English underdogs biting back
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The story of England at major competitions has become as tired and predictable as any in football.

Inevitably, it begins with big stars and bigger hype, and invariably ends with the Three Lions having again proved a collection of talented individuals rather than a team in the truest sense. And of course the climax is the most foreseeable of all. They lose. In the quarter-finals. On penalties.

It was understandable, therefore, that when 120 minutes could not yield a winner in their last eight showdown with Japan, England's U-17 women were tipped by some onlookers to follow the pattern established by their senior men. That they did not, emerging from the shootout with a 100 per cent success rate, offered further confirmation that Lois Fidler's Lionesses are a very different kind of England team.

They have talent, of course; they would not be in the semi-finals otherwise. Their strength, however, lies not in any emerging female Steven Gerrard or Wayne Rooney, but rather in the tactical discipline, dogged determination and unshakeable unity that saw them through against the technically superior Japanese.

And there is another difference that is proving crucial. In scraping into this tournament as Europe's fourth and final qualifier, Fidler's team succeeded in subverting another English tradition by taking their place among the tournament's underdogs rather than its favourites. It is a role in which they have clearly been revelling.

I think it's really galvanised them and maybe that's why our best performances have come when we've not been expected to win.
Fidler on being New Zealand 2008's underdogs.

"No-one gave us a chance against Japan but that was nothing new," said Fidler. "Even when the draw was made, people wrote us off in terms of getting out of a group that had Brazil, Nigeria and South Korea. So we've been underdogs from the start and, being honest, we've played on that with the girls.

"We've definitely had a point to prove here. At one time we thought only three European teams would be going to this tournament, which meant we wouldn't be. So when we found out the fourth-placed team would also get a place, we sat the players down and told them they had to go out and show the world they weren't just here by default."

The basis for England confounding expectations has been the fearless conviction with which they have approached every fresh test, a mindset exemplified in their flawless showing in that dramatic shootout. Fidler, who described the victory as the proudest moment of her career, revealed later that her team had been practising spot kicks every day, while Isobel Christiansen joked that "the English women have the secret to it". "Just hit the target," she advised. "And hit the corner."

Christiansen, who admitted she had "no idea" how she managed to produce the stunning 40-yard thunderbolt that hauled England back from the abyss, also revealed there had been no trepidation about facing the free-scoring Japanese. She said: "We'd done a lot of research and we weren't scared of them because we could see they had weaknesses. Because they'd been so dominant in games, we saw they hadn't really been tested defensively and felt we could hurt them going forward."

Just as importantly, the English succeeded in blunting the tournament's most deadly strikeforce, with Lucy Bronze's tireless, tenacious marking of Mana Iwabuchi crucial in preventing the kind of defeats that had befallen USA, France and Paraguay. Typically of this England side, however, the Sunderland star was modest about her own contribution.

I think the key for us is that we always stick together, no matter what.
Lucy Bronze on England's strength.

"It was all down to the coaching really," she said. "I knew [Iwabuchi] was outstanding but I'd been shown inside-out how she plays, so I knew exactly how to approach the job. Really, "

Now, having already exceeded expectations, England will hope this same strength in unity can see them through a third successive Asian test against the continental champions, Korea DPR.

"They'll be great, I'm sure," said Christiansen of a side that demolished Denmark 4-0 in the quarter-finals. "But if we play like we did against Japan, we'll be in the final."