19/04/2024

The Matildas will be considered as one of the favourites of Group B (Picture: Tristan Furney/FFA)

Over the next four weeks, 32 nations will take part in the biggest football tournament to hit Australian shores since the 2000 Olympics, this time co-hosting with New Zealand.

As the commencement of the World Cup edges closer, The Inner Sanctum will be analysing and previewing all eight groups in what should be a fascinating month of football.

Group A will receive the privilege of opening the event as New Zealand host Norway on Thursday night, before the Matildas get their campaign off and running against the Irish in Sydney. Here is a glimpse of what to expect from the first two groups:

GROUP A

New Zealand

Experiencing the honour of playing the lead-off game against a European powerhouse in Norway provides an amazing opportunity for joint-host nation New Zealand to make a name for themselves.

The co-hosts will be aiming to progress past the group stage for the first time in their history, finishing bottom of the group in all five World Cup appearances.

Since 2020, they have managed three wins in their past 29 outings, scoring 16 goals and conceding 63 in all competitions.

35-year-old captain Ali Riley along with veteran midfielder Betsy Hassett will be crucial in the Football Ferns’ run with 295 caps worth of experience.

Full Squad:

Goalkeepers: Victoria Esson (Rangers), Anna Leat (Aston Villa), Erin Nayler (IFK Norrkoping)

Defenders: Elizabeth Anton (Perth Glory), CJ Bott (Leicester City), Katie Bowen (unattached), Claudia Bunge (Melbourne Victory), Michaela Foster (unattached), Ali Riley (Angel City)

Midfielders: Olivia Chance (Celtic), Daisy Cleverley (HB Koge), Betsy Hassett (Wellington Phoenix), Annalie Longo (unattached), Ria Percival (Tottenham Hotspur), Malia Steinmetz (unattached), Rebekah Stott (Brighton and Hove Albion)

Forwards: Milly Clegg (unattached), Jacqui Hand (Aland United), Grace Jale (unattached), Gabi Rennie (Arizona State University), Indiah-Paige Riley (unattached), Paige Satchell (unattached), Hannah Wilkinson (Melbourne City)

Coach: Jitka Klimková

Hannah Wilkinson (Photo: NZ Football)

One to watch: Hannah Wilkinson (Age: 31 – Forward/Melbourne City)

After missing the first half of the season, Hannah Wilkinson made up for lost time by scoring six goals in Melbourne City’s semi-final run. Expect her experience and eye for goal to help New Zealand battle for a round of 16 berth.

Group Prediction: Fourth

Norway

One of the most familiarised nations in the tournament, Norway have big ambitions to progress deep into the latter stages, helped by the talent they keep producing.

The 1995 world champions boast two of the most gifted footballers on the planet in Ada Hegerberg and Caroline Graham Hansen, as they look to put aside their disappointing group stage exit at last year’s Euros.

Likely to stick with the 4-4-2 system, the Norwegians’ philosophy has mostly been focused on an attacking and exciting brand of football which will be on full display.

Full Squad:

Goalkeepers: Cecilie Fiskerstrand (LSK Kvinner), Guro Pettersen (Valerenga), Aurora Mikalsen (Brann)

Defenders: Anja Sonstevold (Inter Milan), Tuva Hansen (Bayern Munich), Guro Bergsvand (Brighton & Hove Albion), Maren Mjelde (Chelsea), Thea Bjelde (Valerenga), Mathilde Harviken (Rosenborg), Sara Horte (Rosenborg), Marit Bratberg Lund (Brann)

Midfielders: Ingrid Syrstad Engen (Barcelona), Vilde Boe Risa (Manchester United), Guro Reiten (Chelsea), Frida Maanum (Arsenal), Caroline Graham Hansen (Barcelona), Amalie Eikeland (Reading), Julie Blakstad (Manchester City), Emilie Haavi (Roma)

Forwards: Ada Hegerberg (Olympique Lyon), Sophie Roman Haug (Roma), Karina Saevik (Valerenga), Anna Josendal (Rosenborg)

Coach: Hege Riise

Maren Mjelde. (Photo: Chelsea Football Club)

One to watch: Maren Mjelde (Age: 33 – Defender/Chelsea)

The biggest attribute of Mjedle’s game is her flexibility. A natural defensive midfielder, she has been a force in defence for both her club and country. Playing mainly as a right-back, her defensive positioning and reading of the play has been world-class.

Group Prediction: First

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Philippines

The obvious main headline is former Matildas coach Alen Stajcic taking the reigns and guiding the Philippines to their first-ever World Cup.

The debutants are very much unknown on the world stage, consisting of a provisional 29-woman squad made up of a mix of youth and experience.

Defender and most-capped Filipino Hali Long will be an important piece for Stajcic’s defensive structure if they are to get anything out of the group. This represents a platform to build on for future generations coming through.

Full Squad:

Goalkeepers: Kiara Fontanila (Central Coast Mariners), Kaiya Jota (Stanford Cardinal), Olivia Davies-McDaniel (Stallion Laguna)

Defenders: Maya Alcantara (Georgetown University), Alicia Barker (Pacific Northwest SC), Angela Beard (Western United), Reina Bonta (Santos FC), Malea Cesar (Blacktown City), Jessika Cowart (IFK Kalmar), Sofia Harrison (Werder Bremen), Hali Long (Kaya FC), Dominque Randle (por/KA Akureyri)

Midfielders: Tahnai Annis (por/KA Akureyri), Ryley Bugay (FC Saarbrucken), Anicka Castaneda (Mt Druitt Town Rangers), Sara Eggesvik (KIL/Hemne), Quinley Quezada (Red Star Belgrade), Jaclyn Sawicki (Western United)

Forwards: Sarina Bolden (Western Sydney Wanderers), Isabella Flanigan (Montverde Eagles), Carleigh Frilles (Coastal Carolina Chanticleers), Katrina Guillou (Pitea IF), Chandler McDaniel (Stallion Laguna), Meryll Serrano (Stabaek)

Coach: Alen Stajcic

Jaclyn Sawicki (Photo: Western United)

One to watch: Jaclyn Sawicki (Age: 30 – Midfielder/Western United)

Making her debut for Canada back in 2011, Jaclyn recently switched alliances two years ago, where she will aim to make up for lost time. Stajcic will look to build around her talent and experience to inspire the rest of the squad.

Group Prediction: Third

Switzerland

Making their appearance on the world stage after an eight-year absence, the Swiss will view this tournament as their best opportunity to progress to the knockout rounds for the first time in their history.

Throughout qualifying, they have been best known for their possession-based approach and ability to create ample goal-scoring opportunities both from wide areas and down the middle.

Despite aiming to push numbers forward, they work well as a collective to track back and quickly recover, making them a team who could fly under the radar.

Full Squad:

Goalkeepers: Gaelle Thalmann (Real Betis), Livia Peng (Werder Bremen), Seraina Friedli (RSC Anderlecht)

Defenders: Julia Stierli (Zurich), Lara Marti (Bayer Leverkusen), Laura Felber (Servette), Noelle Maritz (Arsenal), Nadine Riesen (Zurich), Luana Buhler (Tottenham Hotspur), Viola Calligaris (Paris Saint-Germain), Eseosa Aigbogun (AS Roma)

Midfielders: Geraldine Reuteler (Eintracht Frankfurt), Amira Arfaoui (Bayer Leverkusen), Coumba Sow (FC Basel), Lia Walti (Arsenal), Sandrine Mauron (Servette), Seraina Piubel (Zurich), Marion Rey (Zurich)

Forwards: Ana Maria Crnogorcevic (Barcelona), Ramona Bachmann (Paris Saint-Germain), Fabienne Humm (Zurich), Meriame Terchoun (Dijon), Alisha Lehmann (Aston Villa)

Head Coach: Inka Grings

Coumba Sow (Photo: FC Basel)

One to watch: Coumba Sow (Age: 28 – Midfielder/FC Basel)

Top goalscorer for her nation during European qualifying with nine goals, Sow is one of the most prolific assets to the Swiss squad. More playing time under her belt after a move to the Swiss Women’s Super League has the 28-year-old ready and primed to lead her nation to the latter stages of the tournament.

Group Prediction: Second

GROUP B

Australia

In an unprecedented moment in Australian football history, the Matildas will be blessed with the opportunity of representing their country on home soil in what could be the most watched sporting event in women’s sport.

The first name that obviously stands out is Sam Kerr, but Australia has more talent and depth at their disposal than what one name suggests.

The likes of Kyah Simon, Caitlin Foord, Alanna Kennedy, Steph Cately, and Clare Polkinghorne have the experience needed to deal with the enormity of the occasion.

Despite their age, Ellie Carpenter, Kyra Cooney-Cross, and Mary Fowler are capable of gelling into coach Tony Gustavsson’s system. Most recently it has seen Gustavsson experiment less with tactics and build consistency going forward.

Friday night’s friendly against France showed that they are stronger in defence than they were a year ago, but there were problems around their passing in the final third.

Aggressive high pressing, a large emphasis on possession, and getting the crowd on their side to build the energy and adrenaline will help the Matildas write their own piece of history. Can they handle the pressure and weight of expectations?

Full Squad:

Goalkeepers: Lydia Williams (Brighton & Hove Albion), Tegan Micah (Liverpool), Mackenzie Arnold (West Ham United)

Defenders: Courtney Nevin (Leicester City), Aivi Luik (BK Hacken), Clare Polkinghorne (Vittsjo GIK), Steph Catley (Arsenal), Alanna Kennedy (Manchester City), Clare Hunt (Western Sydney Wanderers), Ellie Carpenter (Olympique Lyon), Charlotte Grant (Vittsjo GIK)

Midfielders: Clare Wheeler (Everton), Alex Chidiac (Racing Louisville), Emily Van Egmond (San Diego Wave), Tameka Yallop (SK Brann), Katrina Gorry (Vittsjo GIK), Kyra Cooney-Cross (Hammarby IF)

Forwards: Cortnee Vine (Sydney FC), Caitlin Foord (Arsenal), Mary Fowler (Manchester City), Hayley Raso (Real Madrid), Kyah Simon (unattached), Sam Kerr (Chelsea)

Head Coach: Tony Gustavsson

Hayley Raso (Photo: Matildas)

One to watch: Hayley Raso (Age: 28 – Winger/Real Madrid)

It could be argued that Raso is one of the most underrated talents in this current Matildas squad. Her pace and trickery down the right-hand side, as well as being able to combine with others will set the 28-year-old up for an inspired campaign. Assisting Mary Fowler for their only goal against France last week is a perfect example of this.

Group Prediction: First

Canada

One of the more consistent nations in women’s football over the years, all of the talk has been about what has transpired off the pitch instead of on it.

Reports suggest that Canada Soccer is leading down the path of bankruptcy, on top of the pay dispute issue that the players hope to be resolved before the event commences.

Led by immortal 40-year-old captain Christine Sinclair, who is appearing in her sixth World Cup, the North American giants are the reigning Olympic gold medalists and have been reborn under coach Beverly Priestman.

Back-to-back victories against the Matildas back in September last year in Australia will give the squad belief that they can top the group. Helped by their defensively sound approach and willingness to approach the attacking third in numbers, they will give the hosts a run for their money.

Full Squad:

Goalkeepers: Sabrina D’Angelo (Arsenal), Lysianne Proulx (SCU Torreense), Kailen Sheridan (San Diego Wave)

Defenders: Kadeisha Buchanan (Chelsea), Vanessa Gilles (Olympique Lyon), Shelina Zadorsky (Tottenham Hotspur), Allysha Chapman (Houston Dash), Ashley Lawrence (Paris Saint-Germain), Jayde Riviere (Manchester United), Gabrielle Carle (Washington Spirit)

Midfielders: Quinn (OL Reign), Simi Awujo (University of Southern California), Jessie Fleming (Chelsea), Julia Grosso (Juventus), Sophie Schmidt, (Houston Dash)

Forwards: Jordyn Huitema (OL Reign), Cloe Lacasse (Benfica), Adriana Leon (Portland Thorns), Christine Sinclair (Portland Thorns), Nichelle Prince (Houston Dash), Deanne Rose (Reading), Evelyne Viens (Kristianstads), Olivia Smith (Penn State Nittany Lions)

Coach: Beverly Priestman

Adriana Leon. (Photo: Concacaf)

One to watch: Adriana Leon (Age: 30 – Winger/Manchester United)

Most will cast their eye on Christine Sinclair and Julia Grosso, but don’t forget about Adrianna Leon. The international veteran has recorded 28 goals in 96 appearances for her country, and her experience in the Women’s Super League with West Ham United and Manchester United will add another critical piece.

Group Prediction: Second

Nigeria

The 11-time African champions reached the round of 16 at the 2019 Women’s World Cup and have qualified for every edition of the tournament since its inception in 1991. They will however have a difficult task in repeating those heroics this time around.

Recent results point to optimism, winning their past two friendlies against New Zealand and Costa Rica, while narrowly losing to the USA 2-1 and holding Group B rivals Canada to a 2-2 draw.

The Super Falcons pride themselves on a solid defensive structure and exposing opposition on the counter-attack, while exploiting the spaces behind defences. They will be relying heavily on Barcelona star Asisat Oshoala for efficiency in front of goal.

Full Squad:

Goalkeepers: Chiamaka Nnadozie (Paris FC), Tochukwu Oluehi (Hakkarigucu Spor), Yewande Balogun (Saint-Etienne)

Defenders: Onome Ebi (Levante), Osinachi Ohale (Deportivo Alaves), Glory Ogbonna (Besiktas), Ashleigh Plumptre (Leicester City), Rofiat Imuran (Stade de Reims), Oluwatosin Demehin (Stade de Reims)

Midfielders: Halimatu Ayinde (Rosengard), Christy Ucheibe (Benfica), Deborah Abiodun (Rivers Angels) Jennifer Echegini (Florida State University)

Forwards: Uchenna Kanu (Racing Louisville), Rasheedat Ajibade (Atletico Madrid), Gift Monday (UDG Tenerife), Toni Payne (Sevilla), Ifeoma Onumonu (Gotham FC), Michelle Alozie (Houston Dash), Asisat Oshoala (Barcelona), Desire Oparanozie (Wuhan Jianghan University), Francisca Ordega (CSKA Moscow), Esther Okoronkwo (Saint-Etienne)

Coach: Randy Waldrum

Christy Ucheibe (Photo: SL Benfica)

One to watch: Christy Ucheibe (Age: 22 – Midfielder/SL Benfica)

Despite being only 22, Ucheibe has taken control of the midfield for both her country and club, offering dynamism and box-to-box qualities which coach Randy Waldrum will look to mould his team around.

Group Prediction: Third

REPUBLIC OF IRELAND

Ranked 21st in Europe and placed in pot 3 for qualifying, Ireland defied all odds by reaching their maiden Women’s World Cup via the playoffs against Scotland.

The number one choice between the sticks, Courtney Brosnan, will be a crucial piece for the Irish to help the defence, known for her 13th-minute penalty save against the Scots in the playoffs. Before April, Ireland had not conceded a goal for more than 650 minutes, showing just how disciplined and well-organised they can be.

Nonetheless, this will be an incredibly challenging group for them to find a way past and advance to the round of 16.

Full Squad:

Goalkeepers: Courtney Brosnan (Everton), Grace Moloney (Reading), Megan Walsh (unattached)

Defenders: Aine O’Gorman (Shamrock Rovers), Louise Quinn (Birmingham City), Niamh Fahey (Liverpool), Diane Caldwell (Reading), Claire O’Riordan (Celtic), Chloe Mustaki (Bristol City), Heather Payne (Florida State University), Izzy Atkinson (West Ham United)

Midfielders: Katie McCabe (Arsenal), Denise O’Sullivan (North Carolina Courage), Megan Connolly (unattached), Ruesha Littlejohn (unattached), Ciara Grant (Hearts), Lily Agg (London City Lionesses), Sinead Farrelly (NY/NJ Gotham), Lucy Quinn (Birmingham City)

Forwards: Abbie Larkin (Shamrock Rovers), Kyra Carusa (London City Lionesses), Amber Barrett (Standard Liege), Marissa Sheva (Washington Spirit)

Coach: Vera Pauw

Izzy Atkinson (Photo: Twitter – @Shelsfc)

One to watch: Izzy Atkinson (Age: 21 – Winger/West Ham United)

Making only four international caps since 2018, this may well be Izzy Atkinson’s breakout tournament. A wide player by nature, she can play in multiple positions down the flank which provides coach Pauw with many options to choose from. When given the opportunity, she can be dangerous and explosive.

Group Prediction: Fourth

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