A moment of sublime connection between Mary Fowler and Caitlin Foord has helped Australia defeat Denmark 2-0 and qualify for the quarterfinals of the FIFA Women's World Cup. The dreams of an increasingly hopeful host nation live on.
The Matildas, though, started in a manner that belied what was to come; playing nervously and largely second-best to a Danish outfit making their first appearance in a World Cup knockout fixture since 2015. The Europeans should have taken the lead in front of of 75,784 at Stadium Australia in the ninth minute, when Amalie Vangsgaard sprung Janni Thomsen down the right only for Rikke Madsen to just fail to get on the end of her ball floated across the face of goal.
But when Foord and Fowler combined to launch forward with a deadly and pinpoint move in transition in the 29th minute, the game turned as Tony Gustavsson's side took the ascendency, the game now on their terms. They increasingly began to play with confidence and were backing themselves and playing with more calmness and swagger in the final third.
When Fowler, again, played an integral role in laying the table for Emily van Egmond to set up Hayley Raso to make it two in the 70th minute, the game was done. It's going to take a special team to drag themselves back from a deficit against these Matildas, and the Danes didn't have it.
But the biggest roar was yet to come, as in the 80th minute the fourth official's board went up to confirm that Sam Kerr, after weeks of will she or won't she and the mystery of the troublesome calf, was back -- the skipper getting through ten minutes of play unscathed to lay the table for greater contributions in rest of the tournament.
1. Speed kills
When the Matildas get out, find space and head towards the goal at breakneck pace, they can score on anyone in the world. A case can very easily be made that they're, in fact, the best on the planet at playing in this manner.
But more importantly in the short term, they're more than capable, if allowed, of riding that to the final and potentially a grander prize. And spending half an hour of the game decidedly second best, one moment of rapid movement -- pretty much the first proper opportunity they had to burst forward against an out-of-position, scrambling Danish defence -- that was again on show on Monday.
Knocking down Rikke Madsen's long attempted cross-field ball for Fowler, Foord then took off like a freight train towards the Danish half, putting herself in the perfect position to receive an even more perfect through ball from Fowler and drive an effort between the legs of Lene Christensen to give Australia the lead.
From that moment, the game switched towards something that was beginning to resemble the Matildas' 3-2 loss against Nigeria (which Fowler missed) into one more reminiscent of the 4-0 win over Canada (which Fowler played in), with a more stout defensive effort and an increasingly middling Danish effort to force their way back into the game also aiding in creating the latter. The Matildas were now able to play the game in a position of strength, settling into a comfortable mid- and low-block as the onus switched onto the Danes to come out and force the issue, which, in turn, left more openings for transitions and pockets of space in behind to attack.
From the way the Danes had been playing before the goal, sitting back themselves to deny the Matildas' space in behind and looking to exploit the pockets of space that Pernille Harder was able to find as their foes became stretched. But knowing, in this case, was very much half the battle.
And knowing is a good word. As for all the good vibes that surrounded the team following their win over Canada and talk of a turnaround, that performance pretty much taught us nothing about how the Matildas function as a footballing unit. As did this one. Yes, the performance under significant pressure does demonstrate an important level of mental fortitude -- that's important, and another reason to believe that this tournament might hold something special for this side -- but it fundamentally was reflective of the way this team plays.
When in a position of strength, a position of speed, they're world beaters, able to score from anywhere on the pitch -- which masks a heck of a lot of their weaknesses.
When teams sit back, don't press them and restrict space in behind, there are issues -- especially if they fall behind.
But at this point, the responsibility is on the opposition to stop Australia from getting out and running. If they can do that, the Matildas are probably in trouble. But as they did on Monday, they also only need one opportunity to flip the switch and get out of sight in a hurry. And outside of Japan, most teams at some point in this tournament have shown that their hardly imperious in these circumstances.
2. Mary had a little world-class assist
For an earlier period this year, Fowler's role in this squad was uncertain. She wasn't starting every fixture and, with other attacking options settling into roles in the squad -- particularly Kerr and Foord as the two central options in a 4-4-2 -- where she fit within this balance wasn't clear. She was starting some warm-up fixtures but not all of them; scoring, but doing so off the bench in the Matildas' final warm-up fixture against France the week before the tournament.
Kerr's injury, though, as well as Fowler's own absence against Nigeria in Australia's worst performance of the tournament, has changed things. Now, Fowler's name is undoubtedly one of the first names on the team sheet, a player whose emergence is going to force others -- seemingly Cortnee Vine -- to fit in around and make way for her, not the other way around.
Her calmness on the ball, combined with her magnificent, almost alien touch and sense of when to play the ball was on incredible display in both of Australia's goals against the Danes, as was a connection with Foord that has quickly become one of this tournament's most lethal.
3. The Path Ahead Becomes Clear
If there was doubt before, a lingering dubiety left over from the Nigeria loss -- which itself began to look a lot less bad with each moment the Super Falcons took it to England in the other Monday evening game -- the back-to-back wins over Canada and Denmark have provided a roadmap to the final.
As the contenders have fallen around them, be it in the group stages or in the opening phase of knockout play, the Matildas have been able to do something that's been in increasingly short supply: take their chances and force their games to be played on their terms. And with Kerr seemingly on her way back, another piece of the puzzle is coming into focus.
Further, under Gustavsson, the Matildas's transition-based style of football and battling underdog identity is well suited to taking on the biggest and best sides in the world. Teams that will want the ball and look to force the issue, in turn, will give this Australian united chances of their own. Rope-a-dope, if we're being super charitable. And with a quarterfinal meeting with France and a potential semi-final meeting with England or a rising Colombia (apologies to Jamaica) now lined up, any kind of advantage that can be gleaned -- moral or actual -- is important.
Of course, where Kerr fits into this side if she is to start, is a question. You can't exactly bench Fowler, Foord, or Raso right now. Does she replace van Egmond? Does she force a change of shape? You'd hope not on the latter.
Best and worst performers
Caitlin Foord, Australia: At times a force of nature, an irresistible whirlwind of skill, pace and power moving forward. She has a Luis Suarez-like quality of somehow being able to force her way past defenders through skill and will.
Mary Fowler, Australia: Sublime touches, sublime finishes for a player that's increasingly shaping as one of Australia's most important players. And she's only 20.
Rikke Madsen, Denmark: Fluffed her lines with an early chance that would have completely changed the game and was otherwise quiet.
Amalie Vangsgaard, Denmark: Had some good signs in the first half but faded as the game went on and was subbed off in the second half.
What the managers, players said
Caitlin Foord to Optus Sport: "We just ran our arse off and gave it everything. We knew if we defended well there were going to come chances and we were going to score and that's what we did tonight."
Tony Gustavsson to Optus Sport: "The players once again managed to play the game in front of us. Right in that moment, the composure, we were under a lot of pressure, that first half. We didn't get rattled. The team is very mature and playing tournament football and just finding a way to win."
Highlights and notable moments
Caitlin Foord put Australia ahead to turn the game on its head:
A magnificent ball from Fowler:
Stop what you're doing and just look at the reverse angle of Mary Fowler's assist 🧠💫— Optus Sport (@OptusSport) August 7, 2023
And then listen to Stadium Australia going OFF!
Delivering on the world stage for the Matildas. Sublime.
Watch 📲 https://t.co/7uRyfyPy1f#FIFAWWC #OptusSport pic.twitter.com/QdoHYLP63B
Hayley Raso then sealed the game in the second half, with Fowler again involved:
The loudest cheer of the night, though, was reserved for Kerr:
- Australia only had one attempt on target in the first half -- but Foord made it count.
- Australia had 45% of controlled possession in the first half but, after taking the lead, only had 35% in the second.
- Denmark outshot Australia 13 to 10 but couldn't find a way through a backline that made.
Australia: A quarterfinal meeting with either France or Morocco, very likely the former, awaits on Saturday at Lang Park in Brisbane.
When France lost to Australia in a pre-World Cup warm-up, manager Herve Renard said: "Take it easy, stay relaxed. The competition didn't start yet." Well, the competition is here.
Denmark: Denmark is now headed home, their first World Cup campaign since 2007 ending in the round of 16.