The bitter taste of defeat is something Germany’s women have rarely experienced at the European Championships.
Even on a night like tonight, when for much of the second half it felt as though the team was merely hanging on for survival against a ferocious and tenacious French side, Germany somehow found a way to win.
Alexandra Popp’s goals either side of Merle Frohms’ own goal gave Germany a 2-1 win and passage through to the final of Euro 2022, where it will face England in a mouthwatering clash on Sunday.
But this was a battle that Germany will likely still be feeling come the end of the week, while France’s players will perhaps still be wondering how it isn’t them taking on England.
Chance after chance came and went for France in the second half before Popp, who has become Germany’s leading light at this tournament, made Les Bleus pay dearly with a clinical header 13 minutes from the end.
After battling its way through Wednesday’s grueling semifinal, there will be no test that this Germany side will fear facing and the team will be confident of extending its extraordinary Euros record to nine titles.
Germany’s loss in the quarterfinals of Euro 2017 ended its remarkable 22-year reign as European champion. To put the country’s dominance in this competition into context, of the 12 editions of the Women’s Euros that have been contested, Germany has won eight of them.
This iteration of the national team is desperate to take its country back to the pinnacle of European international football and has recorded a couple of impressive results at Euro 2022 thanks largely to its stingy defense, which was yet to concede a goal at the tournament.
Conversely, France has very little Euros experience. Wednesday’s match marked the first time it had reached the semifinals of a European Championship and the team had endured a bumpy road to get there.
First, there was significant surprise when it was announced that stalwart midfielder Amandine Henry had been left out of the squad for this tournament, which sparked reports of discontent within the French camp, before star striker Marie-Antoinette Katoto suffered an ACL injury in the group stages.
But to France’s credit, there were no early signs that this team was to be overawed by the occasion or its opponent.
The opening 20 minutes were a tense affair as both teams began the game by just feeling each other out. Neither side seemed willing to commit enough bodies forward to truly trouble the other, but France began showing flashes of the danger it possesses on the counterattack.
Wingers Delphine Cascarino and Kadidiatou Diani in particular were posing a threat to Germany’s so far unbeatable back line.
However, it was Germany that mustered the first meaningful effort of the game as Alexandra Popp’s wicked free-kick was brilliantly tipped around the post by goalkeeper Pauline Peyraud-Magnin.
It was a testament to the quality of the save that a number of German fans inside the stadium had already begun to rise out of their seats in celebration, only to be left disappointed by Peyraud-Magnin’s fingertips.
The sizable group of French fans in the corner to the right of Peyraud-Magnin’s goal had the perfect view of their goalkeeper’s heroics and cheered with approval, before leading a large portion of the stadium in chants of “Allez Les Bleus.”
But with the game meandering towards half-time, a moment of quality five minutes before the whistle broke the deadlock seemingly from nothing.
Svenja Huth’s cross into the box was met by Popp, whose instinctive dash into the six-yard box allowed her to beat French defender Eve Perisset to the ball and stab it into the roof of the net.
It was certainly a goal this game needed and it was one that sparked the contest to life.
After waiting 40 minutes for the first goal to come, the 27,445 inside Stadium MK only had to wait five minutes for the second.
Diani thought she had scored the goal that her early efforts merited, but replays showed her long-range effort hit the post and bounced into the goal off German goalkeeper Frohms, who was credited with an unfortunate own goal.
That certainly helped France feel like it belonged on this stage and the team emerged from the half-time break with a new-found intensity.
Just after the hour mark, substitute Selma Bacha had a wonderful chance to put her side ahead, controlling the ball and swiveling smartly in the box, but she was denied by a brilliant block from defender Kathrin-Julia Hendrich.
From the resulting corner, the towering Wendy Renard got up at the far post but her header was smothered away on the line.
The chances were now coming thick and fast for France as a frustrated German side began to make mistakes. Bacha was again denied from a narrow angle, this time by the legs of goalkeeper Frohms.
The French fans sensed an upset was on the cards and the chants of “Allez Les Bleus” now reververbated louder than ever around the ground.
But, even with its back up against the wall, Germany is a relentless force to be reckoned with at the Euros.
No team in any European competition can come close to matching Germany’s record in this tournament and years of dominance have given this national team a remarkable self-belief.
When all the signs were pointing to a France win, Popp appeared once again on the end of a Huth cross to give Germany the lead, this time powering a header past Peyraud-Magnin.
As Popp pumped her fists in front of a delirious section of Germany fans, the French players looked shell-shocked and despondent, heads bowed as they made their way back to the center circle.
There were still more chances to come for both teams, but a German victory now felt inevitable.
When the full-time whistle went, many of Germany’s players collapsed to the floor, exhausted from the physical and emotional exertion it took to dispatch a France team that will no doubt be a major force on the international stage for a while to come.
One more grueling test awaits for Germany against England on Sunday – perhaps its most difficult yet – but the eight-time champion will be in no doubt it can make that nine.