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England heartbroken, France through to first-ever semifinal after penalty kicks

If two weeks ago anybody could have predicted that a France-England quarterfinal would provide the best game of the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup to date, the sanity of said person might be questioned. All eyes are on Sunday’s USA-Brazil match, but France and England provided the story of the tournament thus far.

Heartbreak is the only way to describe the match for England, which put in the gutsiest performance of the tournament in a 4-3 penalty shootout loss to France in Saturday’s quarterfinal. France leveled the game at 1-1 in the 88th minute to send the match to extra time, when England heroically lasted 30 minutes while pinned into its own half to force penalty kicks. But with France up 4-3 on penalties, English captain Faye White stepped up and smacked the final penalty kick off the crossbar to send France through to its first-ever semifinal.

France dominated the match but could not find net thanks in large part to English goalkeeper Karen Bardsley, who made seven saves. Completely against the run of play, England scored in the 59th minute when Jill Scott took advantage of a Sabrina Viguier mistake and chipped Bardsley.

But France continued to dominate the run of play and pushed on for the equalizer. That is when things got really interesting. England manager Hope Powell used all three of her substitutions in a three minute span. She removed defenders Alex Scott and Rachel Unitt in the 81st minute and three minutes later Powell inserted Anita Asante into the game for left midfielder Rachel Yankey.

All this while star playmaker Kelly Smith was limping around the field, just as England attempted to limp to the final whistle with a 1-0 win.

With White also struggling to run at full speed, France capitalized. Elise Bussaglia scored one of the best goals of the tournament at crunch time. Her 88th minute left-footed strike smacked the inside of the far post and went into the upper 90 to force extra time.

The goal classically exposed Powell’s poor substitutions – a shocking statement given Powell’s 13 year tenure and great reputation as England manager. The Guardian is reporting this could have been Powell’s last game.

However, as great as Powell has been, her choice to make those three changes in three minutes was a case of serious mis-management. Smith literally could barely walk (although her where her mobility suffered, her touch did not) and White struggled to get through the extra time period.

England triumphantly dragged out the extra time period to hold France scoreless through the 30 minutes and force penalty kicks. Smith should be applauded for her effort, which ended with a rocket of a penalty kick to open up the shootout for England. It will surely be the last World Cup for the 32-year-old and it was one traumatizing way to go out.

France now moves forward, but not without questions. Les Bleues should have ended this game in regulation and had no business trailing as they did. They out-shot England 33-7 on the day and never looked to be out of control of the game, but still France fell behind early in the second half. That lack of finishing will kill against the United States or Brazil.

The decision to remove a very active Louisa Necib from the game in the 80th minute was puzzling from Bruno Bini, but France deserved the victory. Les Bleues are at an all-time high and after an epic quarterfinal victory, they are proving fun to be extremely fun to watch. And now, they have nothing to lose.

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