14/04/2024

Alanna Kennedy against Canada. (Image: @TheMatildas - Twitter)

The Matildas World Cup Group is challenging, but there is reason for Aussie fans to be optimistic.

The Matildas group for the 2023 World Cup looks troubling at first glance.

Australia has been drawn with Canada, Nigeria, and The Republic of Ireland. They have played two of those teams since 2021 and lost on both occasions. However, this is a group they should expect to emerge from. The Inner Sanctum breaks down the reasons.

Only one side is ranked above them

The FIFA Rankings are at best an approximation of where a team sits in the international order.

A complex formula weighing 10 factors has still resulted in the anomaly that is North Korea sitting in tenth spot despite not playing a game in almost three years.

Despite the drawbacks, the top 20 places are reasonably accurate. Six of the top 10 were in the Euro’s quarter-finals. Australia’s rankings have taken a hit recently, but they sit in thirteenth place. Only Canada is above them in seventh.

The Republic of Ireland is in 24th spot and Nigeria, is the highest-ranked African side in 45th. Although the rankings are a general guide, and teams that play fewer games have fewer opportunities to climb, they do serve as an indication of who the underdogs are in any one encounter.

Australia will go into the first two matches as firm favourites. On home turf, they will be aiming for six points. Nigeria has talent and significant World Cup experience. The Republic of Ireland are riding a wave of unprecedented momentum. Despite these factors, Australia should have no fear of either team

The loss to Ireland was due to easily fixed circumstances.

Australian fans have endured some tough results as The Matildas have sought out the strongest possible sparring partners.

However, the 3-2 loss to the Republic of Ireland in September of 2021 was one of the more disappointing performances. This was a game they were expected to win but performed poorly in.

It was the first camp following a fourth-place finish at the Tokyo Olympics. Australia was missing some key players like Caitlin Foord, Ellie Carpenter, and Kyah Simon, but the performance was lackluster.

Coach Tony Gustavsson was uncharacteristically emotional after the match. Chloe Logarzo had injured her ACL in the first half, and the mood was low. He was careful not to say too much without some time to consider what happened.

A month later, Gustavsson was much clearer about the errors that had been made.

“We did some physical testing in the beginning of the camp” he told the media.

“Maybe I as a coach made it feel more like a pre-season camp kind of thing,”

Australia had chosen to play just one game in the two-week window. The first week was dedicated to sports science, It would prove to be valuable data down the track, but Australia traditionally performs better in the second game of an international break, they only had one chance on this occasion. In hindsight, Gustavsson admitted it was a factor in the Ireland loss.

“The other thing identified is I put a lot of emphasis on us honouring Sam’s 100th cap going into that game,” he continued.

“I think what happened is we went ‘route north’ all the time because the players wanted to give Sam that goal so much.

“I think we didn’t really play the way we wanted to play because we were so keen to get the ball to Sam to score that goal.”

Australia conceded three goals in that game, all were from set pieces. Corners and free kicks have long been an obvious weakness of The Matildas and Ireland took full advantage.

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“The one thing we didn’t train on the field before the game was defending set plays, we only covered it in a video session.

“We had very limited time to prep that game tactically…everyone that saw it saw we copped three goals on set plays…That’s on me. Is it an easy fix? Yes.”

Australia has played 15 games since then. Only two goals have been conceded from set pieces since the Ireland game. The Irish do have other threats in their team, but the method that they used to defeat Australia looks to have been rectified. The unusual lead-up to that loss is highly unlikely to be repeated before a World Cup match.

It was a bad night, but the problems were identified, and the lessons were learned.

Nigeria is beatable

Instinctively, out of the possible African opponents, most fans and teams were hoping to draw Zambia. It feels like a bankable three points, but recent results show that beating Nigeria might be just as achievable.

In the 2022 African Cup of Nations, Nigeria lost to Zambia 1-0 in the third-place playoff. Despite being one of the continents dominant sides, they only limped into the semi-finals. Regulation wins over Botswana and Burundi were tempered by a 2-1 defeat to South Africa on the opening day.

South Africa went on to become the winners of that tournament. The Matildas defeated them 4-1 in a recent friendly. Although the South African’s were below full strength, the result and dominance of general play should give Australian fans some confidence that they can defeat Africa’s best.

Nigeria remains a dangerous side, they rarely go goalless. However, they have only scored more than once on three occasions in the past 12 games. Australia does not often keep clean sheets but outscoring them should be an achievable aim.

Canada is the final group game

There is every chance that Australia will meet Canada needing either a point or having secured a top-two spot. Nothing can be taken for granted, upsets are always a slip away at a World Cup. This is the best possible time to play the highest-ranked opponent.

The Matildas’ recent two matches against the Olympic champions were underwhelming. As with most recent friendly matches, The Matildas were missing key players. It is important to remember that these players are rested for mostly precautionary reasons.

Hayley Raso missed both games and her absence was felt. Particularly in the much-improved second game. Cortnee Vine and Charli Grant had a near-unbeatable and unstoppable combination on the right. Vine was withdrawn as a pre-planned substation to mitigate injury risk. Without a speedster with similar defensive attributes, Canada quickly exploited the gaps that suddenly appeared.

Injuries will occur in the World Cup. There are no guarantees that there will be a full-strength side, especially by the final group game. However, if top spot or even qualification is on the line, precautionary substitutions are unlikely.

Players are being carefully monitored and cared for now so that they can be as fit as possible in 2023.

Australia was able to match Canada for much of that second game. They scored early and should have closed out the win. This remains the toughest match. If all goes to plan Australia should have already secured a top-two spot by then.

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