Spain break Germany hearts but dramatic Euro 2024 win may come at great cost

Spain break Germany hearts but dramatic Euro 2024 win may come at great cost

There’s no second summer fairytale for Germany, as it’s instead Spain who have the happy ending. For now. Mikel Merino ensured they rose above it all, with a brilliant header in the 119th minute. The big question as to whether they go and actually win Euro 2024 is what the cost of this 2-1 victory over the hosts will be. Toni Kroos didn’t get his grand farewell, either, as he instead contributed to a match that often turned ugly.

That meant that it didn’t quite become the game of the tournament in the manner anticipated but it was thoroughly absorbing, right until the death. And that was very, very late. It is easy to see why games like this can prevent teams from becoming champions, because of the gruelling physical and psychological cost. Spain now have Alvaro Morata and the red-carded Dani Carvajal suspended for the semi-final, with Pedri looking like he might be out injured – maybe for the summer. He was the victim of an abrasive challenge from Kroos in the opening minute that very much set a tone.

Through that, Spain displayed another quality in a European Championships when they have already shown so many. They were the picture of perseverance. That wasn’t just because of what a gallant German team put them through but what they put themselves through.

There were so many inexplicable decisions in the final stages once they were 1-0 ahead, so many of them from manager Luis De La Fuente. His substitutions of Yamine Lamal and Nico Williams seemed destined to be those kind of fateful moments that will be looked back on and shape the narrative. Germany even had their own foreshadowing, from the famous 2006 World Cup quarter-final when they came from behind and beat Argentina on penalties as Lionel Messi was left on the bench.

This seemed set to go the same way. Merino, in rising for perhaps the header of the tournament, sent it another way.

It was instead that bit too soon for the hosts. It was certainly too soon to play Spain. This was the price of finishing first in the group. They did show promise and perseverance, not least in Florian Wirtz’s 89th-minute equaliser. Spain, it seemed, could go longer. They forced their way through. They had the fight.

Mikel Merino’s late header won it for Spain (PA Wire)

So much of the game was conditioned by the opening minute. Knowing they couldn’t quite match Spain on purely football terms, Germany initially attempted to outdo them on physicality. While Kroos obviously didn’t intend to injure Pedri, it looked like one of those where you leave a mark. He did more than that, putting the midfielder out of the game. When there was another stamp from Kroos moments later, Spanish manager De La Fuente leapt up to remonstrate. It was remarkable there had been no yellow card, a decision that looked all the more staggering when lesser later challenges did bring bookings. There was nothing lesser about Antonio Rudiger’s intention. When Pedri’s replacement Olmo was put through, he was poleaxed by the Real Madrid man.

Referee Anthony Taylor’s early decisions had framed the entire game almost as much as the injury.

Spain were temporarily cowed and lost some control. Perhaps that is no surprise when they lost one of their two best midfield ball-players.

Nico Williams always looked willing to take the fight to the Germans in the right way, though. Even in the early spell when Germany were imposing themselves, the Basque winger was making them think twice by constantly stretching their right side. It proved such a problem for Julian Nagelsmann that he eventually had to bring Robert Andrich in, having surprisingly not started him, but Spain kept working it down the flanks and creating the better chances.

Florian Wirtz’s dramatic equaliser sent the match to extra-time (EPA)

Germany were at that point finding it difficult to plug all the holes. When they finally squeezed space out wide, Spain slipped it through the centre. For one of those, Alvaro Morata did brilliantly to turn Rudiger, only to wedge his shot well over the bar from yards out.

Spain again complained of contact. Germany were otherwise struggling to get close to them. Minutes later, Lamal surged down the flank again, with David Raum almost cowed by his pace. The space was left, and the ball was let through. Running on, Olmo elegantly guided it into the corner.

Germany had no option but to step up, and it was like we finally had the football match that had been anticipated. A proper back-and-forth developed. Kroos was probing rather than fouling. Niclas Fullkrug was of course brought on to wild cheers. He soon hit the post, as Germany had a more pointed attack.

Spain had to show more speed in defence. When Havertz looked to finally size up a shot, Carvajal was straight across to block.

Nagelsmann ultimately went for the trump card, as well as the populist move. Thomas Muller was brought on, in the hope this might finally be the moment. Despite all of his goals for the national team, and especially in the World Cup, he had never scored in the European Championships.

Germany were left heartbroken at the end (Reuters)

Germany needed any goal. They were aided by those strange Spanish decisions, both in attacking moves, and in more substitutions. There was punishment. There was also real nerve. An unfulfilling 1-0 defeat without that grand push was no way for Germany to go out. There was at least one final show.

On 89 minutes, Kroos stood over a free-kick that first had to be called back. He still put it exactly where he wanted, but, as the ball bounced around, someone still had to step up. Kimmich did more than that. He leapt like a prime Cristiano Ronaldo to jump above Marc Cucurella and head the ball back. There was Wirtz to fire in off the post.

Germany lived. The game went to the death. Both sides had extra-time efforts whistle past the posts. Spain were maybe fortunate when referee Taylor adjudged a Cucurella handball from a Jamal Musiala shot to have been from when his arms were by his side. Germany might look back on that. They may also look at how much they retreated. As the game ticked towards penalties, Spain were still going. Germany were struggling.

Rudiger could barely jump as the excellent Olmo delivered another supreme cross. Merino outdid even Kimmich to offer an even better header.

The hosts go out. The team of the tournament so far stay on their feet, having gone the distance. There’s still that bit more to come.