Mikel Merino breaks hosts’ hearts as Spain send Germany out of Euro 2024

Germany’s second summer fairy tale is over but Spain’s goes on, Stuttgart stunned at the last. With 65 seconds of extra time remaining, with penalties inevitable and players pulling up all over the pitch, barely able to walk, Dani Olmo clipped in a glorious ball and there, deep in the penalty area, was Mikel Merino. A turn of the head, a twist of the neck and Spain were on their way.

Still they had to survive a scare – how could it be otherwise? – when Niclas Füllkrug headed past the post a minute into added time at the end of it. And then, four minutes beyond the 120, with the very last kick of the game, the very last kick of Toni Kroos’s entire career in fact, they had to face one last ball into their box. Manuel Neuer was up for that. So though was Unai Simón, clutching firm to the ball and to Spain’s place in the semi-final of Euro 2024.

What an exhausting evening it had been, a game of 40 shots 16 yellow cards, a red too right at the end, when Dani Carvajal, desperate, had hauled down Jamal Musiala, and it could have belonged to either of them. It had seemed destined to go to the spot too, one shot to take it all. In the end, though, it belonged to Spain. They had survived a modern Germany and the old Germany too, but they had made it.

In the opening three minutes, while the smell of sulphur still lingered, Emre Can, Marc Cucurella and Pedri all went down. The first of those, a dive from the surprise inclusion in the German midfield, led to the first chance of the game: by seeking the foul, Can allowed Spain to advance, Fabián Ruiz, Nico Williams and Álvaro Morata setting up a shooting position from which Pedri might have done better. The last of them led to an early departure: Kroos had sent Pedri flying, their knees clashing, and although the Spain midfielder continued for a while, the damage had been done. He limped off, in tears.

Kroos had been fortunate to escape a booking then and a few minutes later he trod on Lamine Yamal. It was accidental but Julian Nagelsmann had hinted at this intensity, even if he had quickly added that his team were not planning to kick Lamine Yamal “out of his socks”.

On the touchline, Luis de la Fuente was in the ear of the fourth official. On the pitch, the players were quick into each other. Next Williams went in on Joshua Kimmich and then Antonio Rüdiger took out Dani Olmo as he dashed through.

This was a game of moments, a little frantic, spaces only occasionally opening, chances occasionally chiselled out in a hurry. Rushed, Kroos could not control it as is his wish, at least not as often. Can lost the ball. In the chaos Rodri remained calm. Williams could not be contained, but nor could he be decisive just yet. Spain were quick to shoot, sometimes a little too quick.

Florian Wirtz scores the equaliser in the 89th minute. Photograph: Clive Mason/Getty Images

Lamine Yamal in particular went too early when it opened before him. That said, while Neuer gathered a handful of shots, there was a hint of unease in his handling. On one shot from Olmo, he pushed the ball straight to Morata.

Germany worked chances of their own. Kai Havertz headed one into the arms of Simón from in front of the penalty spot. A long ball from Rüdiger made another. The control on the chest to bring it down was superb, the effort from the edge of the area was scuffed.

That this didn’t entirely convince Nagelsmann and that the line both teams walked was a fine one was reflected in the three changes made at half time, Nacho, Robert Andrich and Florian Wirtz all introduced. Immediately, Spain might have led, when Lamine Yamal found Morata who spun on the edge of the six yard box and struck over. And then, almost straight after that, they did.

Again, it started on the right. Again, the fear could be felt, Raum reluctant to risk challenging the 16-year-old, being drawn too close. And so, Lamine Yamal slowed, looked, saw a line and laid it across the turf again, calm as you like. This time, it was Olmo, arriving from a little deeper, timing the run as perfectly as Lamine Yamal had played the pass to sweep past Neuer.

Germany stepped up, obliged now. They made two quick changes too. Max Mittelstädt came on and so did Füllkrug, gesturing for the fans to get to their feet as he did so. The noise rose, the style shifted. Wirtz soon bent just past the post. Spain were under pressure, forced to resist, and yet that also brought with it the chance to run, even with Lamine Yamal replaced by Ferran Torres.

With Füllkrug as the target, a gravitational pull of his own, Spain were pushed back deep towards their goal. What a difference he made. He set up Andrich for a shot that Simón saved superbly and Havertz for another that Carvajal dived in to block, then headed wide himself. And when Wirtz escaped behind Cucurella and crossed, he reached to turn a superb shot against the post.

Germany still couldn’t find a way through; when they did, Spain gave it to them. Incredibly, a Simón goal kick went straight to Havertz. With the keeper off his line, Havertz curled it over him towards the open goal, the ball though sailed, seeming to take Germany’s hopes with it. Still, though, they came. This is Germany. A moment’s calm from Kroos, a superb cross from Mittelstädt, Kimmich’s header down, and with a single minute to go there was Wirtz to hit it past Simón and in off the post, taking us to extra time, and more tension, tired bodies everywhere.

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Germany carried the weight of this, when it was a wonder they could walk. Spain held them off, when it was a wonder they could stand. They kept at it, at each other. The spaces were wide the game open, the pitch felt huge, but so too was the effort to traverse it.

Mikel Oyarzabal flashed a shot wide and Muller set up Wirtz for a great chance on the edge of the area, but his shot spun past the post. There was a huge shout when Musiala’s goal-bound shot was clearly stopped by Cucurella’s hand. There was no penalty then, Anthony Taylor decided, but the prospect of at least ten of them was growing. Unless someone could stop it. Füllkrug shot wide, so did Oyarzabal. Then, with three minutes left, Simón made a brilliant save from Füllkrug’s diving header. And then came Merino’s moment, history made.

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