The Matildas’ World Cup hopes are in tatters after a 3-2 defeat at the hands of Nigeria in front of over 49,000 fans at Suncorp Stadium.
Australia scored first through Emily van Egmond in a first half that saw 12 attempts on goal, but conceded just five minutes later thanks to an unfortunate deflection before copping another two poor goals in the space of seven second-half minutes.
Failure to deal with a regulation corner and a terrible mix-up between Alanna Kennedy and Mackenzie Arnold sunk Tony Gustavsson’s side in a horror second-half showing.
Kennedy got one back deep into injury time but it was mere consolation for the Matildas after Gustavsson waited until the 82nd minute to make his first substitutions, bringing on Alex Chidiac and Clare Polkinghorne.
“When he looks back at those substitutions when he made them and the type of substitutes that he made, I think he’ll look back with a little bit of regret,” said former Socceroo Mark Schwarzer on Optus Sport.
“Taking off an attacking player and putting on Clare Polkinghorne, then putting Alanna Kennedy up front was way too early. It wasn’t effective until later in the game.
“Alex Chidiac – when she came on, I thought she was a big difference. She should have probably scored but I thought she needed more time on the football pitch and if she had been on there earlier, I think it could have been a different result.”
Gustavsson acknowledged he needed to review his decision making.
“I know it can look strange when you take an attacker off and put a defender on,” Gustavsson said.
“We were very, very close. We could have scored four goals in the last 10 minutes.
“Alanna is a brilliant attacking option and Polks’ attributes on set plays and her winning mentality; she’s scored tons of game winners from set plays.
“It’s something we’ve played and prepared for.”
The coach conceded though that he may have moved too late.
“Did we get that because I did it in the right moment, or should I have done it earlier and we could have played longer with that positive effect?” he posed.
“The No.1 challenge is to find the right answer before you know whether it’s right or wrong.
“We had momentum and sometimes when you want to sub you don’t want to disrupt the momentum.
“I’m going to review whether I did it too late or not.”
Described as a “brilliant game-changer” by her coach, Chidiac admitted she was itching to see some action and shattered not to provide the game-changing goal when finally deployed.
“I think that’s every player sitting on the bench – they always want to get on the field, we always want to help our team out,” Chidiac told reporters.
“But you never go against what the coach says. He knows what he’s doing clearly and he’s got a game plan and all of us follow that.
“We’re all one team at the end of the day, and whatever role I have to play in this World Cup I’m going to play it the best of my ability.”
Australia will likely need to win against Canada – possibly without Sam Kerr – on Monday to qualify for the knockout rounds as they drop down to third place in Group B after Thursday night’s loss.
“I think Sam Kerr, it really just depends on where she is. I don’t know but my gut feeling is we won’t probably see her from the start (against Canada),” said Schwarzer.
“But I think there’s a chance we may see her in the game. But it really depends on where she is. What the risks are involved with bringing her on if they even do bring her on. That’s a really, really big call and a call that obviously the medical staff and Sam herself would make and you got to respect that.”
Already bereft of Kerr’s presence, Gustavsson also lost attacker Mary Fowler to a concussion in training on Wednesday, allowing veteran Van Egmond to come into the starting 11. Gustavsson’s starting side from the triumph over Ireland was otherwise unchanged.
The plucky Nigerian side found it difficult to play through thanks to the Matildas’ coordinated press, with passing moves often breaking down in the middle third for the Super Falcons.
Despite all of the Matildas’ possession Nnadozie had precious little to do as Gustavsson’s side continued to look sluggish going forward.
New Real Madrid signing Hayley Raso had a golden chance when she met Catley’s excellent corner but dragged her shot wide with the goalkeeper beaten by the delivery.
Just as it seemed the Matildas would go one and a half matches without scoring from open play, Foord squared for Van Egmond who made no mistake from the centre of the area after a deft first-time pass from Katrina Gorry had started the move straight from a Nigeria goal-kick.
Van Egmond had not scored at a World Cup since the 2011 edition.
The stubborn Nigeria had finally broken down as the Matildas went straight back on the attack, looking for a two-goal cushion at half-time.
Australia’s celebrations wouldn’t last long, however, with the Super Falcons levelling within minutes.
Nigeria transitioned after a sloppy Matildas turnover in the centre of the park before a deflected cross fell into the path of Uchenna Kanu who made no mistake with a close-range finish past Mackenzie Arnold.
A quiet start had given way to plenty of action at the end of the first half with two goals in five minutes, the Matildas copping a body blow immediately before the sides headed to the dressing rooms.
After the restart Raso went down in the penalty area but the free-kick went Nigeria’s way.
Australia again were in complete control of possession and progressed through midfield well until that final pass or cross in the attacking third continued to let Gustavsson’s side down.
Despite the weight of possession Australia had not capitalised and the Super Falcons would soon make them pay.
After the Matildas failed to clear a corner, Rasheedat Ajibade’s header was parried by Arnold but only into the path of Osinachi Ohale who tapped in from inches out.
Not long after Nigeria would double their advantage over the shell-shocked hosts as substitute Asisat Oshoala took advantage of a mix-up between Kennedy and Arnold at the back from an innocuous ball over the top, rounding Arnold easily and finishing into an empty net.
Oshoala wheeled away in celebration, receiving a yellow cad for removing her jersey in the jubilation.
Australia would have just 18 minutes to turn the tide but with only one goal from open play in 162 minutes in the tournament so far that prospect did not seem especially plausible.
Gustavsson cut an absolutely bewildered figure in the technical area, struggling to comprehend just what had transpired, the Matildas conceding two soft goals in a seven-minute period that could spell the end of their home World Cup campaign.
“I thought there were times where we had a lot of the ball, a lot of domination, we just weren’t effective in it,” Schwarzer said on the Optus Sport coverage.
“I think we’re too sloppy in possession, gave the ball way, way too easily throughout the whole game. And I think defensively there was some really underperforming performances, that’s for sure.”
The Swede turned to his bench to change Australia’s fortunes, bringing on Chidiac and Polkinghorne.
Eleven minutes was added on for injury-time, giving the Matildas a sliver of hope.
Foord had another chance from a metre out but could not get her header past the well-positioned Nnadozie.
Kennedy, who was now deployed as a striker, rose highest from a corner and scored with a well-placed header to bring Australia within one goal.
Attention now turns to the Matildas’ final group stage fixture against Canada at AAMI Park on Monday, where all three points will be required to qualify for the round of 16 should Nigeria secure at least a draw against Ireland.