BRENTFORD, England -- After a frustrating 89 minutes in North London with a spot in the Euro 2022 knockout stage on the line, Spain emerged victorious thanks to Marta Cardona's last-gasp header and sent Denmark home early.
What a difference five years make. At the 2017 Euros, Spain had flamed out early, unable to penetrate Austria's defence after 120 minutes of quarterfinal football while, conversely, Denmark had surpassed all expectations and made the final. Fast forward and, coming into Euro 2022, Denmark were expected to be the bubble team in Group B -- the tournament's group of death -- with Spain hotly picked to go all the way in England.
Germany, of course, had other ideas. First the Germans dispatched Denmark in Brentford in the opener of Group B before returning to the same ground to outclass Spain, leaving the battle for group runner-up to be decided at the same stadium both had been defeated in. Just as there had been little joy for either nation so far in Brentford, so it continued with neither able to even scare up some luck.
"We knew this was the group of death," Denmark manager Lars Søndergaard said afterward. "Unfortunately, we were the ones who died."
Usually expected to sit off and let Spain have the ball, Denmark had other ideas during the first half with a win necessary to progress, and they routinely sent the ball long for captain Pernille Harder. Although the enigmatic attacker managed to create a handful of good chances, the Danish misery in Brentford continued with her teammates incapable of challenging Sandra Paños in the Spain goal.
Spain, only needing a draw to reach the knockout rounds, looked rattled, unhappy with Harder's lung-busting runs and the frustrating defensive work of the Danish side. Even with Spanish manager Jorge Vilda having opted to shuffle the deck for the decider, fielding a more attacking and individual team, there was no early breakthrough for the pre-tournament favourites.
When Athenea del Castillo went down in the box under challenge, the 17,250 capacity stadium erupted with fury -- even if replays showed the defender got the ball -- and the partisan crowd only grew more frustrated as the match went on. The crowd mirrored Spain, who chased the opening goal as if they needed it to stay alive in the tournament. Only growing more frustrated, the first card of the night delivered to Leila Ouahabi for kicking the ball away in annoyance.
On the sidelines, Vilda threw his arms open, wildly gesticulating to his team to get forward, the demonstrative picture he painted a stark contrast to Søndergaard, the manager occupying the opposite technical area. The Dane more restrained in his dugout, his gestures smaller, urging his team to stay compact and softly applauding their better defensive efforts.
Desperately looking for a winner, Vilda went to his bench at half-time, trying to add even more attacking incision into his team, the manager having been criticised for his lack of substitutes in the loss against Germany. The changes, coupled with normal tournament fatigue, forced Denmark to sit deeper and give Spain more freedom in their half, the Danes only struggling with the Spanish use of width more and more.
There had been a sense during the first half -- after Denmark had spurned a flurry of good chances to take the lead -- that they'd leave Brentford empty-handed, unable to crawl out of the group of death. It inspired Spain into their best attacking spell before the break and only continued after the restart, with Denmark able to relieve the press less frequently and the long balls sent over the top fewer and far between.
Of course, the way the match had been played, with La Roja desperate for a goal, wasn't indicative of the group standings and Søndergaard had no choice but to bring on attacking reinforcements. His substitutions very nearly paid off when Nadia Nadim combined with Harder, her stretched shot forcing a rare save from Paños.
The tension in London ramped up another level, Danish fans found their voice as their Spanish counterparts hooted and whistled for more from referee, Rebecca Welch. England sat waiting in the next round for one of the two teams, neither of who had been able to find a goal in 179 minutes of football in Brentford. The largest cheer of the night, heard after Stine Larsen had been shown a yellow card, was almost instantly dwarfed when half-time substitute Marta Cardona was left free in the box to nod Olga Carmona's cross into Lene Christensen's net.
"It's a thing that I think we have to improve -- I think we have a lot of the ball but we have to score more goals," Spain's Aitana Bonmati said afterward. "We know that and we are going to improve that for the next game because I think it's going to be more tough that this."
It was decided just before stoppage time was announced, it was to be Spain, dubbed as favourites before Barcelona had even walked off of the pitch in the 2020-21 Champions League final, who would be facing England in Brighton. It was to be the team who, despite their quality, had wheezed and struggled for two matches in London. A team who, when not playing the lowest-ranked side in the group, Finland, had failed to harness the sheer attacking prowess in the team.
It was Spain, who, when asked simple questions had so routinely failed to find a suitable answer. The would-be champions were stuck doing what they so infrequently had at major tournaments and finally found a solution. The goal was a huge relief of pressure for the team as much as the fans, even if a scoreless draw would have been enough for La Roja to advance.
"It's motivating. I'm not scared," Bonmati said of facing England -- so far, the best team in the tournament -- in the quarterfinal round. "I think my teammates aren't scared either, we're motivated. ... We were talking about, if we pass to the quarterfinal, we are going to play against England, it's motivating. We played against them in the ACC [Arnold Clark Cup], we know that they are a good team, they are doing many good performances, we have seen their three games in the group and they did it very well, but we think we can beat them. But we have to improve our style and be better than today."
There is no better time for the team to kick on, to build on their result that had been born of sheer grit and a style of football Vilda had been so reticent to harness, the team only improving with the more diversity he brought on rather than just leaning on Barcelona players to make the difference.
Yet the challenges will be coming thick and fast for Spain, who will now face hosts England, a nation who've been having things all their own way this summer and who will be spurred on by a strong crowd on the South coast, in the same stadium they made Euros history with their 8-0 win over Norway.
Questions linger for Spain -- not just about whether or not they can finally win a knockout game of a major tournament, but if the coach will finally accept the need for the team to play in a different way that allows the attack-minded players from Real Madrid and Real Sociedad to thrive. Either way, England awaits.