MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - JULY 31: Hayley Raso #16 of Australia celebrates her second goal during the FIFA Women's World Cup Australia & New Zealand 2023 Group B match between Canada and Australia at Melbourne Rectangular Stadium on July 31, 2023 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Zhizhao Wu/Getty Images )

Matildas waltz into knockout phase

In what was the biggest night in Australian football - perhaps ever -, the Matildas had the weight of the nation on its shoulders. Tony Gustavsson's side tackled reigning Olympic champions Canada in a match where nothing less than a win would spell the end of Australia's FIFAWWC campaign. Read how it played out!

It was the biggest match in Australian football - perhaps ever. Australia, coming off of a disappointing loss to Nigeria, needed a victory over reigning Tokyo 2020 Olympic gold medallists Canada in order to qualify for the knockout phase in the Women’s World Cup. Any less than that, and the Matildas' World Cup journey would be over far too soon. Far, far too soon.

The build-up was at a fever pitch and centred almost entirely on whether star striker Sam Kerr would play. When the team news dropped, Kerr was named on the bench. When she was glimpsed in her kit prior to kick-off, it was clear - she would start on the bench. But with her suspect calf injury, the question was how much of an impact could she possibly have.

The time for talk was over, and after a spine-tingling Welcome to Country and one of the loudest renditions of the national anthem ever heard in Australia, it was time for kick-off.

FIRST HALF - Raso runs riot

The match began cautiously, with misplaced passes and clumsy attacks marking the first five minutes as both teams adjusted to the occasion's magnitude.

In the ninth minute, the Matildas set the Melbourne Rectangular Stadium ablaze when Steph Catley assisted Hayley Raso from the left wing. Raso took a touch and finished across the diving Canadian keeper to open the scoring. The goal -upheld after a VAR review for offside - provided Australia the ideal start.

Two minutes later, Raso almost struck again, assisted by Catley, but was denied by an impressive save from Canada's Kailen Sheridan.

Canada slowly clawed its way into the contest, keeping possession but failing to create a substantial chance as the 20-minute mark approached. A free kick from the left wing, resulting in a tepid header past the post, was the closest Canada came to challenging Australia's goal.

As the half-hour mark loomed, the game followed a peculiar rhythm. Australia absorbed pressure, favouring counter-attacks, while Canada possessed the ball without posing any real threat. Another Jessica Fleming set piece from the left wing proved fruitless, reflecting Canada's disjointed attack.

In the 34th minute, a contentious VAR review from the referee denied Australia's bid to double their lead, ruling Ellie Carpenter offside - a decision met with vocal disapproval from the Melbourne crowd.

However, Australia's response was swift. A minute later, Kyra Cooney-Cross sent in a corner that Hayley Raso controlled with her chest and nudged into the Canadian goal. The Canadians appeared unable to contain the Matildas, casting doubt over their chances of a comeback.

With the halftime score at 2-0, the sentiment nationwide was clear: “No Sam Kerr? No worries.”

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SECOND HALF - Fowler fires and Catley cool from the spot

Canada started the second half with a challenging task: to avoid becoming the first Olympic gold medalists to miss the Women’s World Cup knockout phase. Coach Bev Priestman made four halftime substitutions, transitioning from a back four to a back three.

The strategic shift barely affected Australia, who seemed more threatening against Canada's three-back setup. Katrina Gorry's reverse ball almost set up Hayley Raso before Kyra Cooney-Cross nearly scored from long range.

Just shy of the hour mark, Caitlin Foord capitalised on a splendid through ball from Catley, and cut it back for Mary Fowler to make it 3-0.

In the 66th minute, Canada finally tested Australia’s goalkeeper, Mackenzie Arnold, through a quick counter-attack, but the attacking effort was denied.

With Australia leading 3-0, Coach Tony Gustavsson substituted Hayley Raso for Cortnee Vine, and she received a warm ovation from the crowd.

Despite pressing for a goal, Canada seemed less likely to stage a comeback as time went on. Mary Fowler nearly scored again in the 80th minute, only for her shot to hit the post.

With ten minutes to go, Mackenzie Arnold and Emily van Egmond were both booked for time-wasting. To tighten the defence, Claire Polkinghorne replaced van Egmond in the 84th minute, shifting the formation to 5-4-1.

In stoppage time, Jessica Fleming was penalised for fouling Katrina Gorry in the box. Stepping up to take the penalty, Steph Catley confirmed her spot-kick prowess, confidently placing the ball in the left corner.

The game ended in a 4-0 victory for the Matildas, proving they could shine without Sam Kerr. The convincing performance restored momentum after the defeat to Nigeria, showcasing Australia's readiness for the knockout phase. Given this form and the passionate support of their fans, the Matildas will be riding high, and requiring more support to continue to pick up results like this.

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