England bowed out of the Women's World Cup in the cruelest fashion as an injury-time own-goal gifted Japan a 2-1 win in Edmonton.
The Lionesses had fought well to pull themselves back into the game after falling behind to a Aya Miyama penalty, but Laura Bassett was unfortunate to put through her own net with seconds remaining to end the Canada dream.
Mark Sampson’s side threw everything at the holders – particularly in the second half – and were unlucky not to secure the victory in normal time themselves.
Despite the disappointment, they will return to their homeland as heroines who have done wonders for the women’s game, whatever the result of Saturday’s third-place play-off against Germany.
They set out to grip and inspire a nation - and they succeeded.
As the country fell willing victim to World Cup fever, even the midnight BST kick-off could not deter England’s home support. Manager Sampson had urged bosses around the country to allow their staff a lie-in on Thursday morning in order to persuade fans to stay up and show their support – not that they needed further encouragement.
All five City representatives started the game for the second time in the tournament. Karen Bardsley recovered from the eye injury sustained in the triumph over Canada to earn her 50th cap, while Steph Houghton and Lucy Bronze made up two of the back line. Jill Scott and Toni Duggan meanwhile helped to form a front three.
Up against the current world champions, England knew a tough test lay ahead. Japan had a 100% record in the competition going into the clash and had conceded just twice – but the Lionesses took heart from the fact they were unbeaten against the Nadeshiko in three meetings and defeated them in the 2011 group stage.
Several members of the team declared before the game they had no fear heading into it, and that theory was immediately vindicated as England almost took the lead within a minute. Unfortunately for Sampson’s side, the dream start would elude them as Jodie Taylor's shot bounced just wide.
England certainly enjoyed more of the goalmouth action in the opening 25 minutes but were limited to half-chances. Duggan blazed two first-time efforts over but it was Japan who would strike first.
The deadlock was broken – somewhat against the run of play – on the half-hour mark.
It was a spot-kick that gave the Nadeshiko the lead, as Claire Rafferty’s challenge on Saori Ariyoshi was penalised. Replays suggested the offence may have taken place outside the area but the holders did not protest and up stepped skipper Miyama to convert, after an unusually lengthy run up.
Rafferty tried to make amends shortly afterwards but curled high and wide before England were awarded a controversial penalty of their own when Houghton was adjudged to have been upended.
Fara Williams, who netted in the victory over Colombia, took responsibility and found the net expertly to level the scores at the break.
Fresh from their half-time team talk, England approached the second half eager to attack.
After Bronze was unable to direct a backpost header goalward, the Lionesses grew in confidence and laid siege to the Japan goal in an impressive period of domination.
Duggan was desperately unlucky to see an effort strike the bar, after the forward controlled well on the edge of the area, before substitute Ellen White saw an effort pushed wide by Ayumi Kaihori after Scott had battled well to win back possession.
The midfielder almost grabbed a goal herself just minutes later, connecting well with a corner only for her header to sail agonisingly wide.
From then on, it was Japan’s turn to press. Mana Iwabuchi cut inside and drilled wide and Mizuho Sakaguchi saw a header suffer the same fate, while England had to reorganise when Bronze was forced off injured.
They weathered the brief storm though and at the other end, the Lionesses struck the bar again as Rafferty’s cross-shot almost outfoxed the goalkeeper.
Just as it looked as though the game would enter extra-time – the least England deserved – the killer blow arrived in the dying minutes.
As Bassett stuck out a leg in an attempt to clear, the ball dipped in off the crossbar, breaking Lioness hearts and proving football can be such a cruel game.
The tears at full-time depicted just how much the defeat hurt - but in truth, this pride have a lot to be proud of.
England now lock horns with Germany for a bronze medal on Saturday 4 July at 9pm BST before they will surely return home to a heroes' welcome.
You can see your World Cup heroes in action when the FA Women's Super League resumes on Sunday 12 July.
MCWFC face Birmingham City Ladies at 2pm at the Academy Stadium and ticket information can be found here.