MELBOURNE, Australia –
The exit door at the FIFA Women’s World Cup could swing open for Canada on Monday. Or the Canadians could use it to usher out co-host Australia.
The stakes couldn’t be higher on the final day of Group B play.
“We know it’s going to a fight (Monday). They’re fighting for their life,” veteran Canadian midfielder Sophie Schmidt said of the 10th-ranked Matildas. “But we’re prepared as best we can be for what they have to offer. We know what we have to do to get the result.”
“I think that we have a long World Cup run ahead of us,” she added. “(Monday) is a massive big step for us. But we’re up for the challenge.”
Australia coach Tony Gustafsson also described the game as massive, calling it “a crossroads moment, for sure.”
Nigeria (1-0-1, four points) leads Group B ahead of Canada (1-0-1) by virtue of having scored one more goal. Australia (1-1-0) is one point behind with Ireland (0-2-0) already eliminated from advancing. Only the top two in the group move on.
The permutations favour seventh-ranked Canada, which will advance with a win or draw while the Matildas need to win to be certain of advancing.
“We know the fate’s in our hand,” said Canada coach Bev Priestman.
The Canadians can still keep going with a loss, providing Nigeria loses to Ireland in Brisbane and ends up on the wrong end of a tiebreaker. And Australia could advance with a draw if Nigeria is beaten and the tiebreakers favour the Matildas.
What may decide the outcome is which versions of Canada and Australia show up Monday.
Both had their issues getting past No. 22 Ireland and stumbled against upstart Nigeria, with Canada drawing the 40th-ranked Super Falcons 0-0 and Australia losing 3-2.
“Ultimately if we turn up — and we turned up in the second half for sure in the last game (against Ireland), then we can go and get three points,” said Priestman. “And it’s got to be about us bringing what we bring and getting the best out of the group in front of us. That is the focus, is to be brave and be what we bring and bring it well.”
Priestman said Canada will go for the win despite the fact a draw will suffice, saying if you play for a single point “you’re not playing on your strengths.”
Gustafsson, meanwhile, said his team will have to be careful not to allow the Canadians counterattacking opportunities as the Matildas press for a result.
Both teams came to the tournament with high expectations.
The Canadians looked to translate their gold-medal performance at the 12-country Tokyo Olympics into success at the 32-country World Cup, having exited in the round of 16 four years ago in France.
Australia had the weight of a nation on its shoulders, knowing no host team has ever failed to make the knockout rounds at the eight previous editions of the tournament (co-host New Zealand became the first Sunday when it tied Switzerland to finish third in Group A on goal difference behind Norway).
Canada is no stranger to high-pressure games.
Priestman’s team also had to recover from a tournament-opening draw (1-1 with Japan) in Tokyo’s Olympics before dispatching Brazil in a quarterfinal penalty shootout, the world champion U.S. in the semifinal and Sweden on spot kicks in the final.
There are injury question marks over both teams.
Star striker Sam Kerr missed Australia’s first two games with a calf injury, but told reporters Saturday that she is available for the Canada game. Just how much of a role the Matildas captain will play remains to be seen.
Gustafsson said a meeting was planned for later Sunday to discuss Kerr’s status, with the team’s medical staff and the player involved, with fitness tests scheduled for Monday. One concern is the risk of aggravating the injury and losing her for a longer time.
“So there’s a lot on the table to discuss,” Gustafsson said. “We probably won’t know how exactly we’re going to use that (information) until we come here to the stadium (Monday).”
Canadian midfielder Jessie Fleming said her team is ready for whatever lineup Australia fields.
“I think she’s just one player,” said Fleming, who plays alongside Kerr at England’s Chelsea. “We’re preparing for the game the same regardless of whether or not she plays, how much she plays. I think they have a very good team with or without her.
“Myself and the whole team are familiar with the quality she brings. She’s a threat in the (penalty) box but our backline has dealt with her before. I think we feel confident that we can deal with her again if she comes on the pitch.”
Kerr’s status has gripped Australia.
Australian rugby coach Eddie Jones even weighed in on the issue Saturday night after the Wallabies’ 38-7 loss to the All Blacks before an announced crowd of 83,944 at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, when asked if he would risk one of his players if they were 50-50 health-wise.
Jones referenced Gustafsson in his answer.
“If I was him, I would be playing her, mate,” Jones told his post-game news conference. “Because they’ve got to win. They’ve got to roll her out, strap her up. Whatever they need to do. Because she can play. She can play.”
Kerr is the Matildas’ all-time leading scorer with 63 goals in 120 appearances.
Canada captain Christine Sinclair, playing in her sixth World Cup, limped off the field after making an impactful appearance off the bench against Ireland, while centre back Kadeisha Buchanan, battling illness, exited in the dying minutes of the first half.
But the two took part in the portion of practice open to the media with Sinclair wearing SpiderTech tape on her right knee. Priestman said both will be available Monday.
Both attacks have yet to hit top gear.
While Canada completed 790 of 969 passes over its first two outings, only nine of 30 shots were on target — seven of which were in the Ireland game. The Canadian setup has also been lacking with just 13 of 45 crosses completed.
The Matildas have been equally wasteful, putting just nine of 40 shots on target and completing 13 of 41 crosses. Gustafsson, however, disagreed saying the attacking football against Nigeria was the top game out of his team’s last 15.
But having said that, he conceded his team’s conversion rate was not efficient enough. Still Australia has failed to score in just one of its last 22 Women’s World Cup group matches.
Three of Canada’s backline — Vanessa Gilles, Ashley Lawrence and Buchanan — and forward Evelyne Viens are on yellow cards, meaning they face a one-game ban if they collect another Monday.
Canada is 8-7-3 all-time against Australia and has won the last three meetings, including last year’s 1-0 and 2-1 victories in Brisbane and Sydney, respectively. So playing before a hostile crowd in Australia is nothing new to this Canadian team.
Adriana Leon scored all three goals in the two most recent victories, which upped Canada’s record against the Matildas to 6-2-2 this century.
The Group B winner will face the Group D runner-up and vice versa in the round of 16. No. 4 England currently tops Group D with No. 13 Denmark in second, ahead of No. 14 China on a tiebreaker.
“At this point anything can happen,” said Priestman, asked whether avoiding her native England was motivation. “Right now it’s just abut getting three points. If we want to be the best, we’ve got to beat the best. Ultimately we’ll just be aiming for three points (Monday) and get that job done and (then) face the team in front of us.”
The showdown at Melbourne Rectangular Stadium, better know to locals at AAMI Park, kicks off at 8 p.m. local time (6 a.m. ET in Canada).