Japan advance to final behind fortuitous own-goal by England
England's Laura Bassett inexplicably poked the ball back into her own net in stoppage time, ricocheting it off the crossbar and giving keeper Karen Bardsley no chance on it. It was a cruel end to the Lionesses' campaign as in truth they had been the better side by far, but they cracked late.
"Look, Laura Bassett's name's on that scoresheet but she's epitomized this England team this tournament," England coach Mark Sampson told BBC Sport. "She's been courageous, strong and kept this team together. She didn't deserve that but she'll be looked upon as a hero, an absolute hero. People will remember the Laura Bassett who headed and blocked and tackled and kept this team together."
Japan had not beaten England in three previous games, with two of those matches coming at World Cups. In fact, England were the last team to beat the Japanese at a Women's World Cup, in the 2011 group stage. But England had never before made a semifinal, a feat that was compared back home to that of the England's men's team in 1966 and 1990. Japan, of course, have been here before and won it all in 2011.
For all that, this was perhaps Japan's poorest game of the tournament, and one for England to be proud of. While it was a game largely lacking in technical quality, the English at least made a fist of it, playing to win and peppering the goal. The problem was they lacked the precision to carve the champions open, squandering two fine chances that should have iced the game.
England's 4-3-3 initially pressed Japan back and disrupted some of the reigning champions' flow, but it quickly became apparent that aside from the occasional pot-shot, Ayumi Kaihori's goal wasn't often troubled in the early going. Jodie Taylor had the Lionesses' best early chance, a straight shot off the kickoff that zipped wide left of the net.
But as the game wore on, Japan began to get into a rhythm and England found themselves reduced to banging the ball over the top in an attempt to get Taylor on frame. Bardsley nearly allowed a free-kick to trickle into her net and the Japanese increasingly found space down the far flank with which to work. And then, disaster struck.
Claire Rafferty committed a clumsy foul on Saori Ariyoshi on the edge of the box, and though the foul looked to be outside of the area, the referee pointed to the spot and carded the English defender for good measure. Bardsley went the right way but Aya Miyama's kick was too strong and Japan had the lead. It was frankly a poor call, and it was apparent.
However, referee Anna-Marie Keighley may well have sensed she blew the call, because about 10 minutes later, Steph Houghton went down with Ariyoshi and Yuki Ogimi in her vicinity, and the ref pointed to the spot at the other end. The problem was that Houghton hadn't been touched — it was, in fact, a blatant dive — but Fara Williams was able to step up and convert her penalty to tie the game up.
The second half went badly adrift, with Japan holding the ball yet unable to shoot and England chasing the game but lacking real quality in the final third.
England continued to look the better, with a flurry of real chances. Toni Duggan had a volley come back off the crossbar, followed up immediately by Ellen White forcing a decent one-handed save off Kaihori in the 63rd minute. But when Jill Scott put a free header wide of the net off Williams' corner — a gift, in truth — you started to feel that the chances simply weren't going to fall.
The introduction of Mana Iwabuchi started to tilt the game in Japan's favor. Making darting runs down the near side, she started to put real pressure on Bardsley's goal, culminating in a dangerous header from Mizuho Sakaguchi that just slipped wide of the frame. And then, disaster, at the foot of Bassett.
Houghton, Bassett's central defensive partner, said: "There are no words to describe it really. The only thing I've got to say is I'm so proud of all the girls, all the staff; we've been on an amazing journey."
Japan go on while England will face Germany on Saturday afternoon (live, FOX, FOX Sports Go, 4 p.m. ET), and we are reminded the game can be cruel.
Houghton added: "Football can be cruel at times but we'll hold our heads high and try to pick ourselves up to go and play against Germany on Saturday. We want to try and finish third if we can."
Information from FOXSoccer.com's newswire services contributed to this report.