Spain set up England quarter-final at Euro 2022 as Marta Cardona’s late winner defeats Denmark

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Marta Cardona scored with a looping header  (AFP via Getty Images)
Marta Cardona scored with a looping header (AFP via Getty Images)

For a team who started Euro 2022 with such high hopes, progress to the knockout stages was not secured until the very end. Spain were already scraping through to the quarter-finals when Marta Cardona’s 90th-minute header finally put an end to Denmark’s fight, but only after a tense evening at the Brentford Community Stadium that suggested that England should take confidence into their meeting next week down in Brighton. Spain only needed to draw to advance at the expense of Denmark, who required a victory - and for large parts of the evening they looked the side most likely of securing the result that was required.

Spain and England was a popular pre-tournament pick for the Wembley final - it will instead arrive earlier than that but, after losing to Germany and edging past Denmark here, it is clear this is not the same Spain. There are understandable reasons for that, the absence of Alexia Putellas and Jennifer Hermoso to begin with, but a team who until five days ago were unbeaten in 24 matches are suffering a crisis of confidence in attack, while displaying glaring vulnerabilities in defence. The prospect of facing an England team who scored 14 goals in finishing top of Group A should be a frightening prospect.

They have the chance to fight on though, and for that they can at least be grateful. For much of the evening it looked as the favourites for the Euros would be among the first to be sent home. If they had faced a team as ruthless and efficient as Germany had been in their previous outing then that may have been the reality. A Denmark side often consisting of nine players behind the ball and Pernille Harder leading the attack on her own was still able to create several clear chances. Harder was outstanding in her solo mission of raiding the Spanish half and while she often lacked support to match her own quality, she set up Nadia Nadim for what could have been a late winner before Cardona’s header.

Denmark needed to beat Spain after suffering a heavy defeat to Germany (Getty Images)
Denmark needed to beat Spain after suffering a heavy defeat to Germany (Getty Images)

Spain survived, but you again come away with the sense that something is fundamentally broken in their approach. The first half appeared to run on a loop. Spain would walk the ball to the halfway line. Denmark would retreat and shuffle side to side obediently while Spain exchanged short but unthreatening passes outside the box. There would sometimes be a cross, flung into the box in hope rather than design, often the move would break down with a loose pass inside, but the result would repeatedly be the sight of Denmark flying down the other end of the pitch and red shirts bearing down on goal.

This, evidently, was not the plan and a more clinical Denmark side could have secured their progress to the quarter-finals by half time. The ease at which Denmark found themselves with high-quality chances was as staggering as the shakiness of the Spain defending. Even though Denmark averaged less than 25 per cent of the possession, all they required was a long ball down field or a simple one-two to break into the other half.

Harder, invariably, was involved in all four of such opportunities that came. Sandro Panos was just tested once, however, and that was from a tight shot from the angle. In the best of the chances, Harder lifted a shot over the goalkeeper that was also lifted over the bar. Denmark could have feasibly scored four times if they had shown better execution in the final third.

 (AFP via Getty Images)
(AFP via Getty Images)

Spain would eventually steady and managed to test goalkeeper Lene Christensen, but still lacked the ruthless edge in the penalty box. Athenea del Castillo was brought into their forward line following the 2-0 defeat to Germany but despite her directness and drive from the left wing, she did not prove to be the finisher Spain so badly needed. The chances began to come, however, with Ona Batlle providing another excellent outlet on the right wing. Mariona Caldentey, moved back inside to midfield, fired a first-time shot from Batlle’s pull-back that Christensen was equal to.

Spain were still, just about, doing enough, but the growing tension to the evening was reflected by Jorge Vilda making three changes at the break. Esther Gonzalez, the Spanish number nine, was brought on for Lucia Garcia, who again struggled in the central role. Cardona came on too for the equally inefficient Sheila Garcia.

But the pattern continued. Harder scooped a pass over to Rikke Madsen, who went down a little too softly after a touch from another substitute Olga Carmona. Aitana Bonmati refused to shoot in the box, to some frustration now among the Spanish contingent of the 16,000-strong crowd. Carmona attempted a couple of shots from left back, testing Christensen with a low drive from range, but the goal appeared no closer to arriving.

Spain looked as if they had weathered the worst of the Denmark storm. Lars Sondergaard’s team were spent, apart from the endless energy of Harder, who was doing it on her own now more than ever. The Chelsea forward would create two further opportunities, both again after simple passes forward. The best of which she set up for substitute Nadim, who represents Denmark after having fled Afghanistan as a child. Her shot was tipped over by Panos and with it Denmark’s final chance was up. Cardona’s header in the 90th minute ensured Spain’s progress and took away the nerves of injury time, but after all this England will not be losing sleep tonight.