LONDON — It was the ruthlessness that caught the eye in those few vital moments, the cold and clinical efficiency of it all.
Spain looked, in many regards, to be a better team than Germany at the European women’s soccer championships on Tuesday night. It had more of the ball and did more with it, and it offered more style and more industry and, at times, even a bit more bite. And in a showdown that was widely seen as a meeting of a continent’s soccer past — Germany has won this tournament a record eight times — and its soccer present, it was Spain that, for frequent stretches, offered a glimpse at European soccer’s future.
The problem for Spain, though, was that it gave up two golden chances, Germany pounced on both of them, and that was that. The Germans won, 2-0, to claim a place in next week’s quarterfinals, and the Spanish were left to wonder if this tournament would really be their coming-out party after all.
“There were two big mistakes that we paid for,” Spain Coach Jorge Vilda said, “but we know that’s how it is against Germany.”
These are already looking like the Euros of What Could Have Been for Spain: if the veteran Jenni Hermoso hadn’t sprained a knee ligament a month before the tournament; if the world player of the year, Alexia Putellas, hadn’t torn a knee ligament only days before the opener; if this cross had delivered a little more bend and that shot had arrived with a bit more curl.
Germany has had nothing of those concerns. Its deep and talented team merely went about its work again on Tuesday: clearing the shots that needed clearing, saving the ones that sneaked through, winning the battles that needed winning. Style points hardly mattered when the final whistle blew. Germany, which has scored six goals and surrendered none since arriving in England, had what it had come to take.
In some ways, oddly, Spain’s second game at the Euros was an improvement over its first. In its opener, it had conceded a goal in less than a minute. On Tuesday, it took nearly three to do the same.
The goal had come seemingly out of nothing: Spain was calmly working the ball around the back, maneuvering out of some pressure, when goalkeeper Sandra Paños collected it in her goalmouth and fired a clearing ball directly into Germany forward Klara Bühl’s midsection. Bühl settled the ball, sidestepped a defender and coolly slotted it under Paños and into the side netting.
Stunned by an early goal for the second game in a row, Spain dusted itself off and went back to work. In its opening game against Finland, it atoned for its early mistake by scoring four goals. On Tuesday, it went in search of them again, controlling possession by more than two to one, completing several hundred more passes than the Germans, stroking the ball around the grass in a soothing geometry of neat zigzags and diamonds and triangles.
But the goals never came. And then, about a half-hour after the first goal, Germany won a corner, fired it toward the forehead of striker Alexandra Popp and watched her nod it past Paños. Spain led all the statistics by then, including oohs and ahs, but trailed in the only one that truly mattered.
The defeat came on what was already a grim day for Spanish women’s soccer. Hours earlier, F.C. Barcelona, Putellas’s club team, had confirmed that her knee had been repaired by a surgeon, but that she would most likely miss as much as a year while she recovered. Her injury already has affected Spain’s prospects at these Euros. Now it might bleed into its hopes at next summer’s World Cup.
But that is a tomorrow problem for Spain, which will look to bounce back against Denmark on Saturday, and hopefully again after that in what is increasingly looking to be a quarterfinal against the tournament host, England.
Germany, meanwhile, marched methodically ahead with its second straight shutout, looking like soccer’s past still has quite a bit more time to go.