There were twenty-five seconds left when finally the nerves dropped and they knew. Marta Cardona leapt to the far post to meet Olga Carmona’s cross, guiding a header into the net and Spain in the quarter-finals, the substitutes and staff released and streaming from the bench to greet her. It had been pissed off and far from easy, but they had done it, arranging a meeting with England. Denmark, ultimately, did not do enough. Lars Søndergaard’s side, led by Pernille Harder, had been looking for their moment, the only goal they needed to score, but in the end it was Spain who got it.
The Danish coach had admitted that his team would have less of the ball, ready to protect and counter. There had been times when the plan had seemed to pay off, especially in the first half and it took a superb late save from Sandra Paños, whose mistake had been so costly against Germany, to put Spain through. . In the end, Denmark failed, wondering what could have been.
“They had tears in their eyes,” Søndergaard said of his players. “We had chances, it was so close. But that’s how it is: it’s the group of death [and] It was we who died, but we fought for our lives. Jorge Vilda’s players live to fight another day, with two alternatives combining to get the breakthrough. “We deserved it, even though we weren’t at our best,” said Aitana Bonmatí.
For starters, Denmark’s 4-5-1 went quickly and to good effect, Denmark quickly led, Janni Thomsen and found space to move forward in, Kathrine Kühl impressive and Harder increasingly difficult to control. It was her dash that almost set up Karen Holmgaard and her who ran flawlessly to lob wide into an impressive opener. Then she passed Mapi León to pull a save close to Paños’ post.
Denmark had started well, with Katrine Veje’s run causing Thomsen to fall to the challenge of Athenea del Castillo and demand a penalty, and Spain looked decidedly uncomfortable. Slowly, however, they took control, with Mario Caldentey heading in and Ona Batlle delivering a ball that Del Castillo couldn’t get clean contact with.
While Spain rarely made clear openings, they could have led when a fine exchange set up Caldentey. This time, Lene Christensen had to make a sudden stop; a moment later, from a gentle looping cross, she could only put one finger on the ball, a scramble ensuing. Irene Paredes’ header was then cleared from the line. There was still no way for either team, with Paredes blocking Rikke Madsen’s shot early in the second half – and that was how it would play out, almost until the very end.
Spain continued to search for the goal Denmark needed with Carmona, one of three changes at the break, hitting the side netting. The change would prove decisive, but it would take a long time to reveal it. A draw would get Spain through, they knew, but while time was theoretically on their side and the ball was almost exclusively theirs now, the margins were shrinking and the nerves were growing. “We only had two minutes of calm,” Vilda said afterwards.
Unsurprisingly with Harder on the prowl, another long ball saw her single-handedly take on three defenders and strike. If Denmark struggled to get the ball and seemingly accepted that they could only get one shot, she’s certainly good enough to take it. More and more alone, twenty minutes from the end, Søndergaard decided that the moment had come to accompany her, Nadia Nadim and Stine Larsen showed up.
The impact was almost immediate and the moment could have been Nadim’s before Cardona’s. Harder did, again doing something no big deal, rolling his marker and stopping brilliantly. Nadim’s rising strike is blocked by Paños. Although it was Denmark’s last shot, it didn’t ease the tension for the remaining ten minutes. Only Cardona could do it, after all.
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