Football: Hero Martens admits Netherlands rode their luck to beat Japan in Women's World Cup

Netherlands' forward Lieke Martens (centre) celebrates with team mates after scoring.
Netherlands' forward Lieke Martens (centre) celebrates with team mates after scoring.PHOTO: AFP

RENNES, France (REUTERS) -  Netherlands goal hero Lieke Martens admitted her side struggled through the closing stages of Tuesday’s (June 25) Women’s World Cup victory over Japan but said a team sometimes need a little luck to progress in the tournament.

Martens’ last-gasp penalty earned them a 2-1 victory and a ticket to the quarter-finals for the first time where they will play Italy in Valenciennes on Saturday (June 29).

“Sometimes you need a little luck and that’s what we had. It was tough... we had it really tough towards the end of the game, but it really doesn’t matter in the end. We are so happy with the victory,” she said.

Martens got the first goal for the Dutch only for Yui Hasegawa to level on the stroke of half-time, and see Japan, who hit the woodwork twice, dominate the second half but lack the finishing touch.

Martens is not the team’s nominated penalty taker but said she had felt confident throughout the game and wanted to take the kick.

“I asked Sherida (Spitse) if I could take it because I felt so confident,” she said. “I ran towards her and said ‘may I take it?’ Luckily Sherida agreed, but it was also nerve-wracking waiting to take the kick.”

Martens was the talisman for the Dutch when they won the European Championship two years ago but until Tuesday had looked mostly out of form at the tournament in France.

“Everyone has been expecting a lot from me. Sometimes you can’t fulfil those expectations,” the 26-year-old said.

“Luckily there have been other girls who have helped us to realise our victories. That how it works in team sports. I have played a few poor games and received criticism.

“Criticism has its place so I was pleased I was able to show what I can do against Japan. It was my night.”

Meanwhile, Japan coach Asako Takakura  described the late penalty decision as one of many “cruel decisions” made by the VAR during the tournament.

At 1-1 in the 90th minute, Vivianne Miedema’s shot was blocked by Japan skipper Saki Kumagai at point-blank range and VAR confirmed the referee’s decision to award a penalty for handball, which commentators deemed to be a very harsh decision.

“We created a crisis for ourselves,” Takakura said when asked about the penalty decision. “With VAR, sometimes cruel decisions have been made watching other matches.

“It happened to us too towards the end of the match. I’m sorry it happened, but we have to look forward and we must accept the decision.”

Although Japan had their chances at the tournament, their physicality and intensity were not up to the mark compared to the European sides such as the Dutch and England, who beat them 2-0 in the group stages.

“We’ve been conscious about the physical size as we’re not as tall or as strong as European players,” she said. “Individually, it’s obvious that we don’t have as much power as them and we have put all the effort we could in the intense duels in the competition. There is room for improvement and we must continue to improve our skills and physical levels.”

Takakura admitted Japan, who won the title in 2011 and also reached the final at the previous edition, were under pressure to perform which may have affected the squad that included 17 players who were playing in the World Cup for the first time.

“We are a young squad but when you’re on the pitch, age doesn’t matter,” she said. “We were runners-up last time (2015) and winners in 2011. We were happy that a lot was expected from us but it was also a lot of pressure."