Football can be cruel, and Japan was at the receiving end of perhaps the cruelest blow the game can offer.
It was ultimately a 90th minute penalty in Rennes that handed the Netherlands a 2-1 win and its first ever Women’s World Cup quarterfinal, sending 2015’s finalist home in heartbreaking fashion.
The result means that seven European countries will take up the eight quarterfinal slots in France after Italy — the Netherlands’ next opponent on Saturday — defeated China 2-0 to reach its first quarterfinal since 1991.
For much of the second half, it seemed like Japan would produce the game’s winning goal with the match evenly poised at 1-1. But a rare Dutch foray into the Japanese box drew a handball from Saki Kumagai and with less than a minute left on the clock, Lieke Martens delivered the killer touch.
“It was so close and during the second half they were very, very attacking and created a couple of really nice opportunities to score,” Dutch head coach Sarina Wiegman told reporters after the match.
“We were standing in a circle after the match and we were obviously so happy. We were yelling at each other and saying okay, let’s just continue writing history. For the first time we’ve got to this stage of a World Cup and all the players use this mantra.”
Martens had given the European champion the lead after just 16 minutes with a deft flick from a corner, but Japan, which has taken time to grow into this World Cup, soon began to find its feet and produced an equalizer just before halftime.
A well-weighted through ball from Mana Iwabuchi found Yui Hasegawa in space in the Dutch box, and the forward coolly finished over the head of Sari Van Veenendaal.
Buoyed by the goal, Nadeshiko played with greater energy for much of the second half, their fast interplay causing Netherlands — who fell to Japan at this stage in 2015 — plenty of problems at the back.
Hasegawa, Hina Sugita and substitute Yuka Momiki all came close, but it was the Oranje that ultimately sealed the match as Martens dispatched her second goal from the spot.
“We created many chances. However, we just couldn’t capitalize and towards the end we [made a] crisis for ourselves,” Japan coach Asako Takakura told reporters after the game.
“But now we have VAR, sometimes cruel decisions have been made watching other matches and it happened to us towards the end of this match. We have to look forward and we have to accept the decision.”
Italy — World Cup dark horses?
It’s been a record breaking year for Europe’s World Cup participants and Italy had set the trend earlier on Tuesday by defeating China in Montpellier, equaling its best ever performance in the tournament.
The Italians are regarded as the competition’s dark horses and with good reason. Though competing at the Women’s World Cup for the first time in 20 years — and having made it through to the last 16 for the first time since 1991 — Italy has impressed in France.
For years an afterthought in a country where men’s football is treated like a religion — the men are four-time World Cup winners — the form of Italy’s women has been impossible to ignore. Le Azzurre topped a group which contained Australia and Brazil — two teams ranked inside the world’s top 10 — and has now disposed of former finalist China.
After the match, Italy coach Milena Bertolini told reporters: “This squad is made up of girls who have a lot of quality. They are good footballers and they’re performing well here because of that. But there’s a further aspect. They have a mission. Their mission is to try and have the Italian public to discover and appreciate the women’s game.
“This aspect helps you because it allows you to find that extra energy and motivation. I really believe this side has allowed the women’s game to break new ground back home. We can see that from the viewing figures, what we see in the press and from the messages we receive from back home.”
The Italians started brightly with Valentina Giancinti, the highest scorer in Italy’s top division last season, particularly impressing on a summery evening in Montpellier. She had one effort disallowed for offside and took another aim at distance before eventually finding the back of the net, pouncing from close range after goalkeeper Peng Shimeng Elisa Bartoli’s shot into the striker’s path.
China, which has only once failed to progress to the last eight prior to this match, grew into the match as the first half progressed. Wang Yan forced a fine save from Laura Giuliani while the Steel Roses also hit the woodwork before the break, though replays showed a goal would have been disallowed for offside.
But in the 49th minute substitute Aurora Galli doubled the advantage with a shot from the edge of the box, her fourth goal in five appearances, to secure a meeting with either the Netherlands or Japan.
China edged possession and completed nearly double the number of passes than its opponent but again scoring proved to be a problem — the Steel Roses only found the net once in France.