The Matildas’ dream run is gaining momentum, booking a spot in the World Cup quarter-finals despite a nervy opening 15 minutes against Denmark, winning 2-0.
Not only that, Sam Kerr got on the park for the first time this tournament and appeared to get through unscathed, albeit after one momentary scare when she landed awkwardly.
Caitlin Foord and Hayley Raso – who now has three goals at this World Cup – delivered the goals, with Mary Fowler the architect behind both.
It was also Australia’s third clean sheet in four games at the tournament, and that defensive focus was displayed with Clare Hunt getting over to Alanna Kennedy to celebrate tackles and little wins.
Australia now waits on Tuesday’s Round of 16 clash between world number five France and 72nd-ranked Morocco in Adelaide to learn its opponent for Saturday’s last-eight game in Brisbane.
Caitlin Foord’s switch to a wider attacking role against Canada rendered significant results and she was at the heart of most dangerous forward thrusts again against Denmark.
Not only that, Foord became a crucial outlet for counter-attacks when Australia were absorbing pressure, ensuring Denmark couldn’t push too far up the park with the risk of a Matildas’ goal on the break. She also never stopped, racing back to cut out a Denmark counter-attack from an Australia corner on the hour.
Foord’s quality was on show when Fowler released her into space in the 29th minute, producing good speed and timing to get in behind the Denmark defence, before an excellent first touch set up her chance and she converted through goalkeeper Lene Christensen’s legs with a left-foot finish.
The Arsenal forward has thrived in her natural wider role and was the best player on the park. It’s unlikely her role would change either, if Kerr comes into the starting XI in the quarters.
The other top star was Fowler who has put aside a slow start at the tournament, albeit missing the second game with concussion, with two strong performances.
Steph Catley’s orchestrated injury ‘timeout’ enabled Gustavsson to speak to his troops at the 20 minute mark after Denmark’s strong start and he revealed after the game that utilizing and getting the ball to Fowler more was a big part of that discussion.
Indeed, Fowler’s technical quality is a step above – with due respect to her teammates – so she is the one who can beat an opponent or craft a penetrative pass out of nothing. It was the latter where she released Foord for the opener.
And again it Fowler’s poise on the ball that threaded a pass into the box to Emily van Egmond who laid off for Raso’s strike for 2-0.
The opening 15-20 minutes didn’t go to script. Kerr’s former Chelsea teammate Pernille Harder was able to get on the ball between Australia’s midfield and defence and run at the back four. She created some good opportunities too, but fortunately didn’t convert.
Denmark were able to string together passes in their front third early, while Australia simply couldn’t possess the ball beyond the halfway line.
That’s a worry for the Matildas moving forward but their ability to rally and re-group was commendable, albeit needing that ‘time-out’. Fowler’s role was important to that although we do need her to demand the ball more.
Australia have also shown a capability to absorb pressure in the past two games, as per that opening period, so that’s encouraging too. Catley and Ellie Carpenter are starting to pick and choose the right times to get aggressive up the flanks, with the latter a bit too trigger happy earlier in the tournament.
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Gustavsson’s decision to bring on Kerr for the final 10-15 minutes with the side 2-0 up caused some consternation. People asked on social media “why risk her?” And those conservative fears were almost realized when Kerr went down awkwardly inside the box.
“When I got very nervous,” Gustavsson said after the game. “I didn’t see the slip until she was on the floor but I when I saw that obviously I was like ‘oooh’. She wanted to stay on so hopefully that means she’s OK. But we’ll check in on her and see how she feels.”
Given Kerr played out the game with no apparent impediment, it seems she’ll be fine. The answer to those questioning why she came on, is likely that she was declared available by the medical staff, who know the risks best. And it was clear she needed a run to blow out some rust, with a wayward pass going to the sideline at one point, before a bursting run and shot which went high and wide displayed why we’ve missed her.
Hopefully that holds her in good stead for the quarter-finals, as we’ll need her back to her best.