Rapid reaction: Potential disaster looms over Matildas after shock Nigeria upset

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The Matildas have fallen to a dramatic 3-2 defeat against Nigeria in Brisbane, reframing their FIFA Women’s World Cup campaign from one that appeared to be in cruise control to a suddenly perilous endeavour sitting on the edge of the knife.

After having the best of the game without too many clear opportunities from open play to show for it, the Matildas took the lead at Lang Park just before the halftime break through Emily van Egmond, who started for the concussed Mary Fowler, after she finished off a rapid move in transition from Katrina Gorry and Caitlin Foord. Thoughts of halftime advantage, though, were dashed when the Super Falcons got forward on the counter themselves and restored the game to equilibrium through Uchenna Kanu.

Finding their stride, Randy Waldrum’s side then seized the lead in the 65th minute when Osinachi Ohale was on the scene to capitalise on the chaos of a corner to bundle the ball into the net before Asisat Oshoala — forced to come off the bench after sustaining a knock against Canada — drove a dagger through Australia’s hearts when she capitalised on a defensive lapse to steal through and finish into an open goal from a tight angle.

Alanna Kennedy pulled one back for a desperate Australia in the tenth minute of added time, but the host nation’s frantic attempts to get back into the game came to naught.

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Rapid reaction

1. Control without landing a killing blow

For much of the opening stanza, lifted by a vocally partisan home crowd, the Matildas were the proactive side. Controlling possession and territory, Nigeria was at times struggling to get out of their half — albeit when they did break on the counter, they demonstrated more threat, especially in left-flank overloads, than Ireland did — and the host nation’s accumulation of pressure felt like it was mounting.

But at the same time, with Nigeria mostly playing in a mid- to low-block, most of Australia’s often rushed forays forward were able to be diverted to the channels by the defence before a shot could be created, leaving the Matildas’ most frequent avenue towards goal the corner. Particularly keying in on the second phases of these set pieces, this admittedly did lead to several threatening looks but ultimately failed to find a breakthrough.

Instead, it was ultimately a ruthlessly efficient moment in transition that delivered the breakthrough; Katrina Gorry pounced on a poorly taken goal kick from Chiamaka Nnadozie and knocking the ball down superbly for Caitlin Foord, who promptly drove forward and slid the ball across for van Egmond to finish. After doing so well to maintain their defensive shape throughout the contest to that point, it was just one piece of broken play that put them out of position and the only one that the Matildas needed.

However, as the new leader’s energy had begun to dissipate as the half wore on, Nigeria was increasingly beginning to key in on opportunities to apply their press when their foes needed to play out from the back. As generally press resistant as she generally is, Gorry began to find herself swarmed with few options presenting in front of her and after flashing a few early warning signs, Nigeria’s approach led to them grabbing their equaliser when they forced a turnover from Kyra Cooney-Cross and drove down the left. Rasheedat Ajibade‘s cross may have taken a deflection but it was Kanu that was the recipient of the fortunate bounce and had the awareness to adjust her body and finish to restore parity and leave the game finely poised.

2. Nigeria seize their moments

Whether it was finding a leveller just before the halftime break or a reflection of the gradually shifting dynamics of the game, the early control of the game that Australia had enjoyed had now dissipated and made way for a back-and-forth-contest. And just as Nigeria introduced their ace in the hole to the field in the form of Barcelona superstar striker Oshoala, the Super Falcons took the lead.

There was a certain level of irony to the way it happened, too. After effectively living off second balls off set pieces for their chances in the first half, the Matildas watched on, some quite literally, as Nigeria forced themselves ahead when they couldn’t clear their lines after an initial delivery from the corner, Michelle Alozie kept play alive, Mackenzie Arnold flapped at Rasheedat Ajibade‘s headed effort, and Osinachi Ohale bundled the ball over the line at the back post – with Alanna Kennedy perhaps providing the most resistance of anyone wearing a gold shirt as she collected her opponent with a flying boot to the gut as she converted.

Kennedy’s night, though, was set to get significantly worse seven minutes later when she and Arnold had a catastrophic breakdown in communication as they looked to clear away a long ball over the top, with the defender’s resulting attempt to provide a clearing header taking the ball wide of her keeper and, instead, allowing a trailing Nigerian attacker to get a shot at an angle off. And when that pursuing striker happens to be Oshoala. Then you know as a defence you’re going to have a bad time.

The energy returned, as did frantic purpose, as the Matildas desperately tried to force their way back into the game. After inexplicably not turning to his bench in the preceding exchanges, Tony Gustavsson also finally turned to his subs. But it was too little too late and Nigeria’s desperation to retain the lead was almost as great as the Matildas’ to equalise. Their defensive shape held until, perhaps cruelly given the game’s context, a corner finally delivered a goal for the Matildas as Kennedy converted in the 100th minute. But another couldn’t be found.

3. Pressure is on Australia

There’s no real way to sugarcoat it so you’ve got to just come out and say it: a potential disaster now looms over the Matildas.

After heading into the second matchday perched comfortably atop group B and being able to qualify for the knockout stages with a win over Nigeria, defeat for Gustavsson’s side instead means they will head to Melbourne to face reigning Olympic champions Canada on Monday knowing they have to win to secure progression. To avoid being knocked out in the group stages for the first time since 2003, at a home World Cup in which they had been talked of as genuine contenders, after multiple years of preparation to have a golden generation peaking at the right time, they pretty much have to down the Canadians to remain alive. No pressure.

If it wasn’t before, Sam Kerr‘s calf will become the most talked about piece of muscle that Australia has produced since Chris Hemsworth did his first shirtless scene as Thor. The pressure on Gustavsson (as well as every decision-maker that opted to trust him with this opportunity and stick with him) will become suffocating. The biggest game of their lives will suddenly await the players, testing their mental fortitude and ability to persevere like never before.

It’s not unfair to say that in one fell swoop, Nigeria has suddenly forced the Matildas into one of, if not the biggest, games in their history.


Best and worst performers

BEST

Ellie Carpenter, Australia: Battled valiantly and tried to get involved as much as possible, bursting down the flank and desperately trying to will the Matildas back into it.

Chiamaka Nnadozie, Nigeria: After being named best-on against Canada, the Nigerian keeper had another massive game: surviving a first-half barrage of corners and making some huge late saves.

Asisat Oshoala, Nigeria: Was forced to come off the bench because of injury but proved why she’s one of the best in the world when she came on.

WORST

Alanna Kennedy, Australia: Dragged a goal back at the death – which may be important for goal difference – but her wayward header that opened the door for Oshoala’s third was no bueno.

Mackenzie Arnold, Australia: It’s probably unfair to blame the Australian keeper too much for not smothering Ajibade’s header that ultimately led to the Nigerian second, but her miscommunication with Kennedy for the third capped off a night she won’t look back on fondly.

Kyra Cooney-Cross, Australia: Didn’t make any catastrophic errors but also didn’t do anything properly notable from a highlight or general play perspective either when the team needed drive in the midfield.


What the managers, players said

Matildas captain Steph Catley to Optus Sport on what went wrong: “A lot of things. We forced the ball going forward a little bit, we weren’t patient enough at times and then we weren’t clinical enough.”

Tony Gustvason to Optus Sport on the performance: “There are parts of the performance that were very good. We know football is won or lost inside the 18-yard box. A couple of mistakes cost us. We had enough opportunities to score more.”

Asisat Oshoala on her performance: “I want to make sure I give everything, fight for my teammates and fight for this badge. This is the best county in the world.”


Highlights and notable moments

Emily van Egmond put Australia ahead

But Uchenna Kanu answered back for the Super Falcons just before halftime

Osinachi Ohale paid for it, but then she put Nigeria ahead

And then, Asisat Oshoala got her legendary moment with the third


Key stats

– Asisat Oshoala became the first Nigerian to score at three different editions of the FIFA Women’s World Cup

– Australia had 26 attempts on goal to Nigeria’s 11 but could only muster one more attempt — 7 to 6 — that was actually on target

– Australia had 13 more corners than Nigeria (15 to 2) but both sides mustered one goal each from these set-piece opportunities


Up next

Australia: Now third in the group, Australia will face Canada on Monday knowing that, realistically, they’ll need a win to progress through to the knockout stages

Nigeria: Now top of group B and in the box seat to progress, the Nigerians will again play at Lang Park on Monday against an already eliminated Ireland, with a point all they need to guarantee progression.



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