For 45 minutes against Finland in which her finishing was singularly ineffective, Alexandra Popp looked likely to do just about everything but score. And yet it was no surprise when, in the second half, she finally did, guaranteeing Germany a perfect record in the group stage. With three goals in as many games, Popp has produced a perfect start to her first ever European Championships.
Injury kept the 31-year-old out of the 2013 and 2017 Euros, meaning England 2022 is her first chance to play at this tournament. It may well be her last, and her performances certainly suggest she knows it. She’s leapt at this opportunity with zeal.
She might be a newcomer to the Euros, but Popp is a German veteran with well over 100 caps under her belt. It’s difficult to overstate her standing in the squad, hardly necessary to point out the obvious value of her experience.
However, the fact that she's new to this tournament also has its uses; a degree of discontinuity with Germany's most recent Euros performance, the disappointment of 2017, does this side no harm at all.
This time around, she's showing her teammates, and they're showing their rivals, how tournament football is played. After their first two statement victories, Germany were afforded a chance to put their feet up against Finland. Needless to say, head coach Martina Voss-Tecklenburg and her side declined the invitation to take it easy.
Popp leads the way
Popp was the one who spearheaded Germany's attack. Her teammates only had to look up to see their captain, wearing the armband like she was carrying their flag, laying down a marker with her work rate. She cleared crosses out of the box at one end and led the attacking press at the other as her team struggled to find a way through in the first half.
It was a tactical task unlike those they had faced so far. Just as Germany themselves had done against Spain, Finland sat deep in their own half and relinquished any claims on possession, preferring to lie in wait for chances to counter.
It took Germany until the 40th minute to take the lead, Sophia Kleinherne heading in her first ever international goal. Compare that to their previous openers – 21st minute against Denmark, 3rd minute against Spain – and you get an idea how tricky Finland were to break down.
It was then Popp herself who put the game to bed just three minutes after the break with yet another headed goal, her third in three matches. It’s obvious what Austria's defenders have to do to keep her contained in Thursday's quarterfinal. Whether they manage it or not is, of course, quite another matter.
Besides the brilliance of their captain, there are plenty of other encouraging signs for Germany. One is their obvious tactical versatility; in three games, they have faced three distinct challenges, and overcome all with relative ease. Another is their defensive stability – they have yet to concede at the tournament – and then there's their strength in depth. The scorer of tonight's third, Euros debutant Nicole Anyomi, was their seventh scorer so far.
Having secured top spot in Group B before the game against Finland, Germany had avoided the danger of a quarterfinal encounter with the hosts, who have made a magisterial start at Euro 2022.
At some point, though, tournament football entails facing the best. After the untroubled dominance of their win against Denmark, the grit and efficiency they showed to get past Spain, and the industriousness of tonight's win over Finland, Germany have reached the knockouts primed for any test that may come their way.
And in Popp, they have a leader and a goalscorer desperate to make the most of what is likely one last shot at European Championship glory. The combination could well prove hard to beat.
This article was edited by Jonathan Harding