by Andy SCOTT
A last-minute Lieke Martens penalty took the Netherlands through to the women's World Cup quarter-finals on Tuesday as they joined Italy in the last eight, confirming Europe's supremacy at the tournament and ending Asian interest already.
The Dutch scraped past Japan 2-1 to set up a quarter-final on Saturday in Valenciennes against the Italians, who had beaten China 2-0 earlier in the day thanks to goals from Valentina Giacinti and Aurora Galli.
Those results mean seven of the eight quarter-finalists in France are European, with holders and favourites the United States the sole exception. There had never previously been more than five European sides in the last eight of a women's World Cup.
Such an early exit is particularly painful for Japan, who won the World Cup in 2011 and were beaten finalists four years ago in Canada.
The Nadeshiko had their hearts broken in Rennes as Barcelona star Martens converted a 90th-minute spot-kick awarded after a Vivianne Miedema shot had struck the arm of captain Saki Kumagai in the box.
The European champions, who lost by the same scoreline to Japan at the same last-16 stage in 2015, are through to the quarter-finals for the first time.
"It is history that we have made. We are really proud about that but we are not done yet here. We are really looking forward to the next game and we hope we can surprise more," said Martens.
She had given the Netherlands a 17th-minute lead with a superb backheel flick into the net from a Sherida Spitse corner, but Japan equalised just prior to half-time when Mana Iwabuchi supplied Yui Hasegawa to fire high into the net.
Japan had hit the post before that through Yuika Sugasawa, and Hina Sugita smashed a shot off the underside of the crossbar during a second half in which Japan were superior.
Extra time was looming when the Honduran referee penalised Kumagai, who could do nothing to get out of the way of a shot that was nevertheless heading towards the target.
"It was a penalty, it struck my hand. Of course it is very hard to accept. I am sad but I know that that's football," admitted a tearful Kumagai.
Coach Asako Takakura added: "VAR is there. Sometimes cruel decisions have been taken in other matches. Today it went against us. We have to look forward and accept it."
Japan will now look ahead to the Olympics in Tokyo next year after joining Thailand, South Korea, Australia and China in being eliminated.
It is the first time that no Asian representatives have made it to the last eight at the women's World Cup, with 1999 runners-up China going out after a 2-0 defeat at the hands of Italy in Montpellier.
A 15th-minute tap in from Giacinti and substitute Galli's fierce drive three minutes after the break saw Milena Bertolini's side see off a committed Chinese team and match Italy's best run in the competition back in 1991.
'Work to do'
"Today wasn't a display of beautiful football but the girls gave everything and we were clinical," Bertolini told TV station Rai. "To reach the quarter-finals is hugely satisfying."
Italy, ranked 15th in the world, have been a revelation at this World Cup, but China have been hugely disappointing and go home with just a solitary goal scored, in their 1-0 win over South Africa.
"That is football. The team that makes the first mistake pays for it," said China coach Jia Xiuquan.
"This is a major tournament which allows us to see our weaknesses. We still have work to do to improve Chinese football. We have lots of room for progression."
Wednesday is a rest day before the first quarter-final on Thursday pitches England against Norway in Le Havre.
With much of France in the grip of a heatwave, temperatures in Paris are expected to reach 35 degrees centigrade on Friday when the hosts take on the USA at the Parc des Princes.