It’s a once-in-a-lifetime event and it’s an opportunity the Matildas will be desperate not to squander. Australia hosting the Women’s World Cup as genuine contenders is bloody exciting.
And it all starts on Thursday, when the Matildas hosts the Republic of Ireland from 8pm AEST at a sold-out Stadium Australia in Sydney.
Australia heads into the event with excellent form over the past 12 months, toppling a bunch of top-10 nations, keeping a number of clean sheets and finding new avenues to score goals.
That all has seen onlookers brush off the previous concerns around heavy defeats and leaky backlines in Tony Gustavsson’s early reign to offer a new cautious optimism.
But there is some trepidation amid all that, so we ask and try to answer some of the burning questions around the Matildas heading into the World Cup.
Does this team rely on Sam Kerr?
There’s no doubt about it, Sam Kerr is the face of the Matildas. And rightly so. She continues to go from strength to strength at the peak of women’s football. She is a genuine top five superstar of the women’s game, netting 29 goals in all competitions for Chelsea this season and leading the Blues to the Women’s Super League and FA Cup titles and being voted the 2022-23 Football Writers’ Association Footballer of the Year.
However, back in 2019, when the Matildas exited the World Cup prematurely in the round of 16, Kerr netted five of the team’s 10 goals. There has in the past tended to be an over-reliance on her brilliance.
The truth is the team has evolved, with Gustavsson desperate to add depth to their attacking options over the past few years. That aim appears to have been achieved with the emergence of players like Mary Fowler, Kyra Cooney-Cross and Cortnee Vine to name a few. Kerr has only scored two of Australia’s past 14 goals, with Fowler netting the winner last week against France once Kerr along with fellow star forward Caitlin Foord had been taken off.
Gustavsson displayed some of his attacking options in the latter part of that game with winger Hayley Raso pushed up front, Fowler dropping in behind her and Cooney-Cross moving wide from a central role.
Is the leaky defence a thing of the past?
Australia under-achieved at the 2019 World Cup with a premature Round of 16 loss to Norway. The Matildas shipped a goal in every game of that World Cup in France, totalling six conceded in four games. Prior to that World Cup, we suffered heavy losses 5-3 and 3-0 to the USA and Netherlands respectively, so leaking goals was a huge issue under Ante Milicic.
The Matildas conceded 13 goals in Gustavsson’s first three games in charge in 2021 as well, before giving up 13 in six games at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021. Sure, the team came an admirable fourth in Tokyo, but having to win games 4-3 isn’t sustainable.
However, more recently there’s been strong recent signs of defensive reinforcement, with Clare Hunt proving a revelation, while Steph Catley and Ellie Carpenter have come in leaps and bounds in their respective careers. Gustavsson seems to have the team on the same wave length in terms of how they defend, play out from the back and who has a licence to take risks. Goalkeeper Mackenzie Arnold is in the prime of her career too.
The Matildas have kept six clean sheets from their past eight games, including shutting out top-1o nations France, England and Sweden, so that bodes well.
What’s our best line-up?
Gustavsson offered a big insight into this question with last week’s XI against France, where it’s hard to imagine much will change for Thursday. However, feeding into the previous question is the dilemma around starting Alanna Kennedy or Clare Polkinghorne at centre-back alongside Hunt. Both have had injury interrupted 2022-23 seasons. Both are experienced.
Kennedy can be clumsy on the ball at times but she appears to play the way Gustavsson wants the team to play, whereas Polkinghorne is a bit more conservative. The latter does offer more of a threat from set-pieces too. Match conditioning may play a part in that decision.
Beyond that, Foord will support Kerr in attack with Mary Fowler the probably second-half X-factor if required. Raso and Vine will offer width and pace on the wings, with Catley and Carpenter pushing up from full-back down the flanks. The industrious Katrina Gorry will partner youngster Kyra Cooney-Cross in central midfield, relegating Tameka Yallop (who is under an injury cloud) and Emily van Egmond to the bench. Alex Chidiac is a potential spark off the bench.
Arnold appears to have won the nod as number one goalkeeper, despite Teagan Micah’s good performances in Tokyo in 2021. The latter has battled a long-term head injury this year which has set her back, while Arnold has excelled at club level.
Can they handle the pressure?
This is the great unknown. History shows that Women’s World Cup hosts haven’t fared overly well. USA are the only host nation ever to lift the trophy, back in 1999, with seven others failing. In fact, the USA are the only host nation to ever even make the semi-finals!
Despite that, as seen in other sports, being the host nation tends to offer you a better chance of success, arguably due to familiarity with conditions along with home support, but the latter can bring added pressure from inflated expectations.
It’s hard to gauge whether those expectations have been over-played at this point, but it does feel to have been tempered to a degree. No doubt, that’ll fluctuate throughout the tournament depending on results. Football fans will argue anything less than a semi-final berth is a failure, while the wider general public may be expecting the team to win the whole thing.
The core of the Matildas play in in top European leagues and are in their late 20s/early 30s, namely Kerr, Foord, Catley, Kennedy, Gorry, Raso and Arnold, so they’re mature and experienced and should be as prepared as possible, even though you cannot replicate what they’re about to go through.
Why is this Matildas team different?
The undeniable fact is the Matildas have never progressed beyond the quarter-finals at a World Cup. Winning the whole thing is a big step to take.
The perceived advantage of being the home nation is one thing, but this Matildas group is in their prime, led by global superstar Kerr, fresh from a prolific 2022-23 season.
Gustavsson’s three-year preparation for the squad appears to have been executed to perfection, turning the initial concerns into finely-tuned performances and positive results, along with building a wider squad depth with more quality than ever, partly due to playing club football at higher levels and more frequently, along with stronger opposition at international level over the past few years.
Women’s football is an increasingly competitive field but this Matildas unit appears to have given itself a very good chance.
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