Spain 2 Germany 1: Mikel Merino's late, late winner dumps out Euro 2024 hosts

It was the European Championship quarter-final that could and perhaps should have been the final — and it did not disappoint.

Spain thought they had beaten Germany after Dani Olmo’s 51st-minute finish to a fine team move. But Julian Nagelsmann’s side stuck with it and somehow found an equaliser in the 89th minute from Florian Wirtz after a towering Joshua Kimmich header… and a throw-in from goalkeeper Manuel Neuer.

That took the contest to extra time, where the tournament hosts were denied a penalty in seemingly controversial circumstances. But, improbably, it was Spain substitute Mikel Merino who decided this match with his fine 119th-minute header.

So, what did our writers Dermot Corrigan, James McNicholas, Mark Carey and Sebastian Stafford-Bloor think of it?

Are Spain now favourites?

Having beaten the hosts in dramatic fashion, some will now consider Spain the favourites to win Euro 2024.

They’d already played the most coherent attacking football in the tournament, putting three goals past Croatia and scoring four against Georgia. Today in Stuttgart, they showed a different side to their game, withstanding the home side’s physical approach and waves of German pressure after their equaliser, and then claiming a late, late winner.

Their football was not quite as fluid as in previous matches, with Germany hitting on a way to reduce Rodri’s influence in midfield. Nevertheless, Spain found a way to win, crafting a beautiful opening goal for Olmo and then finding that chance for Merino in extra time.

Spain had never previously beaten a host nation in a knockout tie at either a World Cup or European Championship. For this youthful team to do so, at their country’s 10th attempt, feels like a vital step in their development.

They now advance to face the winner of tonight’s Portugal vs France tie on Tuesday. That will provide a stern test — but Spain look up to the task.

James McNicholas

What does the hosts going out of the tournament mean for them?

Germany will be stung, but not too disheartened by this result. As soon as a path was plotted through this draw, it was clear that all roads led to a meeting with Spain; to what many considered a superior and better-developed side.

It was still cruel. One last moment of euphoria via Wirtz’s equaliser, then the gut-punch of that Spanish winner.

Their defeat belongs in proper context. This was a graceful exit for Germany, not one — as in the tournaments of 2018, 2021 and 2022 — which demands introspection and root-and-branch reviews. Give it a few days and the positives will have been extracted, with thoughts turning to the 2026 World Cup.

Maximilian Mittelstadt and Toni Kroos look on (Carl Recine/Getty Images)

The disappointment will be that their Euro 2024 journey has come to an end — the fun, the fan parks and the sense of national unity that this tournament seems to have awakened. People will still enjoy themselves, but in a far less engaged way, for its final week before the champions are crowned in Berlin next Sunday. There will be no more saxophone player, no more Major Tom, and, for now at least, no more rebirth for the national team.

That’s what will hurt most in the morning.

Sebastian Stafford-Bloor

What happened to Pedri? 

This game between two of the most technical teams in the tournament began very physically — with Spain aggrieved at Germany’s aggressive approach. Their left-back Marc Cucurella was the first to need medical attention just seconds into the game, but the big flashpoint came after two Toni Kroos challenges within the opening six minutes.

First, Kroos raced into a challenge to stop Pedri counter-attacking, with the knee to knee contact sending the Barcelona midfielder flying through the air. Almost immediately, Kroos arrived late on an opponent again, this time with studs coming down on the foot of teenage winger Lamine Yamal.

Kroos swings a leg at Pedri…

…who is sent flying

(Martin Rickett/PA Images via Getty Images)

… and was eventually forced off.

Kroos’ challenge on Yamal

Pedri tried to continue but soon had to limp off. Coach Luis de la Fuente is usually quite calm on the sideline, but was understandably upset at English referee Anthony Taylor’s leniency in not showing a yellow card for either foul, when, arguably, both merited one.

The substitution of Pedri on eight minutes was the earliest in European Championship history. Initial explorations by Spain’s medics suggested he had a sprained knee ligament, which may end his tournament. Such a shame for a player who has suffered so many injury issues over the past three seasons.

Germany’s physical approach continued, with Taylor flashing his first yellow card at Antonio Rudiger for a wild lunge to stop Olmo just outside the hosts’ box, meaning the Real Madrid centre-back would miss the semi-final if Germany progressed.

The game then settled down somewhat, but Spain were angered when their defender Robin Le Normand was booked, also taking him out of a potential semi-final, while Germany’s Emre Can got away with a trip on Yamal near halfway.

Closer to half-time, there were fewer protests when Rodri got away with a near rugby-tackle to stop Jamal Musiala breaking away.

Dermot Corrigan

How unfair is UEFA’s yellow cards rule?

The Spain duo of Le Normand and Dani Carvajal should be celebrating qualification for a European Championship semi-final. They should be preparing to play the biggest national-team game of their lives.

Instead, they will both miss Tuesday’s semi-final through suspension. Under UEFA rules, a second booking across five games at this tournament is deemed sufficient to warrant a ban. Carvajal ensured his absence in any case with a second yellow right at the end of the match for a late foul on Musiala.

The same fate would have awaited the German trio of Rudiger, Maximilian Mittelstadt and Robert Andrich had Germany qualified for the semi-final.

Any yellow cards picked up in the earlier rounds are expunged once the quarter-finals are over. It’s a system designed in part to prevent players missing the ultimate showpiece occasion: the final. But given how easily a booking can be acquired in modern football, a suspension for two cautions seems somewhat draconian.

Perhaps it would be more appropriate to wipe bookings after the group stage. In any case, the punishment for the Spain players seems unduly harsh — although perhaps not for Carvajal. Alvaro Morata was initially reported by UEFA to have been shown a yellow card during the celebrations of Merino’s goal — which would have ruled him out of the semi-final as well — but this was later removed.

James McNicholas

How impressive was Spain’s opener?

Given the amount of talent on the pitch, it was clear that certain players needed to be nullified to stop their side from controlling the game.

The metronome of Spain’s team is undoubtedly Rodri, but Germany’s out-of-possession approach was excellent in the first half — preventing the Manchester City midfielder dictating the play.

When Spain built out from goalkeeper Unai Simon, Ilkay Gundogan and Can went man-for-man on Rodri and Fabian Ruiz, pressing aggressively to ensure that neither received the ball in their own third. This forced Simon to frequently go long towards left-winger Nico Williams — often conceding possession in the process.

Rodri tried to pull wide and dropped between Spain’s centre-backs, but Gundogan’s disciplined defensive performance was winning the battle in midfield.

What Germany had to remember was that De la Fuente’s Spain are far more versatile in the way they play. Step off them and they can keep possession for long periods and make triangles all over the pitch, like the tiki-taka style of old. But they also have the speed of their wingers to punish you in transitional moments or in wide areas.

Which is exactly how they scored the opener.

Rather than play through the thirds, a direct ball from Aymeric Laporte found Morata dropping into space. That dragged German centre-back Jonathan Tah out of possession, with Yamal finding space to square for the oncoming Olmo to sweep a shot home. It was a beautifully-worked goal, but also indicative of Spain’s versatility in possession this summer.

Mark Carey

How well did Olmo step in for Pedri?

It was likely to take a special moment to decide such a furiously-paced game, and Spain’s star player on the day was someone who has shown a knack for vital and spectacular strikes over his career.

His goal against Germany made it 10 goals for Olmo for Spain in 37 caps, with his ninth coming in the last-16 tie against Georgia on Sunday. Regular Spain watchers would not have been surprised — during his international career, Olmo has regularly chipped in with key goals, including a long-range screamer in added time to win a crucial World Cup 2022 qualifier, also against Georgia.

Both coaches today are well aware of Olmo’s talents too.

De la Fuente was also in charge of Spain Under-21s when Olmo scored their second goal in a 2-1 win over Germany in that age group’s European Championship final five years ago. Nagelsmann was Olmo’s RB Leipzig manager when the Catalan fired in a long-ranger in the DFB Pokal final (Germany’s version of the FA Cup) against Borussia Dortmund in May 2021, although Leipzig lost that game.

The former Barcelona starlet has developed his senior club career, first in Croatia with Dinamo Zagreb and, since January 2020, in Germany. He did not even start this game, but after replacing the injured Pedri, he showed his ability to mark the big occasion with a crucial goal.

Dermot Corrigan

Where did Wirtz’s equaliser start?

Desperation can do strange things to footballers.

Sometimes it can be a cynical foul, sometimes it can be an acrobatic overhead kick in the dying seconds. The decision-making doesn’t often conform to the patterns we see for 99 per cent of the game.

From Neuer’s throw… (James Baylis – AMA/Getty Images)

… to Wirtz’s finish (Clive Mason/Getty Images)

Rarely would you see a goalkeeper take a throw-in midway in their own half, but, in the 88th minute today, Neuer hurled the ball forward — it was arguably a foul throw, if we’re being pernickety — to get his side back up the field as a 1-0 defeat loomed.

It was odd to see, but proved an inspired decision. It was that attacking sequence that led to Germany’s equaliser as Mittelstadt’s eventual cross was nodded down by Kimmich for Wirtz to finish excellently inside a packed penalty area.

Wirtz will get the plaudits for the goal, but it was a sequence of play that began with a throw by their goalkeeper — and from the touchline, not his own penalty area.

Mark Carey

Did De la Fuente get his substitutions right?

During Spain’s golden era, they often won games 1-0 at tournaments (against Germany in the Euro 2008 final, and all four knockout ties at World Cup 2010). When those sides went ahead, they often then dominated possession for long spells, running down the clock and giving their opponents little chance to come back and equalise.

This is a different Spain side, and a different football era. And De la Fuente’s changes once his team were ahead against Germany were all about protecting their lead in a different way.

Twelve minutes after Yamal assisted Olmo’s opening goal, he was removed for a more direct runner in Ferran Torres.

But it’s the double change on 80 minutes that Spanish fans and pundits will really remember. Off came starting No 9 Alvaro Morata and winger Nico Williams, and on went Mikel Oyarzabal — to play as a false nine — and midfielder Merino.

Meanwhile, more and more attacking German subs were joining the action. Spain began to sit deeper and deeper. De la Fuente’s idea may have been for them to nab a second goal on the counter-attack, and there were some opportunities for them to do that, but mostly it was now one-way traffic towards Simon’s goal.

De la Fuente’s substitutions had invited the swing in momentum in the game. Many teams look to dig in and defend when they are 1-0 up. But that is not Spain’s football culture, and it did not work today.

Then, just as the game appeared to be heading to penalties, came a final decisive moment.

Olmo curled one last cross into the box, and Merino leapt spectacularly to plant a header right into the corner. It was 2-1, and De la Fuente’s changes had come good, at the very end.

Dermot Corrigan

Should Germany have had a late penalty?

Midway through the second half of extra time, it looked to almost everyone watching that the decisive moment had come.

Germany centre-forward Niclas Fullkrug knocked the ball back to Wirtz, who fired in a shot from 25 yards. When the ball hit Spain left-back Marc Cucurella, the Germans closest to him immediately appealed, with some appearing to stop playing, so sure were they that it was handball and a potential match-winning penalty.

Musiala’s strike hit Cucurella’s hand (Thomas Kienzle/AFP via Getty Images)

When play stopped, it did look like a spot kick was coming, but the officials quickly waved play on. Germany were mystified, while TV cameras caught Cucurella breaking into a relieved-looking grin as he turned away and got back into the game.

Most replays made it look like a clear penalty — in La Liga, in the Premier League, and all around the world. As it had not been given, there was an immediate debate about the laws of the game, whether Cucurella’s hand was in a natural position and whether referee Taylor had remembered the criticism that came his countryman Michael Oliver’s way for giving a penalty to Germany against Denmark in the previous round last weekend for a handball which seemed much less obvious than this one.

But another replay appeared to clear up the confusion.

Earlier in the move, Fullkrug was standing in an offside position, before he controlled a hoisted ball and laid it back to Wirtz. It was very close, just inches the wrong side of the Spain defence, but it kept the score at 1-1.

Dermot Corrigan

How will Kroos look back on his final appearance?

The time had to come at some point.

Kroos was keen to ensure that Germany’s summer tournament was solely about the team and not his farewell tour, but the way that he has played in the past 12 months — for club Real Madrid and country — made fans and team-mates question why he would even contemplate hanging up his boots at age 34, as he announced he would do after these Euros.

His final game in professional football was mixed.

No German player made more than his 83 passes as he continued to be the fulcrum from which his national team operate. He drifted across the pitch to dictate the build-up, dropping into his usual left half-space but also evaded pressure by dropping between his two centre-backs and to start attacking waves for Germany.

It is a shock to think that, unless he changes his mind, we will never see Kroos kick a ball professionally again. If you were being critical, there were a handful of occasions today where a late challenge, a cheap foul, and a laboured sprint did highlight that he is physically not as capable out of possession anymore — but his grace on the ball has always made up for any defensive shortcoming.

Ultimately, this was a cruel end for Kroos and his country on home soil but there is nothing left for us all to do but show gratitude to a player who has had such a glittering career.

Danke fur alles, Toni.

Mark Carey

What next for Spain?

Tuesday, July 9: Portugal or France, Munich, 8pm UK, 3pm ET

Spain will face a repeat of the Euro 2012 semi-final on Tuesday if Portugal make it through tonight. If not, Didier Deschamps’ side will await at Munich’s Allianz Arena — they lost against them in the Nations League final in 2021 but beat France en route to lifting their last Euros title in 2012.

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(Top photo: Tom Weller/picture alliance via Getty Images)