Australia's Journey to Knockouts Wasn't As Easy As They Hoped
Australia was on the verge of having to watch their home tournament from the sidelines until they weren’t.
The Matildas were drawn into what many people named “the Group of Death” which included the hosts Australia, the reigning Olympic gold medalists Canada, Nigeria, a team that cannot be counted out at any given time, and Ireland, Word Cup debutantes. This was by no means an easy group and for some time heading into this tournament, Australia didn’t look its strongest. They failed to make it past the quarter-final stage of the AFC Women’s Asian Cup and were beaten 7-0 by Spain last June. But in the past few months, things have started to come together for the Aussies. In November of 2022, they beat Sweden by a convincing 4-0 scoreline with two goals from Caitlin Foord. In February of this year, the Matildas got their payback on the Spaniards with a 3-2 win after jumping out to a 3-0 start in the first half. Although shaky in the second half, they were able to hang on for the win. And most importantly, just two months before the opening game of the World Cup, the Matildas snapped t England’s unbeaten streak under head coach Sarina Wiegmen with a 2-0 win. This win was especially impressive because of the counter-attacking technique used. The Lionesses had 71 percent possession to the Australian’s 29 percent but they were effective in the few chances they made. Again the Aussies impressed with a 1-0 win over France on July 14 in a tune-up match just a week before the World Cup started.
The opening game of this World Cup for the Aussies wasn’t all fun and games. With Ireland as their first opponent, many expected to see the Australian attack come out and score. But they were unfortunately without team captain and lethal goal scorer Sam Kerr due to injury. With Kerr expected to be out for at least the first two group-stage games, the Matildas had to figure out how to change their attack and score without their centerpiece. Mary Fowler was able to play the role next to Foord, but her style of play is comparably different to Kerr's, causing slight adjustments throughout the match. Despite the Aussies dominating the stats sheet, their only goal came from a Steph Catley penalty kick in the 52nd minute.
This was a worry for many fans as they wanted to see the Aussies prove that they could score from open play without the likes of Sam Kerr. In addition to that, in 13 shots, only two were on target, causing continuous concern going into the second game of the group stage.
The Matildas’ second opponent was Nigeria. A strong team from back to front. They are capable in both the attack and on defense and they showed this. Nigeria held Canada to a 0-0 draw in their opening match, with goalkeeper Chiamaka Nnadozie saving a Christine Sinclair penalty. This game was a tense battle, with no goals being scored until stoppage time of the first half. Emily van Egmond broke the deadlock with a low, right-footed shot from just inside the box after she was found through a pinpoint cross from Foord in the 45+1’. The Matildas were looking to get into halftime, riding high on a 1-0 scoreline but the Super Falcons had other ideas. Rasheedat Ajibade sent a cross into the box, but its trajectory was changed after a deflection from Ellie Carpenter, sending the ball to Uchenna Kanu. Kanu made no mistake, finishing with poise to put the ball past Mackenzie Arnold. This late goal gave the Super Falcons all the momentum as they came out of the locker room at the half. Twenty minutes into the second half, Nigeria struck again, this time through an uncleared set piece on the Australian end. Ajibade’s initial attempt on goal was parried away by Arnold but ended up at the feet of center-back Osinachi Ohale who headed it home. The Super Falcons, now leading Australia at home, kept things moving with a third goal from star striker, Asisat Oshoala. Oshoala subbed on in the 64’, just moments before Ohale’s goal. A mistake from Alanna Kennedy at the back meant that, despite a tight angle, Oshoala had an open net to score the eventual game-winning goal for her country.
A shell-shocked Australia struggled for the remainder of the half, only getting back a goal in the 90+10’ from Kennedy. This game shined a light on the lack of attacking prowess for the Matildas without Sam Kerr and Mary Fowler, as Fowler was out for this game due to a “slight concussion.” The importance of both players was clearly seen as the Matildas struggled to register shots on target. In 28 shots, the Matildas only saw eight of those challenge Nnadozie. This loss for the Matildas meant that their meeting with Canada on July 31, was a must-win match in order to advance to the knockout rounds.
It was win or go home, for both nations in the meeting between Canada and Australia. While it was 8 pm Melbourne time, it was 6 am EST as Canadian fans woke up early to see their team play. Canada entered this game in second place in the group, with a draw against Nigeria and a 2-1 comeback win over Ireland. Canada is the reigning Olympic gold medalist, and they had previously always made the knockout rounds. The Matildas had received the good news that both Fowler and Kerr would be available to play. Hayley Raso started the scoring in the ninth minute, before adding a second in the 39th minute. Fowler had nearly added a second in the 37th minute but unfortunately, it was called back as Carpenter was ruled offside. Matildas' fans could tell that their team had life back in them throughout this match as they were much more effective in the attacking third and in allowing Canada to control the ball but taking advantage of the counterattack.
The immediate response of scoring a goal after the called-off goal showed the "Never Say Die” fight that is so common in the Australian camp. Despite four halftime subs from Canada, they were never truly able to insert themselves into this game as Australia continued rolling forward, with a Fowler goal in the 58’. The midfield duo of Kyra Cooney-Cross and Katrina Gorry was found to be one of the most effective parts of this Australian team as they helped advance the ball, cover openings and find a way to be everywhere at once. The fourth and final goal was yet another Steph Catley penalty, in a full circle moment from the first group stage game to the last, after Jessie Fleming stepped on Gorry just inside the box. With Canada out, this meant it was the first time the defending Olympic gold medalists would not move onto the knockout rounds.
The Matildas showed their resilience in this group stage. From being on top to being down and almost out, they proved to us that they are not a team to count out. Plus, it is extremely important to note that they played this group stage without Sam Kerr. Kerr is one of the biggest pieces of this team and to be without her in the first three games of a home World Cup is a big deal. This Australian team has proved to the world that they will find a way, but they have also shown their vulnerability in crucial moments. In order to make it to the very top, they will need to solidify their defense against the strongest attacking sides. Luckily for them, this is a team that can succeed by playing in different ways. This team can dominate possession and win or they can allow the other team to dominate and take their chances when given and still find a win.
The Matildas play Denmark in the Round of 16. In the 2019 World Cup, the Round of 16 is where they exited after a 1-1 draw to Norway that ended 4-1 in Norway’s favor on penalties. Denmark was in Group D with England, China, and Haiti. They narrowly beat China in their opening match, lost 1-0 to England, and were able to win 2-0 against Haiti on the final match day to book their spot in the knockout rounds. This will be one of the games to watch in the Round of 16 as the Aussies return to Stadium Australia where they played their first group stage game. This game will be played at 6:30 AM EST on Monday, August 7.