FOLLOWING A PERFECT start to their World Cup campaign last week with a win against Ireland, the Matildas have suffered a demoralising 3-2 defeat against Nigeria that makes a shock early elimination from the tournament a very real possibility.
Perhaps we were too optimistic, or maybe the Matildas underestimated a team that sits 30 places lower than them in the FIFA world rankings. Either way, the Matildas’ loss against Nigeria proves that football isn’t as much fun when your team is losing.
Sitting on top of group B after matchday one, courtesy of a hard-fought victory over Ireland, a Matildas win against Nigeria would have guaranteed them a place in the World Cup’s knockout stages and would likely have seen them win their group. But as is often the case in sport, when gazing blissfully at the horizon, you don’t see what’s right in front of you, which in this case was a determined Nigerian side that relished being the underdogs.
Just a week after we started to believe we could actually win this thing, boy-oh-boy have the nation’s hopes fallen. After Emily Van Egmond slotted away a pinpoint cross from Caitlin Foord late in the first half, the Matildas held the lead for less than five minutes. With the half-time whistle creeping towards the referee’s lips, Uchenna Kanu tied the game for Nigeria.
In the second half, Nigeria maintained their momentum, going on the attack to shutter any signs of a Matildas’ comeback. Two quick goals sunk Australian hearts, with each ball in the back of the net strengthening, and then solidifying that gnawing feeling (you know the one we’re talking about) that we could be in deep trouble. Alanna Kennedy reduced the deficit in stoppage time, but it was too little, too late, as the Super Falcons more than lived up to their nickname and pulled off one of the tournament’s biggest upsets.
Faced with a difficult road from here on out, Matildas coach Tony Gustavsson was reluctant to assign blame for the loss. Instead, Gustavsson tried to take a page out of the playbook of the English cricket team, claiming this was a game the Matildas deserved to win. “If we look at the performance and the stats we should walk off the field winning this game,” he said. “It’s important for me to be strong enough emotionally to see this performance was not a 3-2 loss if you look at the performance.” Hate to break it to you Tony, but a loss that feels like it should’ve been a win is still a loss. We tend to shy away from making “spirit of the game” excuses down under.
One plus in the face of such a devastating defeat was that the game was another sellout, with 49,156 fans packed into Suncorp Stadium – too bad most of them went home unhappy.
Julius Caesar famously said, “It’s only hubris if I fail”, but with their backs now firmly against the wall, the Matildas very well could fail, which would prompt some awkward backtracking for fans who prematurely claimed the ‘Tillies’ would easily win the World Cup. Even so, despite the gut-wrenching pain of last night’s loss, the Matildas can still keep their hopes alive.
Can the Matildas still qualify for the knockout stages?
In short, yes. It’s starting to look bleak, and many variables remain, but there is one thing the Matildas can do to guarantee a place in the round of 16 – win. While their clash with Canada isn’t necessarily a must-win situation, if the Matildas want to ensure they advance to the knockout stages, they need to take their fate into their own hands and defeat the reigning Olympic champions.
If the Matildas win their final group stage match, they’ll finish on six points, advancing at the Canadians’ expense. A draw could still see the Matildas get through, but they’d be relying on Nigeria losing to Ireland, which would result in the Aussies and Nigerians both finishing on four points. For the Matildas to break the tie, the Nigerians would have to lose by two or more to make up the goal difference. In any case, a loss is the worst possible outcome, as it would guarantee elimination. It truly would be all over for the Matildas in that scenario, a heartbreaking end for the team and for fans – somebody hand me a tissue.
Despite a win guaranteeing a spot in the knockout stages, where the Matildas finish in their group is now mostly out of their hands. A Nigerian loss or draw against Ireland is required for the Matildas to top group B. Otherwise, a second place finish will likely see Australia face red-hot England in the next round. But with an early exit on everyone’s mind, it’s probably best to simply focus on getting through rather than who we’ll play.
Will Sam Kerr play in the next game?
The question on everyone’s mind is whether talismanic Matildas captain Sam Kerr will be fit to play in the decisive final group stage game. Kerr may have the world’s most talked about calf, but at this stage it’s still too early to tell if she’ll be ready for the game against Canada.
Kerr was originally ruled out of the Matildas’ first two group stage matches, but with such little time between games, her availability is still up in the air and will likely be decided on game day. “All I can say now is that I hope so,” coach Tony Gustavsson replied last night, after being asked if Kerr will play the next game – the first question of the press conference. “I know it’s going to be tight… I most likely will not get the confirmation on that until the night before the game. And then we’ll go from there.”
When is the Matildas’ next game?
The Matildas’ blockbuster match against Canada will take place at 8pm AEST on Monday July 31 at AAMI Park in Melbourne. The game will be broadcast on Channel 7 and will be available to stream on 7plus.