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Euro 2022: England find a way as stubborn Spain bow out

Matt Pearson Brighton
July 21, 2022

Hosts England looked to be exiting their own tournament, only to conjure a dramatic turnaround. It wasn't always pretty, or planned, but England's adaptability trumped Spain's strong sense of footballing identity.

Georgia Stanway scores against Spain
Georgia Stanway's strike from distance completed England's turnaroundImage: Adam Davy/PA Images/IMAGO

Lying prone on the turf as she watched her shot fly wide in extra time, Aitana Bonmati found it difficult to lift her head up.

For most of the 105 minutes before that moment, it had not been a problem. After 84 minutes where Spain passed, pressed and pacified the hosts, England found a way to deny them the win they had deserved until that point.

Soon after, they found a way to deny them a first European semifinal since 1997 and a first-ever knockout win at a major tournament. England will play Sweden or Belgium in the last four.

Spain draw first blood

For half an hour it all felt so different. A low 54th-minute strike from Esther Gonzalez, made by the intelligent probing of Bonmati and a soft shoe shuffle by Athenea del Castillo, gave Spain second-half reward for a performance that smothered England who, until this match, had breezed through the tournament.

The selection of Gonzalez, a more orthodox striker than Spain have used in Euro 2022 until now, was perhaps an admission that, for all their security on the ball, coach Jorge Vilda recognized his side needed a cutting edge. But, despite a loss to Germany and a struggle to get past Denmark in the group stage, Spain are not for changing.

In the absence of Alexia Putellas, Spain's artist, and Jennifer Hermoso, their assassin, much has rested on the shoulders of Bonmati, another member of Spain's Barcelona core.

"The demands on us are to win and play well and I'm not sure that's the case with other teams," Bonmati said before the game.

For vast swathes of this match, they were doing just that with the captain, and the driving, diligent Mariona Caldentey tracing triangles to trap England.

Esther Gonzalez celebrates scoring Spain's goal
Esther Gonzalez gave Spain a deserved lead early in the second halfImage: Dylan Martinez/REUTERS

For England, the demand before the tournament was simply to win, with style or without.

They failed to get a foothold for much of the match. Keira Walsh, usually such a classy, composed presence, was left isolated, with Georgia Stanway a little unsure of her role and Fran Kirby marshalled to the point of anonymity and substitution.

Subs make the difference

But England proved themselves a more adaptable side than Spain even before they stepped out on to the pitch in Brighton, where they'd hammered Norway 8-0 nine days earlier. They proved it again on Wednesday.

England coach Sarina Wiegman was quck to act, making three subs before 65 minutes. Two of them made the difference. As she turned home a knockdown from her best mate, and fellow substitute, Alessia Russo, Ella Toone's surname rang around the joyous, relieved stands six minutes from time. A deep cross, a knockdown and a poacher's finish; it's not the football that humbled Norway but it's the football that got the ball, and England, over the line.

In that moment the momentum slipped, as did Spain's control over the game. Suddenly things were a little wilder. The ball was bouncing, the stands were rocking, Spain were reeling.

They made it through to extra time only for Georgia Stanway to shake off that patchy first half with a sweet strike from distance that lifted the roof off the AMEX stadium. Stanway was player of the match in England's nervy opening win over Austria, doing the dirty work and keeping play ticking over. She found the right way then, and she did so again.

Mariona Caldentey of Spain and Georgia Stanway of England challenge for the ball
England struggle to contain Spain's Mariona Caldentey (left) for much of the matchImage: Paul Terry/Sportimage/IMAGO

"That just shows the level we're at," Stanway said after the match. "We get a setback and we come back and we do it." 

Spain continued to play their way for a time before getting a little more ragged, raining in crosses in the hope of scoring yet another headed goal. England centerback Millie Bright seemed to be on the end of them all.

"I thought our mentality to stay resilient and ruthless through every minute of the game was brilliant and showed what we’re about," Bright told the postmatch press conference. "We knew we’d have to find a different way of winning."

As the last five minutes arrived, Wiegman removed Walsh for the ultra-experienced Jill Scott, a move of pragmatism that also spoke to the tiredness of her holding midfielder and team in general.

That fatigue lifted as the final whistle blew and Wiegman, who just recovered from COVID-19 in time to take her place on the sidelines, hugged her players before the women in white showed a different shade of emotion to any they have before now. They know they can destroy opponents, they know they can be patient, and they now know they can find solutions when it really counts. Spain are left asking themselves whether they can learn to do the same.

Edited by Chuck Penfold.