England suffered on Spain’s famous passing carousel before clearing their heads to reach the Euro 2022 semi-final on a thunderous night at Brighton that contained all the classic ingredients of tournament football.
No-one could make a convincing case that Sarina Wiegman’s England’s style of play was more artistic or demonstrated more composure on the ball than Spain – but they came out on top when measured in the only currency that matters with a 2-1 win that means they now face Sweden or Belgium at Bramall Lane on Tuesday.
England’s victory had suffering, jeopardy, character, guts, a comeback via a late equaliser and then a spectacular extra-time winner from Georgia Stanway that was celebrated wildly by 28,994 inside the stadium.
It also contained a coaching masterclass as Wiegman’s changes saved England’s campaign while her Spanish counterpart Jorge Vilda made moves that swung momentum away from his team.
In other words, all the plots and sub-plots that make this an England win of huge significance.
The noisy celebrations at the final whistle sounded even sweeter because for so long it looked like England, whose flawless group stage installed them as many people’s favourites, were on the way out.
England, with wide players Lauren Hemp and Beth Mead marginalised, were dominated by Spain’s mastery of the ball, with Aitana Bonmati and Mariona Caldentey a class apart in those phases.
It was an example of what Sir Alex Ferguson once called Barcelona’s “carousel” that starved sides of possession, draining confidence to the point of despair.
Esther Gonzalez’s 54th-minute opener was Spain’s deserved reward and with substitute Athenea del Castillo tormenting Rachel Daly, it looked like another big tournament disappointment was heading England’s way.
In among it all, holding England together, was the faultless Millie Bright, bringing all her experience to bear as Spain pushed and probed for openings.
And then Wiegman demonstrated exactly why she has such a stellar reputation.
Wiegman recovered from Covid in time to take her place on the touchline and while she revealed there was a ‘plan B’ to run the show from home, her presence in person was far more influential.
She showed tactical nous and a touch of the gambler’s instinct by taking off England’s leading scorer Ellen White, Euro 2022 top scorer Mead and playmaker Fran Kirby with little more than an hour gone and Spain in complete control.
Wiegman had the Midas touch whereas Vilda had the minus touch, mysteriously removing goalscorer Gonzalez, actually puncturing Spain’s attacking impetus.
If England’s performance was the slowest of slow burners, the atmosphere was not. Indeed, the mood had been building hours before kick-off and was simply carried into the stadium.
England fans were basking in the sun on Brighton seafront and flooding the fanzone in Victoria Gardens as a wave of pre-match optimism swept over what had been a flawless Euro 2022 campaign.
As England’s players came out to warm up, the stadium announcer shouted: “Let’s have a party.”
It took a while to get going and Spain were the gate-crashers. The hosts left it late but got there in the end to ensure the dream of the festivities carrying on towards a potential final at Wembley lives on.
Wiegman’s expertise was placed in sharp relief when two of her changes combined to draw England level with six minutes left as Manchester United team-mates and best friends combined, Alessia Russo heading down for Ella Toone to score.
Stanway’s blockbuster provided the final flourish in extra time and the show rolls on to Yorkshire next Tuesday.
Seconds after Stanway’s brilliant strike, the traditional cry of “football’s coming home” swept around the stadium and after four minutes of nail-biting tension in stoppage time, a joyous crowd joined England’s players in chorus of Sweet Caroline.
England’s smooth progress into this quarter-final, with 14 unanswered goals in the three games against Austria, Norway and Northern Ireland, meant this was the sternest of tests against the pre-tournament favourites.
Spain had been dealt a cruel hand with injuries to Ballon d’Or winner Alexia Putellas and striker Jennifer Hermoso. The main criticism that they were superb on the ball but lacked end product came to pass. Spain, however, still presented a formidable barrier for England to overcome.
For England to leap that hurdle while being second best for so long, while looking tired and beaten at one stage, will provide huge reserves of confidence and self-belief for what they hope will be two more dates with destiny in this tournament.
And how the crowd at Brighton loved it.
As the pressure mounted and England found fresh strength with their Euro 2022 ambitions on the line, the volume turned up and the crowd fuelled the home side while Spain suddenly looked under strain.
The old-fashioned and basic nature of the equaliser, the nod down from Russo and the finish from Toone, was a perfect fit for the frantic environment that enveloped those closing stages, the latter making sure she was first among a flurry of Spanish defenders in a packed goalmouth as time ran out.
Wiegman’s calm demeanour slipped at the final whistle as she celebrated – understandably so – as she and her players will know exactly what this win means.
England, it has been said, needed a true test to measure their credentials and Euro 2022 hopes. This was it and they passed.
It was not a performance that will get full marks for artistic impression. This was the sort of display England may need again to claim the crown and all those who witnessed it will not be able to go through the torture once more at Bramall Lane.