By Simon Evans
EDMONTON (Reuters) - Defending champions Japan are one win away from a return trip to the Women's World Cup final, and standing in their way is an upbeat England team that beat hosts Canada to reach Wednesday's semi-final.
While it is no shock to see Japan, who have won their last eight World Cup games dating back to 2011, in the tournament's last four, England's rise to the elite of the women's game has surprised many.
Despite their unlikely run, England will not be considered pushovers at Edmonton's Commonwealth Stadium even though the Lionesses have never before gone this deep in the tournament.
Their previous best Women's World Cup performances were second-round defeats in 1995, 2007 and 2011.
Mark Sampson's team suffered a 1-0 defeat to France in their opening game of the 24-team tournament but have since gone on to beat Mexico, Colombia, Norway and Canada.
"From the opening game against France we have really built momentum through this tournament. We've played with different formations and different members of the squad have taken part in different games," said midfielder Fara Williams.
"This team is the most together team at the tournament and certainly the most together English team that I have played in."
But Japan, with their impressive passing style and intelligent tactical approach, represent the toughest test yet for the Lionesses.
Japan, the first Asian team to win a World Cup in either the male or female game, are hugely experienced and showed in their quarter-final win over Australia that they have the important ingredient of patience.
It took until the 87th minute for the Nadeshiko to break through but Japan's coach Norio Sasaki never felt the result was in doubt.
"I was thinking even if we didn’t score a goal in the 90 minutes, we certainly would have in extra time," said Sasaki. "That's what everyone on the team was thinking. Our game plan was very well executed."
The Japanese team features some of the top individual performers in the tournament such as midfielders Aya Miyama and Rumi Utsugi as well as crafty forward Shinobu Ohno.
But they need no reminder that their winning streak in World Cup games goes back to their last defeat - against England in the group stage in 2011.
"We lost to England four years ago," said Miyama.
"Regardless of what style we produce or how we play, we just want to get a win."
(Editing by Frank Pingue)