WWC Semi-Final: England

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England have been something of an enigma in this tournament and face an increasingly dangerous Japanese outfit in the semi-final.

The story so far

England finished runners up in Group F after their opening loss to France was salvaged by 2-1 wins against Mexico and Colombia.

The Three Lionesses struggled for consistency and looked destined for a round of 16 exit against Norway when two late goals saved the day for Mark Sampson’s team.

Two quickfire strikes were enough to topple hosts Canada in the quarter final, England holding on for their fourth 2-1 win of the tournament to progress to the final four.

They are just the third English side of both sexes to make the semi-finals of a World Cup in the nation’s history.

They’ll beat Japan because…

England are gathering momentum and have improved on each performance at the tournament so far. They demonstrated against Canada that they can control the game in key areas and the way Canada rarely threatened them in the 2nd half is a huge boost to England’s defensive composure and merit.

It will be interesting to see if the approach will be similar to the opening encounter against France. Mark Sampson will have learnt lessons from that game and know that his side need to find ways to hurt the Japanese rearguard if they have any chance to reach the final.

Luckily for England, they may have a few trump cards to play yet. Mark Sampson’s constant tinkering means the element of unpredictability is on their side and with the likes of Lianne Sanderson yet to make an impact in the tournament, Japan will have to be wary.

England are a combative, battling team and if they can turn the game into a fistfight they might have enough brute force to get over the line. This is not to say they aren’t capable of turning it on and matching Japan but the chances of outplaying them on the day are slim.  Norio Sasaki’s team are so effective in swarming around their own defensive half and shutting down time and space for opposition that England must decide which moments to press forward, be very quick on the transition and attack with conviction.

Perhaps the best route to goal for England will be through set pieces. They’ve looked dangerous from every set-piece at the tournament so far though it’s yet to have paid dividends. Whether it’s a high, lofted ball to the back post from Fara Williams or a more precise, teasing whipped cross from Alex Greenwood, England have the tall timber to cause problems in the Japanese box – especially against a team who have played all three goalkeepers at the tournament.

They’ll be knocked out by Japan because…

Japan are a well-oiled machine and have looked a class above every opponent they’ve come across. Some even hold that they haven’t even played to their best yet which is a dangerous proposition for England.

Norio Sasaki’s girls are by all accounts the best team at the tournament and hold the technical advantage over England as France did in their opening group game. On that day, England were comprehensively outplayed and would not have scored if they had hours to do so. Japan are an even better team than that France side and their dominance should eventually tell.

Japan should find a way past Karen Bardsley inside 90 minutes and it’s hard to see England breaking down such a phenomenally organised and disciplined side to force a reply.

Will they win the World Cup?

England have been written off at every stage so it’s hard to simply dismiss their chances here, even if the odds are overwhelmingly in favour of the Japanese. However, this might be one game too far for the Lionesses.

Best moment of the tournament so far

When the final whistle was blown against Canada. England made history, becoming just the third national side to progress to the semi-final of a World Cup, joining some of the most illustrious names in English football. A landmark moment for the women’s game in England.

Key player

In a side that is constantly changing, Fara Williams has been one of the few constants. Williams is the spine of the side and ostensibly their most recognisable “star” player in a team that prioritizes collective endeavour rather than individual match-winners. Her delivery from set-pieces will be crucial to her side’s chances, as will her positional discipline.

Injuries / suspensions

Karen Bardsley’s eye took a battering last week but she’s recovered and available for England.

Prediction

England will go toe-to-toe with them for a period but won’t prevent Japan from making it two World Cup final appearances in a row.

Japan to win 2-0.

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