Rightfully called the biggest match in the program’s history, upstart England face their most difficult challenge yet against defending champion Japan in the Women’s World Cup semifinals Wednesday night at Commonwealth Stadium in Edmonton. The winner earns the right to face the United States in Sunday’s final in Vancouver.
Coach Mark Sampson’s side already overthrew host nation Canada in the quarters 2-1 to exceed expectations before the tournamen began, but can go even further by making their first final and the country’s first overall since 1990.
“We have huge belief this team will find a way to get themselves through to the final,” Sampson told reporters. “There’s huge determination. England will be the last team to leave Canada.”
There's no shortage of confidence on England's sideline, but it was certainly earned. With gritty defenders Steph Houghton and Laura Bassett leading the charge, England’s won four straight matches by one-goal after overcoming a 1-0 letdown to France to start the tournament. Keeper Karen Bardsley’s also played very well in net, stopping 15 shots and allowing only five goals.
Scoring hasn’t come quite as easy for England, with midfielder Karen Carney and defender Lucy Bronze netting two goals apiece, or half of the attack’s production.
But this is a squad that finds ways to win even at very dire moments. Norway held a one-goal lead after 54 minutes in the Round of 16, but Houghton came up with the equalizer in the 61st minute and Bronze the winner 15 minutes later.
“The last two games have been massive in the history of English women’s football. Now we want to create more history,” Bassett said. “We’ve shown in the last two games that we can come up with the goods when we need to. Japan are world champions for a reason but we want to be in that final on Sunday and we’re going to do everything we possibly can to get there.”
Indeed, England will have to pull out all the stops to hand Japan its first loss in the tournament.
Norio Sasaki’s side have jumped out ahead in almost every match, and then coasted in the second half on the heels of a defense that has conceded only two goals.
Decorated midfielder Aya Miyama orchestrates the attack with one goal and two assists, essentially accounting in some way for almost half Japan’s seven total goals.
Sasaki’s also rotated his goalkeepers well with Ayumi Kahihori’s three starts and six saves tops on the squad, and Miho Fukumoto and 24-year-old Erina Yamane thwarting a high-powered Switzerland attack with three saves and no goals allowed.
Kickoff time: 7 p.m. EDT
TV channel: Fox Sports 1, BBC One