh hands on the trophy come tournament’s end.
Tumultuous dressing room turmoil was referenced for both sides before the game — with both sides’ issues stemming from the manager. France’s Diacre had pulled rank to apparently irk a lot of big names, and Netherland’s players had publicly spoken out against Mark Parsons regarding selections and formations. It’s rarely nice to see, but it gave the game an opportunistic backdrop — can one take advantage of the other’s supposed drama to ship them out?
It did not have to come down to that in the end. At least, not directly. Throughout the tournament, the only issue for the French has been not taking their chances, but they’ve made so many that they’ve made sure that doesn’t matter. Famously a tactic that comes back to bite all who subscribe, but I’m sure they’ll cross that bridge when they get to it. Netherland’s issues have largely been at the other end, though makeshift attacks plastered over cracks in the group stage — despite Daphne van Domselaar stepping up to steady the good ship Oranje, she’ll have been called upon one or two or six too many times from the Dutch perspective. They kept no group stage clean sheet, but perhaps they could take solace in the fact that their quarter-finals opponent hadn’t either… This game could be a high-scoring affair…
0–0 after ninety minutes. Because of course it was.
It wasn’t for lack of trying, naturally, largely from Les Bleus. From a game total of 42 shots on goal, France were responsible for 33 of them. And from a game total of 14 shots on target, France made up 13 of those. They dominated the late midfield. Wendie Renard and Griedge Mbock got involved when they needed to and handily repelled any Dutch foray, but by and large, those in orange failed to penetrate the likes of Toletti and Geyoro with either pass or run. Those in blue would gobble it up and launch it like a pinball to spark an attack, or calmly carry it forward, assessing their options as if they had all the time in the world before (usually) drawing a sharp intake of breath from the Dutch supporters in attendance. Die Oranje defended doggedly, swiping away what they could, with van Domselaar naturally shining inbetween the sticks. On the few occasions they did manage an attack, the wings were their friend, but they could never burst into flight. With the returning Miedema crowded out in the middle, the pace of Pelova and Beerensteyn (and eventually Esmee Brugts) presented chances that would go unfulfilled. Decision-making was off, dithering was the order of the day, and Dutch doom looked in the deck for every consequential counter.
They survived by the skin of their teeth to carry them to extra time and they’ll have counted themselves lucky, I’m sure. But although the French were dominating, no reward… Were they unlucky? Was their tactic about to bite back now?
In a bit of a crudgely and miserly thirty minutes, the game would be decided in the worst way for many a neutral, a sole penalty. Dominique Janssen fouled Diani, and after the ref watched a bit of tele, the spot-kick was awarded, and Ève Périsset narrowly beat the bright van Domselaar to give France the lead, and the game. The Dutch couldn’t muster much after that, with anything they attempted to sprout normally resulting in a French attempt, going along with the story of the match. They’d blocked off the line, had their ‘keeper bail them out, clobbered away what they could, but at the end of the day, penalties would have been what they needed, just not the one they handed Ève Périsset to ultimately end the campaign to defend their trophy.
France 1–0 Netherlands
Despite their battering of Italy, and achieving their first clean sheet here, many could look at France as the weakest side of the final four. Be it due to the alleged turmoil or the fact that this is uncharted waters for them (all of Germany, England, and Sweden have been to a final, with the former and latter having won the thing), they could be seen that way. But that just makes them an outlier, an anomaly — and you never want to deal with an anomaly. It’s hard for many to understand, to grasp why France have never made it beyond the final eight — and you always fear what you don’t understand. Now they are here, they’re gonna make the most of their time; not edging their way up Everest, but achieving the summit, sick of the sight of base camp.
The elite four of Europe have been selected. Nothing that happens now will be an upset. People will be upset, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have seen it coming.
The semi-finals are:-
- England vs. Sweden
- Germany vs. France
The four group winners making up the final four, all with their own unique brand of dominance and fire.
We say danke and adios to the Black Beauty of Belgium, the teeter-tottering Netherlands, the gallant Spain, and the erudite Austria. You made the tournament what it is, and your role will not be unappreciated come the conclusion.
But the conclusion is what we always look to. Four nations are one step away from the showcase — but who put on the finest spectacle to gain one step further? Despite the promise that the clashes promised, one stood head and shoulders above the others in terms of dramatic timing, and that was the first of our quarter-finals, England vs. Spain. A home nation going wild as they witness a comeback can be a galvanising moment for a tournament, and for an entire sport.
Titanic tussles await. Wild waters require brave boats — who can stand and pull Poseidon from the depths, bellowing from the blue that they will claim the god’s gold?
Keep it streets ahead,