There are many words that could be used to describe Australia’s 2-0 win over Denmark. Thrilling, scintillating, superb, and all relevant synonyms would fit the bill nicely.
But the best two might be: mature and professional.
We already knew the Matildas prefer to play with their backs against the wall. They told us they relish being the underdog, drawing on the team’s “Never Say Die” mantra, and doing what people thought was beyond them.
What we didn’t know is how they’d handle the weight of favouritism.
This was a different sort of challenge. Not so long ago, a scenario like this would get the better of them. After being battered by the Danes and their star skipper Pernille Harder for the first 20 minutes on Monday night, they looked frazzled.
They had problems to solve, and quickly. They could have easily fallen to pieces. We’ve seen it happen before.
Not this team. Not anymore. They’ve taken a huge step forward. They can no longer be accused, as Emily van Egmond put it, of being a “one-trick team” – a side that depends on a singular set of circumstances, a particular formation or shape, or even the heroics of one superstar player to bring out their optimum.
“We’ve got different ways,” she said.
Vice-captain Steph Catley found the right word immediately.
“I think it was another mature performance,” she said. “The game ebbed and flowed. They controlled possession at times, then we fought our way back in, we changed a few things, and we capitalised on our chances – and we kept another clean sheet.
“There was so many positives – the fact that we got Tameka Yallop on the field, we got Sam Kerr on the field. Coming into a quarter-final with players like that coming back into the fold, we’re playing well, we’re keeping clean sheets … it’s very, very good.”
The Matildas have answered every question asked of them at this tournament – and there’s been quite a few.
Would they buckle under all the unique mental demands of a home World Cup, in front of 75,000 people? No.
Would the loss of Kerr to injury, on the eve of their opening match, throw them off course? No.
Could they find a way to unlock their best football after playing within themselves against Ireland and Nigeria? Yes.
Did they play their “final” against Canada? No.
Was there any danger they could underestimate Denmark? No. You could see that in their eyes and their body language.
Could they win a game they should be winning, and do it in the manner that good teams do? Absolutely.
“We had our backs against the wall last game, and we kind of thrived under that pressure – but being the host nation is also a huge advantage,” said Hayley Raso.
“We’ve got the crowd behind us. We come into these games, and we want to win. We know we need to win. We’ve got the support of the whole country, and we definitely feel it.
“It was a very professional performance and to keep the clean sheet as well, I think was hugely important.”
Now to the big question, the one on everyone’s lips: Can they win the World Cup?
Of course they can.
The evidence was there before the tournament even started – this masthead called it after their friendly wins over France and England, two of the world’s best teams who, funnily enough, could be their next two opponents.
Now the world can see it too. But the Matildas are not thinking or talking that way, or taking any confidence from the number of big-name nations that have already been knocked out. They’re too mature and professional for that.
“You feel pressure when you’re not prepared. We feel prepared,” Caitlin Foord said.
“We feel that we’re ready for any scenario, every match. Tony has done an unbelievable job to get us ready and get us focused for what’s ahead.
“We’ve set the bar now to what our performance, the bare minimum is, so we just want to keep building on that, and we know we have to keep taking it up another level if we want to go all the way.
“I think we’ve all been at the level for long enough now to know what it takes – and I guess a lot of disappointment in the past [has] kind of shaped this team.”
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