The Matildas can dare to dream after seeing off Canada 4-0 to book their place in the Round of 16, writes Nick D’Urbano at Melbourne Rectangular Stadium.
One more day. One more big performance. One more huge effort.
That’s all millions of Australians across the country were asking for on Monday night when the Matildas took the field against Canada in their final group stage game with their World Cup destiny on the line.
They answered the call.
Under the bright lights of Melbourne Rectangular Stadium, a series of early knockout punches from the Matildas helped secure a 4-0 victory and – as a result – a place in the Round of 16 of the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup.
Suddenly, the host nation can dare to dream again.
“We know we might not have the best team on paper, we might not have the most top players in the top clubs in the top league, but we have something else that no one can take away from this team, and that’s the identity and the DNA and the belief that we’ve seen,” Matildas coach Tony Gustavsson said in his post-game press conference.
“Then being at home… with the support of all the fans, we have something unique, which means we know we can beat anyone any given day when we come up with our A game.”
Two goals from Hayley Raso in the first-half, and another from the returning Mary Fowler – after having one disallowed earlier – plus a Steph Catley penalty, sent the fans on Swan Street into absolute delirium.
Now, the focus turns to Stadium Australia, back where it all started on July 20 against the runners-up in Group D – where the Matildas could face second place from a cohort of European champions England, Denmark, China or Haiti.
It means for the first time, an Australian team has topped a group at a senior men’s or women’s World Cup.
Kerr remains on bench, Fowler seizes the moment
After all the doomsday scenarios that rang around after last week’s shock loss to Nigeria, the Matildas had to respond. They quite simply had no other choice. It was win, or quite basically, get knocked out.
Momentarily, thoughts of a deep run were out the window, replaced with the urgency of needing to secure three points, just to quell the nasty prospect of a group stage exit – that would have been nothing more than a complete, unmitigated failure – something even acknowledged by those in charge ahead of the crunch game.
Fowler was drafted straight back into the starting lineup after recovering from concussion, replacing Cortnee Vine in the starting lineup, meaning Caitlin Foord started out on the left with the Manchester City attacker leading the line alongside Emily van Egmond.
Every attacking foray into the final third was met with the noise reaching fever pitch as the 27,706 supporters in attendance willed on each movement with a sense of anxious anticipation.
The Matildas needed to make the most of their strong starts, that have become something of a trademark of the Gustavsson era, and to their credit they did.
Late night dog walkers, local residents in the Richmond area and those in the middle, or perhaps on the other side, of Melbourne’s CBD, would have heard the noise of thousands of screaming, excitable Aussies – not once but twice – as Raso fired home the opener.
Mackenzie Arnold played a bullet pass to Foord, who fed the overlapping Steph Catley brilliantly, and it was the full-back’s cross which was ricocheted into the path of the waiting Real Madrid winger – who sent the stadium into delirium with an inch-perfect finish into the bottom corner.
The noise of jubilation, quickly became frustration as the cameras panned to the assistant referee with the offside flag up on the far side due to Catley being offside in the build-up.
However, on second viewing, she had timed her run expertly, and when referee Stephanie Frappart announced the decision had been overturned, the arena exploded once more.
Australia were humming. The cobwebs had been shaken off and Canada looked shellshocked, unable to make the most of their dominance in possession and deal with the sheer ferocity of the Matildas’ counter-attacks.
As the first-half drew to a close, Australia had seemingly doubled their lead when Fowler bundled the ball home after a goal-line scramble. Much to the chagrin of the fans in attendance, the VAR came calling again and after a lengthy review it was deemed offside.
Ellie Carpenter was central to the attacking move; she was the one caught offside by the slimmest of margins, blocking Canada defender Kadeisha Buchanan just as Fowler slammed home their second.
Matildas fans didn’t have to wait long at all to erupt again; in fact, little under two minutes, as a corner whipped into the back post wasn’t claimed by goalkeeper Kailen Sheridan and was swept home by Raso.
Canada threw the magnets around after half-time, making four changes at the break, including taking off legendary striker Christine Sinclair – who potentially played her final World Cup game.
An Australian team leading 2-0 in the Melbourne sporting precinct, in a cut-throat game, would be enough to get any football fan nervous, but there would be no repeat of what happened on that final night in 1997 against Iran.
Fowler made sure of that, when she finally got her due reward.
Foord did brilliantly to get down the left and cut it back to a waiting Fowler, who sealed their passage into the knockout stages.
It really was Fowler’s night. You would be hard pressed to find a better performance from the attacker, who buzzed around and caused all sorts of headaches for a Canada side who quite frankly had no answers.
The fun wasn’t done just yet as Catley stepped up in second-half stoppage time and buried a late penalty, following another VAR review that saw Katrina Gorry fouled in the build-up.
When the final whistle sounded, there was a sense of excitement as Australia can now dare to dream once more. Whether it’s just for another a week, or until that final day on August 20. The Matildas still have a fighting chance, while for the reigning gold medallists, Canada, it’s curtains as they finish in third place behind Nigeria.
More importantly, it gives Sam Kerr an extra week of rehab, training and match-preparation to get herself ready for whoever the opponent is at Stadium Australia.
Kerr, despite being available and in her match-kit, didn’t participate in the warm-up and as a result, of Australia’s fast start was able to sit back and enjoy the match with the thousands who walked out onto Olympic Boulevard with a smile on their face.
It’s equally good news for Aivi Luik and Kyah Simon, who are also aiming to be ready at some point.
After the full-time whistle sounded, A Long Way to the Top by AC/DC blared through the speakers, and it seemed only apt.
Yes, the dreams of lifting a World Cup trophy on home soil are well and truly intact but there’s still a long, winding, road before then where they will be faced with even tougher tasks, against some of the best the world has to offer.
But to be the best, you have to beat the best, right? For now, Australian fans will be asking the same question in seven days time – can you give us one more day?