How Mikel Merino's spectacular 'frog leap' lifted Spain into the Euro 2024 semi-finals

With Spain on the ropes and looking set for penalties in their European Championship quarter-final against hosts Germany, substitute Mikel Merino stepped up — or, more to the point, leapt up to win it.

Dani Olmo swung in a right-footed cross in the 119th minute and the Real Sociedad midfielder jumped to meet it, his header leaving goalkeeper Manuel Neuer rooted to the spot.

It was Merino’s second goal for Spain — his other one had been in a 6-0 Euros qualifying drubbing of Cyprus in September. The 28-year-old managed just one goal in 25 appearances for Newcastle United during his sole season there, 2017-18, though he did score eight times for Real Sociedad last season.

But this one will live long in the memory of all Spain fans — and it had everything to do with the way Merino used his body.

The move started with left-back Marc Cucurella getting on the ball in the German half. As he shapes to pass to Olmo, Merino (No 6) is hovering just outside the box, with fellow substitutes Joselu and Mikel Oyarzabal to his right.

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As Olmo receives the pass, Germany right-back Joshua Kimmich comes out to meet him, leaving centre-backs Antonio Rudiger and Waldemar Anton with three Spain players to keep an eye on. Left-back Maximilian Mittelstadt runs back to cover Oyarzabal’s run, but Toni Kroos (No 8) is ambling towards the box.

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That appears to cause confusion with his former Real Madrid team-mate Rudiger. With Olmo shaping to cross, Merino makes a clever run from between Rudiger and Kroos. Neither picks up Merino and the Spain midfielder ghosts in behind the defender. He does not need to outjump the 6ft 3in (190cm) Rudiger — but he still produces a gravity-defying leap to get on the end of Olmo’s inch-perfect ball.

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Merino’s header is a glancing one into the top left-hand corner. He stoops while in mid-air to send it back across from where it came, leaving Neuer motionless.

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But it is only in the still pictures that you realise how spectacular Merino’s movement is.

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(Photo: Bradley Collyer/PA Images via Getty Images)

The midfielder’s jump is almost frog-like as he splays out his legs and twists his head, having arrived at speed but needing to adjust his body position, to send his header past Neuer.

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(Christian Charisius/picture alliance via Getty Images)

He has his back to goal as he makes contact and rotates his neck to put just the right amount of flight on the ball, wrong-footing the Germany No 1.

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Spanish commentators were quick to make the comparison with other crucial headers scored against German teams in their country’s football history, such as Carles Puyol’s to decide the 2010 World Cup semi-final and centre-back Antonio Maceda’s to put La Roja through to the Euro 1984 semi-finals — Spain progressed from that game but lost in the final to France.

It also meant Merino emulated his father Miguel, a former midfielder who scored for Osasuna in a November 1991 UEFA Cup match against Stuttgart in the same stadium. Merino’s goal celebration, circling the corner flag, was the same one his dad had performed.

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Merino celebrates in the style of his father (Photo: Alex Gottschalk/DeFodi Images/DeFodi via Getty Images)

At 118 minutes and 52 seconds, it was the third-latest winning goal in Euros history after Michel Platini’s 119th-minute effort for France against Portugal in 1984 and Artem Dovbyk’s 121st-minute finish for Ukraine against Sweden at the delayed 2020 tournament.

Merino was asked if it was the “goal of his life” by reporters after the game.

“It could be up until now, yes,” he said. “Because of the importance of the game, in the last minute to win a match, it could easily be the goal of any player’s career.

“At first I didn’t believe it, because I saw the ball go off my head, I saw it just as it was going in. I heard an incredible silence — I didn’t know if something was happening or not. It took me a few seconds for me to work out it had been a goal and I celebrated it like mad, all my team-mates came and piled on and (then) I realised it had been a goal.”

The Spain fans watching in Stuttgart and back home certainly didn’t need any time to react.

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