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Road to the final

Road to the final
Group A winners Norway stood in the way of Group B runners-up Germany in the semi-finals ©Sportsfile

Road to the final

Sunny weather greeted all eight nations participating in the finals, giving them a proverbial warm reception for the tournament's opening games in Biel/Bienne and Wohlen.

Spain may have arrived in the finals without conceding, but they would lose their record of impregnability to a Norway side who had conceded only once en route to Switzerland, against Greece in the Elite round. This was a record which had even raised the eyebrows of their coach Nils Lexerød. "That's impressive and also surprising, but we are still creating too few chances," he said. "However, it is important that we are not conceding." Indeed, Norway's effectiveness in front of goal, combined with a compact and resolute defence which dominated with their presence, meant they did not necessarily need to create too many chances – just as long as they were taking them. Just two shots sufficed for them to breach the Spain defence as many times and get their campaign off to a winning start. Spain's central defensive pairing of Codina Panedas and Anna Torrodá could not match Norway's aerial strength, while holding midfielder Teresa Abelleira Dueñas struggled to provide cover, suffering notably against Sophie Haug. Norway's number ten's determination helped her come out on top in ten of their 12 duels, once paving the way to the opening goal before subsequently flicking a header through in the run-up to Norway's second, from the penalty spot.

"It was our opening game and it was not easy to deal with our energy levels," conceded Spain coach Jorge Vilda, who shifted the focus to his side's second group fixture, against the hosts.

Switzerland showed how being on home soil can prove advantageous in their opening fixture with France, recovering from a two-goal deficit to snatch a point. Les Bleuettes appeared to be comfortable when their captain Ella Palis took aim and fired a remarkable shot from distance into the top corner of Elvira Herzog's goal, but Switzerland coach Nora Häuptle responded by reverting to a back three and advancing Malin Gut into the midfield, where they gained numerical superiority. The Swiss captain also demonstrated how the six was not only the number on the back of her shirt as she excelled in her more natural position, combining her excellent defensive capabilities with her vision and technical quality, underlining the latter with her set-piece prowess to help the hosts get a foothold in the game. Carried by the positive energy from the crowd – something Häuptle revealed they had accounted for in their preparations for the tournament – they found an equaliser and pushed until they were effectively running on empty.

Over in Group B, Germany and Denmark did battle in Biel/Bienne with both sides defending with good organisation and preferring patient build-ups from the back. Germany's use of width, in particular their full-backs Fatma Sakar and Meret Wittje, gave them an edge, which they enforced with an excellent combination from a throw-in on the left leading to the only goal of the game. Both sides attacked quickly when they gained the ball, but while the Danes would regularly send four players into the box, they could not make any of their six attempts – a flurry of which came in the closing stages – count.

The Netherlands were ruthless in their opening fixture with Italy, taking their first opportunity with a header from Lynn Wilms and then adding a penalty just five minutes later to shake the confidence of an Italian side who had set out to attack their opponents. A third goal on the half-hour mark from Nance Van Der Meer, who provided a fine headed finish to an excellent team move which displayed all of the Dutch team confidence and composure on the ball and effective use of width, gave Jessica Torny's side a commanding half-time advantage. Italy tried to fight back in the second half with Benedetta Glionna enjoying more joy on the right wing, but the final ball and delivery of free-kicks proved not to be sharp enough to slice through the Dutch defence. Arianna Caruso headed in a consolation with what would prove to be Italy's only goal of the finals.

Norway set about proving their opening win over Spain was not just an effective exception as they left a France side featuring six changes from their opening draw little room to breathe, let alone develop their game. France coach Gaëlle Dumas had anticipated as much, admitting the changes had been made principally "with our opponents in mind," but also to regulate their energy levels after a reduced period of preparation. "They did not have the rhythm to play two games in three days, so we rested some to try to have as many of them at top condition for the third game," explained Dumas. Norway pressed high, using their full-backs Vilde Birkeli and Emilie Woldvik effectively to receive long, diagonal balls in advanced positions. Their advanced positioning in turn prevented France goalkeeper Justine Lerond from building from the back, instead leading to long balls, where Norway's aerial strength stifled their efforts to create significant openings. Haug supplied an excellent finish to an incisive team move to ensure one of Norway's two shots on goal earned them another three points.

Spain had grown from their opening fixture, but enthusiasm was again evident in the Swiss game as another passionate crowd got behind them in Zug. The volume rose when Tyara Buser was impeded as she cut back towards goal while inside the penalty area in the 12th minute, but a fine save at full stretch from María Echezarreta Fernández denied Swiss captain Gut from the penalty spot. Spain waited patiently for opportunities on the counter-attack and, as Switzerland committed eight players forward for a corner just shy of the half-hour mark, Spain seized their chance on the break. Rosa Marquez Baena carried the ball almost the full length of the field with Nerea Eizaguirre and Olga Carmona providing support and establishing a three-against-three situation. Carmona still had work to do as she cut inside onto her left foot before sending an accurate shot into the top right-hand corner, with Elvira Herzog's fingertips unable to keep it out. Chiara Messerli was denied an equaliser by another excellent Echezarreta Fernández save before half-time as the Swiss searched for a route back into the game, but a determined Marquez Baena fought her way through the Swiss defence to supply the finish after Eizaguirre's shot came back off the crossbar, and the wind was taken out of the hosts' sails. Spain could have added a third, but Eizaguirre was denied from the penalty spot by Herzog.

Italy took the game to Denmark in their second group game, building mostly from the back, where central defender Beatrice Merlo was heavily involved in their build-up play. Just ahead of her, Alice Regazzoli was the metronome of their midfield, but as Denmark held a high defensive line – and Italy thrived more when given space – routes to goal were rare. A well organised central block of Danish players showed ability to push forward and retreat as a unit, preferring a long ball over the opposition defence as a first-choice attacking option, but showing an aptitude for a more constructive build-up. Set plays formed Denmark's greatest threat, however, and one of many accurate deliveries from Sarah Jankovska was headed in at the far post by Sara Holmgaard. Fresh legs were sent on by Italy coach Enrico Sbardella, but despite creating more chances than their opponents for the second game running, they were once again left empty-handed.

The Netherlands established their place at the top of the group heading into the decisive final matchday by defeating Germany 1-0, thanks to a Rebecca Doejaaren goal. Her intelligent run out wide made space to receive the ball from Janou Levels and a neat exchange of passes with Kayleigh Van Dooren on her way into the penalty area put her in a position to finish low into the far corner, completing an incisive quick counter-attack. Germany otherwise enjoyed more of the possession and looked comfortable and in control of the tempo of the game with good movement off the ball and involvement of full-backs, willing and able to offer support to their wingers, notably Paulina Krumbiegel, whose unpredictability made her particularly difficult for the Dutch defenders to handle.

Heading into the final round of group games, only Norway were certain of their place in the semi-finals, while no nation – not even Italy, still on zero points – had been eliminated, and the Netherlands were not sure of their place in the final four either, despite having won two out of two. The intrigue was consequently high as the Azzurrine faced a Germany side who were also reliant on the result of the group's other fixture, with their destiny not entirely in their own hands.

That fixture, between Denmark and the Netherlands, could have rendered all of Germany's or Italy's efforts null and void had it ended 2-1 – a result which would have taken them both through regardless. After Dajan Heshemi-Ghermezi's header was cancelled out by Kayleigh Van Dooren's free-kick, and Heshemi-Ghermezi's second ensured that scenario was established as early as the 20th minute, both the Danes and the Dutch were indeed heading for the semi-finals. However, Denmark once again showed a winning spirit with an organised and effective attacking strategy which saw them frequently commit five or six players into the final third, and this was rewarded five minutes into the second half when their effective, hard-working left wing-back Sofie Svava dribbled her way down the wing and delivered a cross to the far post which Janni Thomsen headed in for Denmark's third. Their high pressing then thwarted the Netherlands' attempts to get the one goal which would still have taken them through as group runners-up on goal difference.

Germany instead took that honour thanks to a 2-0 win over an Italy side who would end the group stage with three defeats and just one goal scored, despite having delivered the second-highest number of shots on goal – 40 – from all the eight nations. Germany topped that chart with 42, two of which were crucial in seeing them past Italy with Nicole Anyomi's blistering pace bringing the first and an unenforced error in possession by Italy once again being punished, as had been something of a trend, by a quick break which Krumbiegel converted for the all-important second.

"We've got a squad with a lot of quality, determination and who know how to play football, but there can be no getting away from the fact that you have to score goals," said Italy coach Sbardella, whose side ultimately paid dearly for taking just one of their 40 chances and failing to deliver the most valuable statistic of them all.

In Group A, Switzerland only had one option: win and hope. "I have a clear strategy," said their coach Nora Häuptle. "It's a very courageous strategy and I want to ask the players if they want to do it – we want to try something." Try they did. Häuptle deployed a back three with wing backs providing support in an energetic attacking display, with fast transitions from defence to attack, determination to win the duels and an exemplary team spirit. Géraldine Reuteler was at the heart of the action, and her excellent header from Gut's corner gave the Swiss a deserved lead. The same combination and the same outcome brought a second early in the second half as Switzerland imposed themselves on a Norway side featuring eight changes from their last game against France. This new-look Norway were not without their chances, however, and Runa Lillegård appeared keen to take her opportunity to show what she could do, reducing the arrears with ten minutes to go as she got her bootlaces to a sweeping Elise Isolde Stenevik ball forwards. Lillegård then missed a gaping goal after rounding Herzog and Norway struck the woodwork twice before Lehmann turned the screw in the last minute.

It was not enough to take Switzerland through, though, as Spain got the win they needed in the group's other final fixture against France. Growing game by game, Jorge Vilda's side appeared to be nearing top gear as they pressed high up the field, Marquez Baena playing a key role in their transitions and using Eizaguirre and Carmona as effective outlets to keep possession and increase the pressure on the France defence. Their goals came from set plays, though, with Athenea Del Castillo Beivide converting the first after a save from Lerond fell to her feet, and Carmona netted the second after Torrodá laid the ball off. France's main threat came from runs down the left and it was this outlet – albeit Palis making the run and not Gago – which led to their equaliser from Jessy Roux, only three minutes before Spain's winner.

Norway and Germany were first up on a scorching day for the semi-finals in Biel. The heat certainly took its toll and Germany were forced into two changes inside the opening 25 minutes due to injury and illness. Maren Meinert's team nevertheless kept their shape well and did not let the setbacks shake their confidence as they played the ball out well from the back, where the high pressing that had characterised Norway's play on the way to the semi-finals was conspicuous by its absence. Norway could not get their players close enough to disrupt Germany, who had Sydney Lohmann and Marie Müller keeping things tight and organised as holding midfielders. Good off-ball movement gave them options to build and they opened the scoring on the stroke of half-time with Melissa Kössler taking advantage of a hesitant Linn-Mari Nilsen in the Norway goal to steer Krumbiegel's free-kick in. A second from Anna-Lena Stolze early in the second half left Norway with too high a mountain to climb, allowing the six-time champions to edge closer to seventh heaven.

It was just as hot for the second semi-final in Biel with Denmark and Spain needing 45 minutes to get the measure of the conditions and their opponents. Denmark's high pressing succeeded better than Norway had in the first semi-final, and Spain were forced more onto the back foot than they would have liked. They managed to find more solutions to develop attacking actions in the second half, though, and a fine 30-yard strike from Abelleira Dueñas – who became the 25th different player to score in the finals – took Spain to an unprecedented fifth straight final. Denmark did give Echezarreta Fernández work to do, but she responded well to keep a crucial clean sheet.