Steph Catley celebrates scoring a penalty against Canada with her teammates. (Image: @TheMatildas/Twitter)

The Matildas produced a spirited response to their defeat to Nigeria to top Group B of the FIFA Women’s World Cup, eliminating Canada in the process

When it comes to football, Australia seemingly rarely does things the easy way. Heading into a do-or-die match against Canada, Tony Gustavsson’s Matildas ensured there was a mountain to climb once again after a shocking loss to Nigeria in Brisbane days earlier.

Sam Kerr’s availability has been the focus of the last few days in the Matildas’ camp, but those concerns were temporarily put aside when referee Stéphanie Frappart’s whistle kicked off proceedings at the Melbourne Rectangular Stadium in front of a partisan 27,706-strong crowd that was tasked with willing their side to the Round of 16 of a home World Cup.

In the two friendly matches Australia played against Canada, in 2022 the Matildas struggled to defend wide areas, with Bev Priestman’s side winning both games and winger Adriana Leon doing the damage, scoring all three goals.

It was a different story in Melbourne and the left-hand side combination of Steph Catley and Caitlin Foord had a lot to do with it in the opening 10 minutes.

After a tense five minutes, both sides began upping the tempo, and the chemistry between the aforementioned players was clear when Foord’s clever tap forward to an overlapping Catley allowed the fullback to cross the ball to an advancing Haley Raso.

The recently announced Real Madrid winger shot through Ashley Lawrence’s legs and into the bottom corner, giving goalkeeper Kailen Sheridan no chance, but the celebrations were cut short by the offside flag.

The frustration did not last long, with VAR intervening and judging that Catley was indeed onside to give new life to the jubilant scenes, Kerr’s troublesome calf not obstructing her own animated reaction to the goal on the bench.

As Canada built into the game, it was rocked by Australia in transition once again, this time Mary Folwer smashing home a goal from close range before the VAR intervened in the North American side’s favour to rule Elie Carpenter as marginally offside.

Canada’s players were evidently buoyed by the decision but were shut down moments later by an Australian side that refused to have anything go against it on the day.

Minutes after the Matildas had their goal ruled out, a corner taken by Kyra Cooney-Cross saw the goalkeeper intervene, with her clearance ending up at the feet of teammate Quinn.

The midfielder could not control the ball at close quarters and their touch ended up at the feet of Hayley Raso who tapped home her second goal of the day in the 39th minute to take Australia to the break with a dream advantage.

Bev Priestman’s half-time substitutions, taking off Jayde Riviere, Julia Grosso, Jordyn Huitema, and Christine Sinclair, said more than any words spoken could ever say, the coach desperate for a reaction as her side found itself going from leading the group to being at the mercy of the Republic of Ireland-Nigeria result.

Despite the wholesale changes, it was Australia that started on the front foot, with Hayley Raso going close to earning her hat-trick, while Kyra Cooney-Cross had an ambitious shot tipped over the bar only six minutes after the restart.

If she hadn’t done so earlier in the game, Caitlin Foord proved once and for all that, she is a natural winger, expertly beating the offside trap before putting the ball on a silver platter for Mary Fowler.

After being denied by VAR earlier in the game, Fowler finally recorded a much-deserved goal, fortune being on her side this time around with the ball bouncing in off the post, to make it three for the Matildas.

The moves Priestman made failed to hit the mark, with the midfield pairing of Katrina Gorry and Cooney-Cross remaining dominant throughout the night, winning back possession and dictating play against a crestfallen Canada.

Despite having an already seemingly unassailable lead, the Matildas kept pushing and Fowler hit the post in her attempt to make it four goals.

The cherry on top of a famous win was achieved deep into injury time when Jessie Fleming fouled Katrina Gorry in the penalty area which allowed Steph Catley to score a penalty in her hometown of Melbourne in front of friends and family.

Tony Gustavsson provided a heartwarming moment by introducing Charli Grant for her first FIFA Women’s World Cup debut as the Matildas sealed a famous victory while topping Group B.

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This Matildas side has proven that when the stakes are high it is mentally strong enough to deal with the pressure. Australia entered the match third in Group B, but according to defender Alana Kennedy, who was echoed by her teammates, this side is at its best when difficulty arises.

“It’s the Aussie mentality,” Kennedy shared.

“We love a challenge when our backs are against the wall, that is where we show our best.”

As a result of their heavy defeat and Nigeria’s scoreless draw with the Republic of Ireland, Olympic Gold Medalists Canada were eliminated in the Group Stage of the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup.

Bev Priestman, still hurting, shared that it is important that her side feels the pain of the disappointment before bouncing back for the Olympics Qualifiers where Canada aims to retain its Gold Medal.

Tony Gustavsson stated after the game that he could feel his players would put in a strong performance against Canada, stating that they were hungry for redemption after stumbling against Nigeria.

He shared that Sam Kerr asked her teammates to “win without her,” so that she gets another week to fully recover, and that the conviction and belief of the players was palpable in achieving that mission.

Australia, who entered the encounter in danger of elimination, will now host the second-placed Group D team at Stadium Australia in the Round of 16 of the tournaments.

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