The final tournament was coloured less by the legendary ‘luck of the Irish’ than by the luck of a draw which created a ‘group of death’ and a second group where the form book indicated two clear favourites for semi-final and World Cup places. As UEFA technical observer Hope Powell commented, this had an effect on playing strategies in Group A, where the hosts and Scotland focused on deep defending against Germany and Spain, accepting that they would have rare opportunities to attack. For the two favourites, the challenge was to break through the defensive blocks – and Germany did this more effectively than Spain. Whereas Maren Meinert’s team harvested nine goals from 63 attempts against Scotland and Northern Ireland, Pedro López’s side managed three from 47, beating the hosts 2-0 and then waiting till the 55th minute for a stalemate-breaking strike by midfielder Patricia Guijarro to earn a 1-0 win against Scotland. Germany, opening with a 3-0 victory against Scotland, had a third consecutive success by overpowering the hosts by a 6-0 scoreline that could have been more damaging but for some excellent goalkeeping by Lauren Perry. The parameters of the group were indicated by the fact that both teams had one goal attempt apiece against Germany and three apiece against Spain.
This meant that the direct confrontations between the two favourites and the two underdogs became the table-shaping fixtures. Germany secured top spot with a 2-0 win over Spain, the goals stemming from a counterattack launched by screening midfielder Janina Minge and a wind-propelled free-kick from her own half by right-back Dina Orschmann which bounced over the Spain keeper.
Northern Ireland and Scotland faced up in Lurgan with more adventurous game plans in search of third place and a berth in the World Cup play-off. Alfie Wylie’s 1-4-3-3 was rapidly transformed into a 1-4-1-4-1 defensive block as they conceded ground early in the game. The Scots played patiently out from the back, opening to the wings with diagonal passing and using overlapping full-backs to create overloads. One such move led to a goal within seconds of the re-start, striker Kirsty Hanson applying the finishing touch to a through pass. Wylie chased the result by switching to a back three and was rewarded five minutes from time when a corner on the left was flick-headed home by substitute Louise McDaniel. The 1-1 draw left the teams level, but goal difference against the favourites eased Scotland into the World Cup play-off.
When the ‘group of death’ kicked-off, the Dutch could be seen on the crest of a wave less than 48 hours after their senior team had won Women’s EURO 2017. France were made to look lightweight by a muscular performance during a first half when their defensive set-up struggled against the intelligent between-the-lines movements of Victoria Pelova. A 2-0 half-time scoreline could have been heavier but for the goalkeeping skills of Mylène Chavas. And a spirited second-half revival by France was then thwarted by some equally competent keeping by Lize Kop. Meanwhile, England’s neat one- and two-touch combination play gave them the edge over Italy, whose late reply was insufficient to overturn a 0-2 deficit.
But, on the second matchday, England, who hadn’t conceded a goal during qualifying, were fazed when a Dutch corner put them a goal down. A second goal on the cusp of half-time added to their distraction and, resorting to direct attacking with long back-to-front passing, Mo Marley’s team was unable to find solutions or goals. French consternation after the opening defeat was compounded by an early goal for Italy, prompting Gilles Eyquem to send on, after only 28 minutes, winger Emelyne Laurent,who responded with one goal and three assists as France shredded Italy’s defence to record a 6-1 win. France’s title defence, however, depended on taking a point from England and a cautious defend-and-counter strategy, backed by excellent keeping, once again, from Chavas meant that England’s impressive high-tempo approach work went unrewarded. An 88th-minute counter culminated by a deflected shot from substitute Lina Boussaha earned an against-the-run-of-play victory and a semi-final place. England, out of the tournament, had the consolation of a play-off against Scotland for a World Cup place. The Netherlands had, in the meantime, consolidated top spot with a performance that failed to satisfy Jessica Torny. She saw a changed team fight back after conceding an own goal; only to throw away a 2-1 half-time advantage. It needed a goal timed at 90+4 by substitute Ashleigh Weerden to earn a 3-3 draw that allowed Italy to travel home with, as consolation, one point in their baggage.
The Netherlands then opened their semi-final with a spell of collective high pressing aimed at disrupting Spain’s composed construction work. During this spell, it seemed that the muscular approach might prevail. Spain, however, rode the storm and played their way into the game, competing well, winning the ball in midfield, twisting and turning their way out of trouble and threatening with neat combinations and 1 v 1 skills on the flanks, especially on the left. But the opener came through the middle immediately after the break, Lucía García neatly turning her marker to leave herself face-to-face with keeper Lize Kop. Spain then had to bounce back from the psychological blow of conceding within a minute – a defensive lapse leaving Victoria Pelova a chance to round the keeper and equalise. But trademark combination play along the right allowed the cross to be converted by ubiquitous midfielder Maite Oroz and when Patricia Guijarro completed a corner + two headers equation, it seemed to add up to game over. But, with the Dutch switching to fast-forward mode, Joëlle Smits was allowed to convert a through pass and cue up a fighting finish. Spain, however, hung on to their advantage to reach their fourth successive final.
The demise of the ‘group of death’ winner seemed to act as a spur to the other group winner. Germany’s power, mobility and off-the-ball movement pushed France back on their heels – into a deep 1-4-1-4-1 defensive block, from which they struggled to emerge. Hurried upfield clearances played into German hands, or rather, feet and the only surprise was that 45 minutes of possession and incessant power-play yielded only a single goal, when striker Klara Bühl sprang through the France back line to beat the excellent Mylène Chavas.
The trademark of France coach Gilles Eyquem, nevertheless, is to keep his trump cards close to his chest rather than opening with them. As he had done in the opening game against the Netherlands, he made two changes at half-time, sending on Julie Thibaud to muscle-up the midfield and instructing Emelyne Laurent to use her pace and skills through the middle to test the German centre-backs, while ebullient striker Mathilde Bourdieu shifted to the right. The contest was immediately converted into the proverbial game of two halves. France substituted clearances with combinations; Germany’s attacking power-running was diverted to a pursuit of the ball. The result was reversed in three minutes – firstly by a header from unmarked Julie Thibaud from a corner on the right; and then a neat through pass which left Laurent 1 v 1 against Vanessa Fischer. Against the odds, the two group winners were out. Belfast was to stage a repeat of the previous season’s France v Spain final in Slovakia.