The Matildas have defeated Ireland 1-0 in front of a record-breaking 75,784 fans at Stadium Australia in their Women’s World Cup opener despite the loss of star striker and captain Sam Kerr, who sustained a calf injury in training on Wednesday.
Kerr will miss next Thursday’s clash with Nigeria in Brisbane and could be out for longer with scarce details available on the Chelsea forward’s exact condition.
In the post-match press conference Tony Gustavsson was praised by a reporter for his “poker face” in Wednesday’s pre-match media gathering, the Matildas organisation able to keep Kerr’s injury under wraps for 24 hours.
Australia put in a woeful first-half display, only registering a single pot shot on target in the opening 45 minutes, before Steph Catley scored from the spot to save the hosts’ blushes.
Despite opening up after conceding the opening goal, Ireland still lacked quality in the final third themselves and could not rescue a point.
In Kerr’s absence Caitlin Foord and Mary Fowler were instead tasked with the striking duties, Gustavsson opting for a traditional 4-4-2 set-up. It was a huge blow for the home side, with Kerr not having missed a World Cup fixture since the 2011 edition.
The energetic Cortnee Vine was preferred on the left side, her pace causing trouble early on for the five-woman Ireland backline deployed by Vera Pauw.
Katrina Gorry was handling virtually all the midfield distribution as Kyra Cooney-Cross took some time to settle into proceedings. The Matildas looked rattled from the loss of their skipper, unable to connect effectively with the strikers until Foord was found with a searching ball, but nothing was to come from the resulting corner.
Ireland rarely threatened the Matildas defence, relying on quick transition play to progress the ball to the mostly isolated Kyra Carusa, who often found herself outmuscled by the Australian centre-backs.
As much as she would’ve appreciated an early goal, it wouldn’t have much mattered to Pauw as her side were resolute defensively and had weathered the first 25 minutes without conceding. The longer the game went on, the more pressure the hosts would come under to commit players forward, with no Samantha Kerr to bail them out with a piece of individual brilliance.
The state of the game suited Ireland just fine, with Australia offering little penetration and it seemed difficult to identify where a goal would actually come from.
Foord continued to be the Matildas’ most dangerous outlet but failed to find that all-important final ball or shot to ignite the record-breaking home crowd at Stadium Australia.
A weak long-range drive from Gorry was never troubling Courtney Brosnan in the Irish goal, but it was technically the closest the Matildas had come – the only effort on target all half.
As the players headed for the sheds with the deadlock yet to be broken, Gustavsson would surely be concocting a plan to modify his blunted attack. That, or a change in shape, which would allow Fowler to come deeper to receive possession and start attacks.
Without Kerr, the Matildas sorely lacked a consistent target up front, as well as the Chelsea woman’s instinctive finishing in and around the penalty area.
Gustavsson resisted the urge for change at half-time, trusting his starting side would be able to turn the tide.
And just five minutes after the restart, a very clumsy push from Marissa Sheva on Hayley Raso in the area gave the Matildas a golden opportunity to go ahead as the referee pointed to the penalty spot.
Stand-in skipper Catley confidently stepped up, dispatching an emphatic side-footed penalty past Brosnan and drawing a thunderous response from the Homebush crowd.
It was perhaps a lucky break for Australia, but also the circuit breaker Gustavsson desperately needed after the pitiful first-half display.
The first-ever World Cup match on Australian soil opened up after that, with Ireland forced to break from their rigid structure in an attempt to get back into the contest.
Sheva was substituted, and television cameras captured her in tears on the Ireland bench as the gravity of the situation caught up to her.
Pauw went to her bench again, hoping for a circuit breaker of her own as time began to run out for Ireland to level the scores.
Gustavsson made his first change of the evening, bringing on experienced central midfielder Emily van Egmond to hold the fort with Vine making way. It had not been Vine’s most impressive showing in green and gold.
Australia were able to find space in behind now, drawing on the speed of Raso and Foord in the wide areas to stretch a tired Irish defence.
The hard-working Fowler was then withdrawn in favour of Clare Polkinghorne, Gustavsson making no secret of his intention to batten down the hatches with only minutes remaining to hold on to his side’s slim advantage.
A late free-kick in a dangerous position gave Ireland hope for an equaliser but Megan Connolly’s effort was deflected over Mackenzie Arnold’s crossbar for a corner.
That was to be the last chance for Pauw’s side as the Matildas sealed an unconvincing win on a famous night in Australian football with a record crowd in the house at Stadium Australia.
Australia’s attention turns to a clash with Nigeria at Suncorp Stadium in a week’s time, and they’ll have to do it without Kerr who has been confirmed to miss at least that match.
Kerr will then be reassessed before the Matildas take on Canada in their final group stage fixture in Melbourne.