The party was almost over but then Ella Toone turned up and the whole place went wild again. A goal down and on the edge of elimination with six minutes left, England had been made to suffer by a superb Spain side, but a late volleyed equaliser from the Manchester United midfielder took them into extra time where Georgia Stanway smashed in a shot straight out of a comic to carry them into the last four. Next stop on this wild ride: Sheffield.
It wasn’t until after 10pm that they started singing It’s Coming Home here, so hard had it been. Now at last they could believe it really might be, which isn’t to say they wouldn’t suffer more – oh, they would – but by the end England’s players were standing at the side of the pitch belting out Sweet Caroline. “So good, so good,” they sang, and it certainly had been. This was a wonderful match, graced by both teams. A heroic, exhausting occasion they will never forget.
Spain had shone but England resisted and rebelled, overturning Esther González’s strike – the first they have conceded at the tournament and one that threatened to bring it to a premature end for the hosts. In the end, though, it was England who are still standing, the goal that took them there one of those moments you could see unfold and may well be watching for years, Stanway striding forward willed on by everyone and letting fly.
That was the 105th minute but still it wasn’t over, the hugely impressive Aitana Bonmatí striking an extra‑time shot wide as Spain now desperately sought a way back, just as England had before them, and Sandra Paños was up inside the England area as the clock reached 120. Eventually, though, drums beat, lights shone and England’s subs sprinted on to the pitch and into the arms of their teammates, music cranked up. Spain’s players looked broken, their greatest moment taken from them in a way that was cruel.
It was a wonder any of them could still move after this. They had been playing only five seconds when the first footballer fell, Ellen White taking Mapi León’s clearance full in the face, and that seemed to set up a game that was frantic at times, and would become one of the highest quality. By the time the quarter-hour came round, as many players had been on the turf as minutes had been played during a period when heels were snapped at and lungs were busting; the press was high, relentless.
Bit by bit Spain took a grip and once they had done that they began to turn the screw. Bonmatí, afforded a degree of freedom off the left of midfield, glided, her movement elegant and her use of the ball impeccable. On the right, Mariona Caldentey was busy and involved. Up front González just kept on pressing. The full-backs were fast into the tackle, denying England the space wide into which to run. Not only did the hosts struggle to get the ball, they were unable even to launch counters, denied time to breathe or a ball to play with.
White was the first to get the ball in the net, only for it to be ruled out by offside, but Spain’s dominance brought them the lead early in the second half and grew thereafter. Caldentey and Bonmatí were at the heart of it, but it was the hugely impressive half-time substitute Athenea del Castillo who made it. She superbly slipped the ball through the legs of Rachel Daly, dashed into the area and pulled it back for González to beat Mary Earps for the first time.
Sarina Wiegman’s response was bold, White and Beth Mead withdrawn. England might have had a way back when Lauren Hemp appealed for a penalty, taken down by Ona Batlle. At the other end, Earps had to palm away from Del Castillo – a save that would prove decisive. Del Castillo was repeatedly running at Daly and Spain scoring a second seemed a likely scenario now.
England, though, kept on coming, Irene Paredes blocking shots from Toone and Stanway before the ball dropped for Hemp inside the area only for the shot to fly over. Spain tried to play their way through to safety, Caldentey and Bonmatí astonishing at times, and almost ended it when Leah Williamson had to block from Sheila García but England would not be denied. With the clock running down Hemp’s delivery was superb and Alessia Russo, as she has so often, leapt to head. The ball dropped for Toone, who stretched out a leg to volley home, England’s vital signs returning.
Spain were hurt and momentarily gone, complaining about a foul. England were back. Nerves were frayed and bodies tired but the second goal was a worthy close to a wonderful occasion. Surging through, Stanway’s shot tore through the air and took a whole country with it, the party swinging now.
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