ST. PETERSBURG, Russia -- It was the game that had everything, followed by a penalty shootout that lurched one way and then another. By the end of an energy-sapping and psychologically draining 120 minutes, Spain rode their luck -- and Switzerland saw theirs run out -- to claim a place in the Euro 2020 semifinals after a 3-1 win on penalties following a 1-1 draw.
They played "London Calling" by The Clash over the stadium PA system just seconds before the penalties began, if only to add more pressure on the takers by reminding them precisely what was at stake: a semifinal against Belgium or Italy at Wembley on July 6. While the nerves affected both sets of players, the prize of a semifinal (and maybe yet a place in the final) ended up with Spain thanks to two shootout saves by goalkeeper Unai Simon and a wayward attempt by Swiss substitute Ruben Vargas, who sent his shot over the crossbar.
Mikel Oyarzabal might have struck the decisive penalty, but Simon was the difference-maker.
Friday's defeat was tough on Switzerland -- especially so for keeper Yann Sommer, who produced a series of crucial saves late in the game to take it to penalties. The Borussia Monchengladbach No. 1, whose save from Kylian Mbappe sealed Monday's round-of-16 shootout win against France, looked set to be the match winner again when he kept out Rodri's spot kick during their penalty drama. But having played with 10 men since the 77th minute after midfielder Remo Freuler was dismissed for a challenge on Gerard Moreno -- replays showed it to be a harsh decision by English referee Michael Oliver, but it was not challenged by VAR -- Switzerland just could not repeat their heroics against the French in Bucharest by eliminating Luis Enrique's team.
"I'm really proud of the team," Swiss midfielder Xherdan Shaqiri said. "Penalties are a bit 50-50, and I was nervous watching the shootout. I think we just lacked a little bit of luck today."
Meanwhile Spain keeper Simon, beaten by Shaqiri for Switzerland's second-half equaliser, insisted his team deserved to go through, saying, "We are deserved winners."
In terms of possession and chances created, Simon is probably correct, but credit should be given to Switzerland for their refusal to crumble after Freuler's red card. For the second time in just four days, both teams were forced to endure extra time as the knockout stages of the competition continued to test every element of their physical capabilities. But Switzerland's challenge was much greater than Spain's.
More might be made of this once the tournament is over, but no team has suffered from the logistical nightmare of staging the competition in 11 different European cities across the length and breadth of the continent more than Switzerland. While Spain played three group games at home in Seville and based themselves in Madrid, before teeing up this quarterfinal in Russia with a win against Croatia in Copenhagen, Denmark, Vladimir Petkovic's Swiss squad had clocked more than 7,000 miles in less than three weeks thanks to a schedule that took it from Baku to Rome, back to Baku, on to Bucharest and then, finally, to Saint Petersburg.
That Switzerland were able to take Spain to penalties, with a one-man disadvantage and so many more miles on their clock, is a testament to the collective unity of Petkovic's squad. They are no team of stars, but you will have to look long and hard to find another side with the work ethic and commitment displayed by Switzerland during Euro 2020.
Switzerland have fighting spirit too. They fought back from 3-1 down against France and had to overturn Spain's 8th-minute opener in Saint Petersburg after Jordi Alba's 20-yard shot was deflected past Sommer by Denis Zakaria.
Having scored so early, Spain should have capitalised on Switzerland's fatigue and added to their tally, but this Spanish side is a contradiction. It scores goals, but it can't score goals. Spain had hit 10 in their past two games, against Croatia and Slovakia, but without a striker of genuine quality, their goals always seem to come out of the blue, or via a mistake or unexpected piece of brilliance. Alvaro Morata continues to look weighed down by the burden of playing as the centre-forward; he lasted only 55 minutes on Friday before being replaced by Moreno, who proceeded to engage in a losing battle with Sommer that saw the keeper save everything he sent his way.
As for the rest, Spain pass it around nicely and have great quality in Pedri and Ferran Torres, but as a team, they just look pedestrian and unimaginative. It is a group of players that lacks an identity or clear roadmap to wherever it is heading. Yet Spain coach Luis Enrique struck a defiant tone after the game, insisting his team has the qualities to win the competition.
"If there is a team prepared to overcome adversities, it is ours," he said. "We are one of the four favourites to win Euro 2020 on our own merits."
Spain have managed to make it to the semifinals by stumbling through a weak section of the draw, and they couldn't finish off the Swiss before the shootout despite having a one-man advantage for the final 43 minutes. Their lack of zip and physical presence will surely see them reach the end of the line against either Belgium or Italy in the semis. Whenever Luis Enrique's players face a genuine heavyweight opponent, they seem to lose. But while this Spain team is a shadow of its recent predecessors, it has at least brought an end to Spanish failures at major tournaments.
Since winning Euro 2012, Spain have suffered a group-stage elimination at Brazil 2014 and failed to go beyond the round of 16 at Euro 2016 or Russia 2018. They have made the semifinals at Euro 2020, through sheer force of will, but it's difficult to believe they will go any further.