Matildas’ World Cup hopes on precipice after shock loss to Nigeria

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BRISBANE, Australia — “Is that Alanna Kennedy playing up top?” was the question whispered around the stands of Brisbane Stadium. The answer was “yes.”

After playing in the heart of defence for 82 minutes, Kennedy had been pushed forward to play as a second striker. It wasn’t a new tactic from Matildas coach Tony Gustavsson. He had employed it sporadically throughout his tenure, including in a friendly against New Zealand in 2021; it was not well-received two years ago but the Matildas managed to win on that day.

To say it was admonished in the Matildas 3-2 defeat to Nigeria at the World Cup wouldn’t even explain half of it. Pushing Kennedy forward coincided with another question fans had asked much more loudly during the match: Where were the substitutes?

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After Nigeria burst out of the blocks in the second half and scored two goals in seven minutes, the consensus was fresh legs would do the Matildas some good.

Australia’s first change came in the 82nd minute. Hometown hero Clare Polkinghorne replaced Cortnee Vine; a central defender went on for a winger at 3-1 down with eight minutes plus stoppage to play. This was the substitution that saw Kennedy push forward with Polkinghorne taking her place at centre-back.

The Matildas’ second and final change came in the 85th minute, when Alex Chidiac entered the fray for Hayley Raso. It was a move fans had been calling for and Chidiac undeniably brought a different dimension to the team but it was all too little, too late.

From a neutral perspective, this result was fun and the euphoria exploding out of the Nigerian team and their fans is what World Cups are all about. From a Matildas perspective, this result felt like the death knell of this World Cup campaign.

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Nigeria fans in full party mode after famous win vs. Australia

Fans of Nigeria feel their team can go all the way to the final at the World Cup after their 3-2 win vs. hosts Australia.

Disappointment, shellshock, and anger coalesced to make a heaving mass as fans and pundits alike attempted to process what had just happened, and what could be just around the corner.

When asked to explain his two most curious choices of the night — the late subs and Kennedy up top — Gustavsson wheeled out the same responses he’s used every time these choices have been called into question. These answers grated during friendlies and after the Asian Cup; in the middle of the World Cup campaign, they aggravated.

According to Gustavsson, Kennedy simply is a choice that can be moved up forward. She’s not a first choice. Or a second. Or even a third. But when your first choice has a calf injury, your second choice picks up a concussion, and your third choice has already played most of the match to no avail, this is apparently where you end up. This also doesn’t mention the choice who is still working through her ACL rehab with an eye to the knockouts.

The hope was this tactic would be pushed back far enough in the alphabet of plans to not be needed. That it was required feels like a cruel, unlucky fate and a failure all at once.

A win would’ve secured safe passage to the knockouts. A loss but statistical victory means nothing to a nation now staring down the very real possibility of a group-stage exit.

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But just as there were two bizarre decisions against Nigeria, there are two consolations in this mess. The Matildas’ fate is still technically in their own hands. And calves. And heads. They have a must-win game against Canada. At kick-off, there will be no other caveats or favours needed; just a win.

Australia — both the team and the nation — also won’t have long to erupt and dwell on this Nigeria loss because there isn’t time. The Canada match is played on Jul. 31 meaning we’ll already be back at matchday minus two by the time the team has a day off for recovery.

When asked about how to get this team ready to go again, both physically and mentally, Gustavsson highlighted the mental aspect as the most important question to answer.

He’ll likely have little trouble motivating a group of elite athletes to rise and face their moment in the biggest tournament of their careers, especially with the aid of senior players and sports psychologists and the never-say-die mythology to call upon.

But how Gustavsson convinces the Australian public — the angry, the dejected, the heartbroken, the anxious, the furious — to bounce back, to join him for the ride once again, that could be the coach’s biggest test.

The script is ready and waiting for the next page to be written. Will Australia see a comeback story? Or will the nation watch a dream turn to a nightmare in the swiftest possible descent? All roads lead to Melbourne.

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