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ROUND OF 16, here we come. The Matildas last night overcame days of soul searching and collective national agonising over skipper Sam Kerr’s calf to annihilate reigning Olympic champions Canada 4-0 in Melbourne, in what was arguably the biggest night in the history of Australian women’s football.

Totemic skipper Kerr may not have taken the pitch but it was the words of the Matildas’ captain in the lead-up that helped inspire her teammates to a victory characterised by clean and composed offence and stout defence.

Australia’s coach Tony Gustavsson said the message from his star striker was “win without me so I can get another week to train and recover”.

“And the team responded and said, ‘yes we will, you sit on the bench tonight and we will win for you,’” Gustavsson said.

In the absence of their skipper the Matildas piled on four unanswered goals—two from Hayley Raso, one from Mary Fowler and a penalty from Steph Catley. Canada managed barely a handful of shots on goal in return.

The win—Australia’s biggest at a World Cup—leaves them top of Group B, after Ireland and Nigeria played out a goalless draw in Brisbane. The Matildas will face the runners-up of Group D, likely to be Denmark or China, in Sydney in a week’s time. Canada, who looked to have a round of 16 birth sewn up, have gone crashing out of the tournament.

So how did the team manage to turn things around so quickly after their shock loss to Nigeria, just a four days earlier? Coach Tony Gustavsson pointed to the Matildas’ “never-say-die attitude”.

“We have something else that no-one can take away from this team,” he said, “that’s their identity, the DNA and the belief”. Centre-back, Alanna Kennedy, echoed her coach’s sentiments. “We thrive under pressure,” she said. “It’s the Aussie mentality.”

So, what does the Matildas’ masterful performance mean for the team going into the tournament’s knockout stages. If you’d jumped off the bandwagon after the Nigerian loss, is it time to jump back on again? And will Sam Kerr play in this freakin’ tournament?

Why did the Matildas beat Canada so easily?

Well, there was a little bit riding on the outcome. There’s nothing like the humiliation of crashing out of a World Cup as hosts to steel players’ determination. It also helped that some of their more seasoned stars showed their class. Arsenal forward Caitlin Foord and club team-mate, Steph Catley, took the attack wide, opening up space for Mary Fowler and Raso in the middle. Fowler had struggled against Ireland, and then missed the Nigeria loss due to concussion. Here she seemed to constantly materialise in dangerous positions during the Matildas’ attacking sets, leaving the Canadians’ defence constantly under siege. If these four play this way and you throw a healthy Kerr into the mix, then you have a very potent offence indeed.

Who will the Matildas play next and can they beat them?

Last night’s victory marked the first time Australia has ever topped a group at a World Cup (men’s or women’s). But the knockout stages are where World Cups gets nasty and nation’s hopes ruthlessly crushed—Kaiserslautern 2006, anyone? The Matildas have only won a knock-out match once before, back at the 2015 WWC. Still, there’s reason to believe last night’s victory was a defining one. They beat the reigning Olympic champions without their best player. That’s the kind of stuff that seeds all-important tournament momentum and surging self-belief.

The Matildas will likely play China (ranked 80th in FIFA rankings) or Denmark (ranked 13, three spots behind the Matildas) in their round of 16 match. Given we’re playing at home, you would favour the team’s chances against either, particularly if Kerr is back.

It’s possible the loss against Nigeria was a blessing—it gave the team the kick up the backside it needed early in the tournament. Best to get a loss out of the way and clamp down on complacency early, rather than sail through to the knockout rounds then get sent packing, right?

“We know we can beat anyone, on any given day, if we come up with our A-game,” said Gustavsson after the game.

Canadian coach Bev Priestman, meanwhile, said there was nothing stopping the Matildas from now pushing deep into the tournament.

“These moments define you, I know that from Tokyo,” she said. “They’ve turned things around in one game and they were brave and they went for it. They should be probably in the top four of the World Cup.”

Will Sam Kerr play for the Matildas in the Round of 16?

Surely. Kerr wore her trademark pink boots on to the pitch last night but did not warm up, however, Gustavsson said afterwards she was available for limited minutes, if needed. With another week of rest and recuperation, hopefully her calf will progress to the point where she can not only play but make an impact–and we can all shut up about it.

If you jumped off the Matildas’ bandwagon after the Nigerian loss, is it okay to jump back on again now?

Sigh. Yes, it’s okay. World Cups are a rollercoaster of emotions and fraying nerves. From forecasting paths to the final after the Matildas’ easy victory over Ireland to contemplating an early exit from the tournament after the shock loss to Nigeria, football at this level encourages erratic behaviour. In fact, it’s part of the fun. So, welcome back, just don’t act like you never cared anyway if the Matildas lose the next game. You’re in ten-toes deep, now.

When is the next Matildas game?

The Matildas will play their round of 16 game next Monday August 7 at 8.30pm at Stadium Australia in Sydney.


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