The Women’s World Cup continues with Australia vs Italy, a clash that will go a long way towards deciding which of these two nations advance to the next round, with Brazil and Jamaica rounding out Group C.
Australia arrive in France ranked as the 6th best team in the world and are the seeded side in this four-team pool, making them favourites to top the group. They are expected to win this opening match, despite the upheaval that followed the decision to sack Coach Alen Stajcic back in January.
Months of turmoil followed, but the Matildas are now led by former Australia international Ante Milicic. They won the inaugural Cup of Nations earlier this year yet went on to lose each of their two previous outings, beaten 5-3 by the United States and 3-0 by the Netherlands, meaning they will be looking to return to form against Italy.
The Australians have reached the quarter-final stage in the last three World Cups but have never topped the group, something they will be determined to do here and star forward Caitlin Foord insists they are not worried by that recent slump.
“We were playing our football and creating chances. Pretty good chances. Any other day those would have gone in,” she said. “The game against Holland just wasn’t our day. That game didn’t make us or break us, it was just one game.”
These two nations have faced each other eight times previously with their first meeting coming in 1997. Each has claimed three wins since and they last met in 2014 when Australia claimed an emphatic 5-2 win at the Cyprus Cup.
Both sides have no shortage of attacking talent, with Sam Kerr of Australia and Italian Daniela Sabatino both worth keeping an eye on in the final third of the field as they look to score at every opportunity. Indeed, Stajcic once called Kerr “without question the world’s most dangerous player” and she will need to live up to that reputation if Australia are to succeed.
Italy have hit their stride at just the right time, winning seven of the nine games they have played in 2019, their only other results being a loss on penalties to North Korea and a draw with Poland. However, this tournament marks the first time the nation has qualified for the World Cup in 20 years, and – currently ranked 15th in the World – they will be well aware that a mammoth task lies ahead.
Yet their recent form gives them reason for hope and, having scored 42 goals in their nine qualifying matches, they will hope to take advantage of an Australia backline that has suddenly begun to look porous. Striker Cristiana Girelli scored seven goals in the UEFA qualifiers and Sara Gama — the captain of Italy and Juventus — is the spine of this group, but it could well be club team-mate Barbara Bonansea who shines brightest in midfield.
Indeed, Bonasea registered the second-highest number of assists overall in the qualifying phase with six, second only to Jennifer Hermoso of Spain, who contributed nine times to team-mates’ goals. Another of Juve’s women, Girelli was also among the top scorers in the group stage, her aforementioned seven goals in eight total matches seeing her sit joint-second in the standings.
With two more tough games to come, both nations will be desperate to claim an early win that will allow the victor to take a big step towards the knockout stages.