On Sunday, the Olympic Stadium in Helsinki will feel multi-dimensional. It was there in 2009 that England and Germany met for the first time in the final of a European Women’s Championship. On paper it might have looked like a clash of titans, but England weren’t there yet: Germany started as overwhelming favorites and duly beat Hope Powell’s side 6-2, reaffirming themselves like continental heavyweights. Birgit Prinz and company held a masterclass, but only 15,000 people were in the legendary venue to witness it.
When this year’s England crop beat a weakened German side 3-1 at Molineux in February, it was only the second time this match had fallen in the Lionesses’ way. It says nothing about how the gap closed. What reveals a little more is the fact that, even though the 2022 final is often played in the head, it seems impossible to choose a clear winner. The result could well be on the razor’s edge and, with an audience up to six times larger than the rowdy crowds in Finland, the mood should make things happen immediately.
“A once-in-a-lifetime experience” is how Germany’s excellent Merle Frohms referred to the prospect of Sunday. “You couldn’t have asked for a better final, to face the host country in their own stadium.” The organizers will also pinch themselves. There’s no other way to put it: this is a classic finale, an event whose history needs no explanation but which is perfectly capable of standing on its own. feet when measured on skill, bravery and athletic excellence.
Another four-goal margin of victory for each team seems unthinkable, although both have shed light on similar predictions over the past three weeks. England were expected to take on Norway, but they went home with disconcerting ease and emphasis; they then overwhelmed Sweden despite their first-half luck.
Germany, after doing their best to present themselves as dark horses ahead of the tournament, showed up in Brentford and quickly demolished highly rated Denmark 4-0. That’s what these teams can do: they can outsmart, outsmart and eventually overwhelm. When they do play off, all bets will be void.
“Determined, modest, successful”, is how the German newspaper Zeit described Martina Voss-Tecklenburg’s team after the victory against France. Those words are true: there’s a humility to Germany’s work, an ability to balance flair with thoroughness, perhaps best exemplified by the reasonable argument that their best player in these leagues has been 20 year old Lena Oberdorf.
Like England, they were kept honest for all their raging forward play. While the hosts came on minutes after crashing out in the quarter-finals before salvaging what had been a listless performance against Spain, Die Nationalelf occasionally got lucky when they met Austria in the last eight and could have come off against France on Wednesday before. Alexandra Popp’s Supremely Taken Winner. Both finalists have known what it’s like to purr through games and revel in each other’s talents, but both also have reason to feel battle-hardened.
If anything should make the Germans particularly uncomfortable, it is England’s ability to grow stronger as the minutes go by, boosted by the multitude of options Sarina Wiegman can bring forward from the bench. France and Austria faded in the latter stages of their knockout matches, although the former continued to aim balls into Frohm’s box until the end; England are less likely to leave and the sharpness of an Alessia Russo or Ella Toone from the bench is something Germany haven’t had to contend with so far.
On the other hand, Popp, who would be the player of the tournament for many onlookers both for her power and the sheer romance of returning from a career-threatening injury, started the group stage among the substitutes and would have perhaps struggled for so much playing time had Lea Schüller did not test positive for Covid-19 after the game against Denmark.
Similarly, Germany did not miss the equally indisposed Klara Bühl, the best winger of a cheerful number this summer, against France even if her absence also changed position Svenja Huth. Schüller and Bühl may be ready to play a role in the final. The point is that depth and flexibility are as important to England and Germany as what’s been going on from the start: it wouldn’t be strange to suggest that the most significant events at Wembley will be shaped by decisions made after the break.
“We’re happy with what we’ve achieved, but not happy with what we’ve achieved,” Powell said after the defeat 13 years ago. “It will make them stronger next time and one day. It will be our day.”
It seems a safe statement now, and it is England’s task to ensure the moment arrives on a night that will showcase their sport like never before. The pubs will do good business, big screens will be installed, places could even fill up. If England and Germany produce anything like the spectacle they both promised, the progress of women’s football and this competition since Helsinki will hardly have been clearer.
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