England’s women footballers moved within 90 minutes of the World Cup final last night with a dogged and disciplined display in Vancover that broke the resistance and hearts of their Canadian hosts.
Two goals in three heady minutes early in the first half, from Jodie Taylor and Lucy Bronze, gave England a platform. Though Christine Sinclair pulled a goal back shortly before the break England held on to make the semi-finals for the first time.
They will play the holders, Japan, in Edmonton on Wednesday, kicking off at midnight UK time. Earlier on Saturday Japan edged past Australia one-nil with a late goal by Mana Iwabuchi.
Japan, who have won all five of their matches in the finals, each by a single goal, will present a much more technical test than the strong but technically limited Canadians. Though Japan won the 2011 finals they lost to England in the group stage. The teams also met in 2007, drawing 2-2.
England manager Mark Sampson will doubtless begin leafing through his files on Japan today, last night, though, was for celebrating.
Sampson, adjusting his team as usual, made two changes. Taylor, finally fully fit, replaced Toni Duggan in attack and Jill Scott came in for Fran Kirby, the Reading youngster whose tournament has become a rollercoaster. This meant England began with the personnel and 4-2-3-1 formation that had turned around the previous tie against Norway.
In front of a huge sell-out crowd, the largest and most intense Sampson and many of the his team will have experienced, England began nervously. But it was another gaffe from the error-prone Canadian defender Lauren Sesselmann that led to the breakthrough. She mis-cued a simple pass in the 11th minute, Taylor stole the ball and raced away to finish with aplomb.
Three minutes later Fara Williams floated a free-kick to the far post and Bronze, stealing behind the much shorter Alysha Chapman, headed in off the bar.
Canada, who had already missed a fine chance to take the lead through Melissa Tancredi, went into a huddle before kicking-off in an attempt to regroup. Briefly it seemed they could fold under the pressure of being hosts as Brazil’s men did last summer.
Instead they rallied, and though Katie Chapman hit the bar with a looping header from another set-play England were penned back. Before the sanctuary of half-time could be reached Ashley Lawrence, evading the normally tenacious Jade Moore too easily, crossed, Karen Bardsley spilled the ball, and Sinclair tapped in.
Bardsley has been inconsistent this tournament, a worrying mix of vital saves and errors. Nevertheless, England were discomfited when she had to go off early in the second period with an eye problem. It appeared to be an allergic reaction and she was taken to hospital for tests.
It is unclear if she will be fit for Tuesday, but one player who it seems is unavailable is Jordan Nobbs. The vice-captain revealed on twitter her hamstring injury had ruled her out for the tournament. The Football Association later said this was not true, but their veracity on injuries has been unreliable in Canada.
Siobahn Chamberlain, who has played only sporadically for this year, for Arsenal or England, came on. This is her third World Cup, but her first appearance. It was quite a stage to make a competition debut, but although Canada went on to dominate possession a combination of solid defending and poor finishing meant Chamberlain did not actually need to make a save until Belanger tested her in the 87th minute.
England, from scraps of possession, had come closer. Notably Taylor, who led the line superbly until she tired late on, brought a fine save from Erin McLeod after Karen Carney had stolen possession.
Canada’s English coach John Herdman shuffled his pack, throwing on attacking subs, but while Adriana Leon’s pace and trickery caused problems England always found an answer.
Sampson surprisingly replaced Williams with Ellen White, and in the final minutes added the experience of Casey Stoney. Though Sinclair flashed a header past the post in the final minute Canada had little menace and England saw out five minutes’ added time with ease.
“I’m proud of my team and of women’s football, it was an incredible performance,” said Sampson. “We had to dig deep. Canada took us to the limit.
“This team has shown incredible character, resilience and togetherness. These players have shown a desire I’ve never seen from an England team before.”
He added: “Japan will be a huge challenge but I will pick a team to give us a chance of reaching the final. We can be a very difficult opponent.”
“Our best just wasn’t good enough,” said Canada’s Herdman. “We had chances but we never put it in the back of the net. We got done by two bad mistakes. That’s football at the highest level.”
“Our aim before coming out here was to inspire a nation,” said England captain Steph Houghton. “Hopefully we’ve done that tonight.”
The last time an England team, male or female, reached a World Cup semi-final it took two late penalties by Gary Lineker, now better known as a TV presenter than a footballer, to see off Cameroon and reach the last four at Italia’90. At the time Sampson was seven years old, Taylor four, and Bronze not yet born. The England women’s team, meanwhile, were sleeping in gyms and training on public pitches at Clapham Common.