Stephanie Labbé's penalty saves just the latest gutsy performance by Canadian keeper
Labbé backstopped Canada to victory in Olympic quarter-final vs. Brazil
When it comes to penalty shootouts, there is nowhere for the goalkeeper to hide.
Outfield players can volunteer for shooting duty, but they also have the option of declining when asked by their coach if they're up for taking a penalty. Goalkeepers have no such luxury. They can't opt out. For better or worse, their teams are stuck with them going into what is one of the most pressure-filled situations in all of sports.
Lucky for the Canadian women's team that they had Stephanie Labbé between the posts vs. Brazil for Friday's quarter-final showdown at the Tokyo Olympics.
Labbé, a 34-year-old native of Edmonton, emerged as Canada's hero by making two critical saves in a 4-3 shootout victory to send the Reds through to the Olympic semifinals for the third consecutive time.
Things looked bleak for Canada when captain Christine Sinclair saw her opening penalty attempt saved by Brazilian goalkeeper Barbara. But teammates Jessie Fleming, Ashley Lawrence, Adrian Leon all converted their kicks, and Labbé dove to her left to deny Brazil's Andressa to tie the score at 3-3 after four penalties apiece, taking the advantage away from the South Americans.
Vanessa Gilles scored on Canada's fifth attempt to put the pressure back on Brazil, and Labbé came up with another stop, this time on Rafaelle, to secure the win for Canada.
WATCH | Match highlights - Canada vs. Brazil:
In the immediate aftermath, Canada's players rightly rushed to Labbé inside the penalty area and mobbed the goalkeeper in celebration of their dramatic victory, which ended a four-game winless skid against Brazil in international play.
"Really, really proud of the resilient performance that the group put in, they went right to the very end. All tournament I've said big players step up in big moments, and with Steph, I had no doubt in my mind when that penalty was taken it was going to be saved," Canadian coach Bev Priestman said in the post-match press conference.
"Just over the moon, a really great Canadian performance and Canadian moments," she later added.
Canada enjoys the slimmest of leads in the all-time series against Brazil with a record of nine wins, eight losses and nine draws dating back to their first meeting in 1996. Games between Canada and Brazil are always competitive, always tight, with the margin between victory and defeat ever so slight. Friday was no exception. Neither side could find a way to breach the opposing defence through 90 minutes of regulation time and a half hour of extra time. In matches like this, one player can often make the difference.
On this occasion, it was Labbé.
It's easy to focus Labbé's heroics in the shootout, but Canada wouldn't have even reached that point and been in a position to win had it not been for the veteran shot stopper's performance through the first 120 minutes, and her gutsy performances throughout this tournament.
Labbé suffered a serious knock in Canada's opening contest when she was called for a foul in the 18-yard-box after colliding with Japanese forward Mina Tanaka. Labbé was in quite a bit of discomfort, but she stayed in the game and made the save on the ensuing penalty to deny Tanaka.
A few minutes later, a tearful Labbé was subbed out and replaced by Kailen Sheridan, but not before she followed up on her penalty save with a sensational double-stop on Japan midfielder Yuzuho Shiokoshi inside the penalty area.
WATCH | Labbé injured, stops penalty, leaves game vs. Japan:
After sitting out Canada's 2-1 win over Chile with a rib-joint injury, Labbé was back in net for the group-stage finale vs. Great Britain, and again made some critical saves in a 1-1 draw that clinched a berth in the knockout round for Canada.
Just before halftime against Brazil, Gilles was caught in possession just outside her penalty area by Debinha and had a clear pathway to the Canadian goal. But Labbé bravely rushed off her line to cut down the angle and deny the Brazilian attacker inside the box.
She got the better of Debinha again in the second half with an important diving save to stop the Brazilian's low-driving shot from distance. There was a scary moment in the first half of extra time when Labbé and Brazil's Ludmila collided inside the box as they both challenged for the ball. Not for the first time this tournament, the Canadian goalkeeper put her body on the line to make the stop, and she stayed down for several minutes before carrying on.
Labbé came up with yet another big save in the 119th minute, this time tipping away Erika's header from the edge of the six-yard box to rob the Brazilian of a sure goal. Moments later, Debinha took out Labbé's legs from underneath her while the Canadian was in the air and she crumpled to the ground in a heap. After being looked at by trainers, and with Sheridan warming up on the sidelines, Labbé stayed in the game and went to make those two big stops in the shootout.
WATCH | Stephanie Labbé's clutch saves help Canada to semis:
There were questions coming into the Tokyo Olympics as to whether Labbé or Sheridan would serve as Canada's starter at this tournament. Labbé has been Canada's unquestioned starter for several years, helping the team repeat as bronze medal winners at Rio 2016.
Sheridan has pushed Labbé in the battle for the starting role the past 18 months, and she was tabbed as Canada's No. 1 for the start of the SheBelieves Cup back in February. In doing so, Priestman appeared to be tipping her hand as to who would get the call at the Olympics.
But Sheridan suffered a quad injury a mere 10 minutes into Canada's first match that knocked her out for the rest of the tournament. She was sidelined for several months after undergoing surgery before returning to action, raising the question as to who would start for Canada in Japan.
Honestly, the question never should have been asked in the first place. Sheridan, a 26-year-old from Whitby, Ont., with 13 caps to her credit, is Canada's goalkeeper of the future. Labbé, with 81 caps and 40 clean sheets, is Canada's goalkeeper of the present.
Priestman's decision to go with the veteran shot-stopper has paid off huge dividends in Japan, as evidenced by her player-of-match-effort in a tense quarter-final against Brazil.
"What a performance by the team defensively. We were solid against some of the best strikers in the world. Attacking wise, I thought we put in a good shift, we had some great opportunities," Labbé told reporters after the game. "That's what the Olympics are about, these tight games that bring out performances that make us really proud. I'm so proud of the team in front of me today.
"For me, to be able to do my part in helping this team come away with a win is a proud moment for me."
WATCH l CBC Sports' The Olympians feature on women's soccer: