Matildas kick off World Cup campaign with 1-0 victory over the Republic of Ireland

The CommBank Matildas have won their opening group stage game 1-0 in front of a record crowd of 75,784 at a raucous Stadium Australia. Steph Catley’s second-half penalty was the difference as Australia held on in a nervy last 20 minutes for the win.

Tony Gustavsson and his coaching staff were dealt a curveball before the game, with captain Sam Kerr ruled out for the first two games of the tournament with a calf injury. It was acquired in training on Wednesday. Gustavsson was tight-lipped about his starting 11 in the MD-1 press conference, but was firm about knowing his plan.

“Not only do we know the starting 11, we also know the thoughts we have in terms of game changes and the plan for the finishing 11,” he told journalists.

The plan involved Mary Fowler coming into the starting line-up for Kerr. After her goal was the difference on Friday night against France in the CommBank Matildas send-off match, the coach was confident that the 20-year-old from Cairns would be able to handle the occasion. Otherwise, the team was unchanged from their 1-0 victory in Melbourne.

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA – JULY 20: Clare Hunt of Australia in action during the FIFA Women’s World Cup Australia & New Zealand 2023 Group B match between Australia and Ireland at Stadium Australia on July 20, 2023 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

The CommBank Matildas started on the front foot, observing a now familiar kick-off routine where the front four and midfield get ready for action on the halfway line. It is a ploy to exploit the pace up front in the green and gold including Hayley Raso and Cortnee Vine. The plan almost came to fruition in the fifth minute after a wonderful touch from Vine took her into the penalty area, but the resulting corner was cleared.

Ireland’s plan of a low block with a midfield press meant that, if the press could be broken, it led to the best chances for Australia. Clare Hunt and Alanna Kennedy were calm playing out from the back, with Hunt even beating a player with a backheel – much to the delight of the crowd. Katrina Gorry and Kyra Cooney-Cross used this to their advantage throughout the game as well. Rather than choosing to pass the ball over the top of Ireland’s defence, they could take players on the dribble.

It was this movement from Gorry that created an opportunity for a corner in the 17th minute. Clare Hunt rose to meet it at the back post, but there was not enough connection for the shot to hit the target. In the 28th minute, a Steph Catley corner reached Raso at the back post, but her header went wide.

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA – JULY 20: Clare Hunt of Australia and Kyra Carusa of Republic of Ireland compete for the ball during the FIFA Women’s World Cup Australia & New Zealand 2023 Group B match between Australia and Ireland at Stadium Australia on July 20, 2023 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

The game immediately went up the other end. The Republic of Ireland were a constant threat on the counter, particularly through London City Lionesses’ Kyra Carusa. Not long after the corner, Gorry was caught on the ball by Carusa, whose cross had to be palmed away by Mackenzie Arnold and cleared by Catley.

Caitlin Foord and Cortnee Vine looked most likely in the first half for Australia. In the 35th minute, after being teed up by Vine, Foord struck into the side netting. The favour was reversed five minutes later, but Vine was swarmed with green shirts and unable to shoot. With moments to go in the first half, a wonderful ball from Kyra Cooney-Cross released Vine who played through Foord, but again Foord was unable to shoot. A long shot from Gorry was the last significant moment of the half.

The second half brought more joy for Australia. In the 50th minute, Kyra Cooney Cross whipped the ball into the box, aiming for the onrushing Hayley Raso. In her enthusiasm to defend, Marissa Sheva bundled Raso over in the penalty area, leading to a simple decision from the referee. Captain on the night, Steph Catley, took penalty duties and made no mistake, rifling it into the top corner.

The CommBank Matildas showed off their newfound confidence after the goal as Mary Fowler almost doubled their lead moments later. Her shot, after a fantastic solo run, flew over the crossbar.

The last 20 minutes proved a different challenge. The Republic of Ireland kept on coming, and the nerves began to show. In the 71st minute, Arnold was forced to punch away a corner under a significant amount of pressure from the girls in green. Even though a foul was awarded against Ireland, it was a warning shot for what was to come.

Minutes later, a turnover from Ellie Carpenter resulted in another corner for Ireland. They attempted another inswinging corner. The ball was cleared by Arnold as far as Denise O’Sullivan, whose shot flew over the crossbar.

In the 77th minute, Ireland had their best opportunity of the game as multiple shots had to be blocked by an increasingly frantic Australian defence.

The game was now moving at a frantic pace. Caitlin Foord teed up Katrina Gorry in the 82nd minute, but her shot was blocked. Another chance resulted moments later on the edge of the area, and when that was snuffed out, Ireland ran up the other end and won a corner.

Stoppage time didn’t stop the nerves in green and gold. Right at the end of regular time, a free kick was conceded on the edge of the penalty area. The free kick deflected over but two consecutive corners resulted that had to be desperately scrambled away.

Ireland almost broke Australian hearts deep into stoppage time. After two CommBank Matildas dove in and missed, a break was on. Mackenzie Arnold was forced into her only major save of the night. One last header from Louise Quinn went wide, and Australia had held on for an important group stage win.

No matter the nerves, at a World Cup, the result is all that matters. The team now has a week to recover before taking on Nigeria in Brisbane.