Two minutes before the hour, with France starting to suggest they had finally got Germany’s measure, their substitute Selma Bacha was sent sprinting clear down the inside-left channel. Her decision to shoot early as the ball held up outside the penalty area seemed questionable but was quickly explained: she had seen Alexandra Popp, in effect the last German defender, making up ground in her rear view mirror and could do little as, from nowhere, the hurtling No 11 successfully threw herself towards the shot. Popp had prevented a potential goal and here was the kicker: 13 seconds previously, in an almost identical position at the other end of the pitch, it was her slightly loose pass that had let France break.
She had bust a gut to get back and save the day, just as she put everything on the line to power a thrilling winner past Pauline Peyraud-Magnin 14 minutes from time. For all the breathtaking moments England’s players have provided in their run to the final, there will be nobody quite like Popp on the Wembley pitch this Sunday.
When she planted another thrusting header to crown the group stage win over Denmark, months after recovering from a potentially career-ending cartilage tear, one of this summer’s good news stories was already guaranteed. Two other injuries had deprived her of European Championship action in 2013 and 2017. Always prolific, she had never quite been lucky; now she is making up for lost time and, with six goals in five games, has made history on her 119th cap.
Popp does not stop. She has torn into opponents with three tournaments’ worth of energy, creating both goals against Austria by closing down poor Manuela Zinsberger, and has built a head of steam that most 31-year-olds can no longer muster. Her approach is of a piece with Germany’s unremitting, insistent style and fed into the tie’s wider narrative. If the previous night’s semi-final became memorable for its flourishes of sheer audacity and the host nation’s ensuing euphoria, this clash quickly cast a spell through its brutal, relentless force.
Neither France nor Germany had shown much capacity to ease off in their previous four games, even if early batterings of Italy and Denmark respectively proved exceptions in terms of victory margin. Nobody can stay with either set of players unless they run, run, run: it inevitably meant that, when they met, the result was a tempo rarely matched even at this level.
What a spectacle this was: a meeting of two sides crashing into each other. To the eye Germany appeared slighter, defter, more capable of moving the ball fluidly through the intelligent positioning and smart feet of their No 10 Lina Magull; every loss of possession, though, turned butterflies into wasps who swarmed into opponents with structured fury. Early on three players chased down a defender who had the audacity to clear near the corner flag; in the 23rd minute another four were back to crowd out Delphine Cascarino as she led a break towards the box. France, full of threat when they could escape the clutches and locate Kadidiatou Diani on the right, tended to require cruder means when thwarting German incursions. Magull did scupper her own dart into the box, though, with an egregious first-half dive.
When Germany opened the scoring, the goal distilled their most appealing facets. Svenja Huth, redeployed to the left because of the unfortunate Klara Bühl’s Covid-19 diagnosis, scurried in like a flash to seize on a loose defensive touch. Seconds later she had appeared on the opposite side of the pitch to continue the move and clip a perfect cross that, flying on in the volley, Popp flashed high into the net.
Popp did not let up from there and nor, on the whole, did Germany. There were still moments that will pique England’s interest: Austria had struck the woodwork three times in their quarter-final and, when Diani did the same here, her thundercracker of a drive rebounded in off Merle Frohms. Every tournament-winning side needs an in-form keeper and Frohms was properly worked after that, answering questions with sound handling along with important second-half saves from Bacha and Diani. For such a purring, undeniably well-drilled force, Germany have given teams glimpses in the past week: England should prove more capable than anyone else of taking any invitation.
That is if Popp has not stolen in on the blindside and whipped it away. At the end she fell to the floor, arms stretched out, swamped by teammates who knew exactly what this had taken. One more night like this, and match number 120 will complete the fairytale.