(CNN) — It wasn’t easy, and at times there was doubt, but defending champion the US can look ahead to a mouthwatering quarterfinal clash against host France after a 2-1 win over a resolute Spain.
In the US’ toughest challenge at the Women’s World Cup so far, two Megan Rapinoe penalties, one in each half, secured progress to the last eight.
When Spain conceded a fifth-minute penalty — Maria Leon bringing down Tobin Heath in the box — it seemed as if the US would go on to accrue another healthy scoreline, just as it did in the group stages.
Jill Ellis’ team had qualified for the last 16 having scored 18 goals in three games and not conceded, becoming the first team in World Cup history to qualify for the knockout stages with a +18 goal difference.
But before this tournament questions were being asked of the US’ defense and for the first time in France it was put through its paces and breached.
In trying to play out from defense, Becky Sauerbrunn lost possession on the edge of her box and Spain pounced with a delightful finish from Jennifer Hermoso.
The defending champion created more chances — Rapinoe twice missed opportunities to give her team the lead — but so too did Spain, catching out the Americans’ high defensive line on a couple of occasions.
After the break, Spain’s ploy of slowing the pace of the game by keeping possession was successful in frustrating the tournament favorite until Leon challenged Rose Lavelle inside the box and the referee pointed at the spot.
Though it was the slightest of contacts, a VAR check rubber-stamped the decision and Rapinoe coolly slotted home.
In theory it should have been a far simpler assignment for the US. Spain was competing in the knockout stages for the first time, while the country has only recently woken up to women’s football.
Spain may be a passionate football nation — the men won the World Cup in 2010 — but for the most part the women’s game has been an afterthought.
After the 2015 Women’s World Cup, the national team players protested against the way they were treated by then manager Ignacio Quereda. After 27 years at the helm, Quereda stepped down from his post and under his successor Jorge Vilda — at 37 the youngest coach at the tournament — much has changed.
The tenacity of the players on the pitch against a more illustrious opponent was testimony to the improvements made.
After defeat by two-time champion Germany in the group stages, Spain goalkeeper Sandra Panos said her team “can play with any team in the world” and so it proved on a balmy early afternoon in Reims.