USA celebrates with their gold medals after defeating Japan in the gold medal match during the London 2012 Olympic Games at Wembley Stadium. (Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports)

By Mike Collett

LONDON, Aug 9 (Reuters) – The United States won their third successive women’s Olympic soccer title by beating Japan 2-1 in a superb gold medal match at Wembley Stadium on Thursday to avenge their defeat in last year’s World Cup final.

Two goals from midfielder Carli Lloyd, a header after eight minutes and a rasping shot from the edge of the box in the 54th, set the U.S. on their way to a fourth Olympic gold from the five women’s tournaments played.

Japan, who beat the U.S. on penalties in last year’s World Cup final, halved the deficit after 63 minutes when the Americans failed to clear their lines, and Yuki Ogimi scored from close range, her third goal in successive matches.

Japan dominated in attack from then on but could not find an equalizer and were denied what looked like a certain goal seven minutes from time when U.S. goalkeeper Hope Solo made an excellent save from substitute Mana Iwabuchi.

The attendance of 80,203 was a record for a women’s match at an Olympics beating the 76,481 at the Atlanta Games in 1996.

It was also the biggest crowd to watch a women’s soccer match in Britain beating the 70,584 that saw Britain play Brazil at Wembley earlier in the tournament.

They created a magical atmosphere at Wembley, completely different from the usual domestic crowds, with fans cheering and applauding both teams.

LUCKY BREAKS

Although the U.S. deserved their win, they rode their luck during the first half when Japan hit the bar twice and had what looked like a legitimate penalty appeal turned down.

After Lloyd gave the U.S. an early lead, when she dived in to head the ball home just as Abby Wambach was shaping up to shoot, Ogimi should have equalized but was denied when Solo palmed her header on to the bar after 18 minutes.

Six minutes later the U.S., for the second successive match, benefited from a dubious refereeing decision in the box.

A well-struck free-kick clearly hit Tobin Heath on the left arm but, instead of awarding Japan a penalty, German referee Bibiana Steinhaus waved play on.

The U.S. had benefited from being given a penalty in their semi-final when the ball struck a Canada defender’s arm as she was turning away and the referee ruled in the U.S.’s favor.

Their next piece of luck followed in the 33rd minute when Shinobu Ohno rattled the bar with Solo well beaten.

Japan had their own slice of fortune before the break when Azusa Iwashimizu headed against the inside of her own post and saw the ball run across the face of goal before bouncing clear.

Japan, playing some neat passing moves, were never intimidated by the more expansive Americans and their perseverance paid off when Ogimi eventually forced the ball home after Solo and her defense failed to clear.

Earlier on Thursday, Canada beat France 1-0 in the bronze medal match at Coventry, with the players arriving at Wembley in time to watch the final and be presented with their medals on the pitch along with silver medalists Japan and the U.S.

The only discordant note of an unforgettable night came when Switzerland’s FIFA president Sepp Blatter was booed by the crowd before the medal ceremony.

The head of soccer’s world governing body is still unpopular with home fans for presiding over an organization that awarded the 2018 World Cup finals to Russia instead of England.