22/04/2024

Australia's players celebrate winning a dramatic shootout against France (Image: @TheMatildas Twitter)

Australia endured 120 minutes and a penalty shootout against France to qualify for its first ever FIFA Women’s World Cup Semi-Final.

Australia entered its Quarter-Final clash in Brisbane against France with history against it. Coming into the 2023 edition of the tournament, the Matildas had never advanced past the Quarter-Finals stage of the competition, with only the United States going past that same stage as a host country, twice, once as eventual winners, and once finishing third.

Coming up against a physically and tactically brilliant team in France, the Matildas were keen to ensure that Les Bleues did not enjoy time on the ball, with multiple hard challenges committed by the likes of Katrina Gorry and Hayley Raso.

Despite Australia starting with intent, it should have been France that took the lead after 12 minutes but Maelle Lakrar could not re-direct Eugénie Le Sommer’s shot on target from close range.

Australia showed that the tide could all change in a moment, creating chaos in the French box from its first corner, unsurprisingly a Steph Catley inswinger.

The tournament hosts gained the momentum of the match but let themselves down on a couple of occasions with sloppy turnovers which goalkeeper Mackenzie Arnold capably covered in goals, denying both a deflected Le Sommer effort and a Lakrar strike from close range.

The Matildas ended the half desperately seeking a goal and nearly got one when a communication breakdown between goalkeeper Pauline Peyraud-Magnin and defender Maelle Lekrar gifted the ball to Emily Van Egmond in the box. The midfielder’s pass found Mary Fowler but her shot was heroically blocked on the line by Elisa De Almeida to keep the scores level in the 40th minute.

The French goalkeeper had to be proactive five minutes later to cut out a sublime Katrina Gorry ball to Mary Fowler, ensuring the two sides entered the break level after a tense but entertaining first half.

Just minutes after the restart, despite her heroics late in the first half Pauline Peyraud-Magnin nearly gifted a goal to Mary Fowler after errantly passing the ball to her on the edge of her box, before being bailed out once again by Elisa De Almeida who continued, alongside captain Wendie Renard, being a wall in the French defence.

Only 10 minutes into the second half Tony Gustavsson answered the burning questions about Sam Kerr’s fitness by summoning his star forward from the bench to replace Emily Van Egmond.

The crowd’s reaction told the story, and in just her first involvement on the night, which came seconds after taking onto the pitch, Kerr set up Hayley Raso for a shot that needed to be turned away for a corner by Peyraud-Magnin.

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France had begun showing signs of weakness and Australia upped its game, with the partisan home crowd responding accordingly.

Fowler was once again spectacularly denied in the box, this time her volley being blocked by the goalkeeper’s right foot, and despite Australia causing chaos off the forthcoming corner, France was bent but not broken, keeping the score tied with a string of last-gasp defensive actions.

The experienced French team was able to take the edge off the encounter, slowing Australia down, and substitute Vicki Bècho proved to be a useful tool for Hervé Renard’s side in transition.

What Les Bleues did best for the majority of the second half was limiting Sam Kerr’s impact, with her two influential moments of play being snuffed out by the French defence to ensure that this gripping encounter went into extra time.

A grueling 90 minutes seemed to have affected this World Cup’s least rotated side in the Matildas, with France starting off the extra time period looking like the more energetic side.

A controversial corner went France’s way with the referee judging that Vicki Bècho’s dribble remained on the field and Wendie Renard opened the scoring from the set-piece before she was reprimanded for fouling her marker in the process, the scores remaining level.

The best chance of the half fell to substitute Cortnee Vine, who came on in the first period of extra time for Hayley Raso, after Caitlin Foord’s slaloming run culminated with a cross which she made contact with but that ended up agonizingly wide.

Bècho remained a nuisance for Australia in the second half of extra time, forcing Mackenzie Arnold to a full-stretch save within two minutes of the restart.

France continued threatening and Steph Catley was required on the last line of defence to clear a Grace Geyoro cross before it reached a blue shirt.

The game’s tension kept rising as the referee and VAR waved off a France penalty claim, but with Australia remaining dangerous on the counter the game was there for taking for the side that could produce a moment of brilliance.

That moment did not come, but France coach Hervé Renard raised eyebrows around the nation when he took off goalkeeper Pauline Peyraud-Magnin for Solène Durand, a move that famously worked for Australian coach Graham Arnold as his side qualified for the Men’s World Cup in 2022.

120 minutes of action, which were as enthralling as they were grueling, were not even close to the night’s crescendo. Mackenzie Arnold got Australia’s shootout off to a flyer, saving Selma Bacha’s first spot kick.

Caitlin Foord converted for Australia but the two nations were back level when Steph Catley uncharacteristically had her effort saved. The two sides went toe to toe, and when Ève Périsset had her penalty saved, goalkeeper Mackenzie Arnold smashed her effort into the post to trigger sudden death.

As both sides faultlessly worked through their lists, France’s Kenza Dali had her effort saved by Arnold, but the goalkeeper was adjudged to have been off her line and the referee ordered the penalty be retaken. Astonishingly Arnold saved again, and when it seemed written in the stars that the Matildas would advance, Clare Hunt fluffed her lines as well to extend the shootout to each side’s 10th penalty.

Despite her tremendous performance off the bench, Vicki Bècho could not place her penalty on target, hitting the post with France’s 10th effort. When Cortnee Vine stepped up for Australia, her body language exuded confidence and the winger made no mistake to fire the Matildas to a historic first-ever Semi-Final.

The longest penalty shootout in male or female World Cup history ensured that Australia would advance to a position to become the first country since the USA in 1999 to qualify for a FIFA Women’s World Cup Final on home soil. Tony Gustavvson’s side will take on England at Stadium Australia on Wednesday night.

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