PREVIEW: Everything remains on the line for CanWNT ahead of World Cup group stage finale vs Australia
The mission is simple - win or draw, and you’re in. Lose, and you risk an early exit.
That’s what awaits the CanWNT at the 2023 World Cup on Monday, as they take on co-hosts Australia in their final group stage match in Melbourne.
A thrilling clash between two tier-one teams, this will be a huge opportunity for Canada, who are looking to qualify for the knockout rounds for a third straight tournament.
After a slow start to their World Cup, as they drew Nigeria 0-0 in their opening match, they enter this game in good form, too, having defeated Ireland 2-1 in a crucial come-from-behind win in their second match.
Now, however, the going will really get tough for this Canadian side. In what is basically a knockout match given what is at stake for them, it’ll be a huge chance for them to prove their credentials for that next round, as they’ll have to manage their opponents' threats while dealing with a pro-Australia crowd.
If not, their World Cup journey could be cut short, adding another chapter to their past heartbreaks in this tournament, something they’ll be looking to change on Monday.
With that in mind, however, here’s what you need to know from a Canadian perspective ahead of this game.
Australia expected to come out flying:
No matter what happens in this game, one thing’s for sure - Australia will come out flying.
Eliminated outright with a loss, and needing a loss by Nigeria to an already-eliminated Ireland if they draw, it’s win-or-bust for them in this game.
Playing in front of a big Australian crowd, the co-hosts will have nothing to lose, either, as the last thing that they’ll want is an early exit from this tournament, one where some had them as favourites to make a deep run.
Therefore, look for them to quickly put the disappointment of their 3-2 loss to Nigeria out of their minds, knowing what’s at stake now.
A sloppy defensive performance, one where they conceded more than two goals in a game for the first time in over a year, they’ll know that they need to tighten things up against Canada.
In particular, they’ll be frustrated that they nabbed a lead against Nigeria, too, going up in first-half added time, a lead they’d relinquish just minutes later in the sixth minute of added time.
From there, they’d allow two more unanswered goals, just failing to weather the Nigerian storm, as the 12-time African champions started to show why some viewed them as a potential darkhorse team this tournament in the second half.
Australia then did well to nab a late consolation goal, and nearly rescued a point at the death, but ultimately, it was too little, too late for them.
Because of that, look for them to play much tighter defensively in this game. Having allowed 1.38 xG against Nigeria, it wasn’t a terrible defensive performance statistically, but they made two really sloppy mistakes on the last two goals, which they’ll need to clean up for this Canadian clash.
MATCH PREVIEW 👀— OneSoccer (@onesoccer) July 28, 2023
We recap #CanWNT vs. Ireland and talk #FIFAWWC group stage finale vs. Australia on OneSoccer Today, Presented by @CIBC 🇨🇦
WATCH (FULL) ▶️https://t.co/DzjG7iQHQs pic.twitter.com/vE1h2n3oOI
Given Canada’s scoring struggles, the last thing they’ll want to do is gift them any goals, as they did to Nigeria’s Asisat Oshoala for what ended up standing as the match-winner on the day.
If not, they’ll earn the distinction of being the first women’s World Cup host to fail to advance from the group stages, which would be disastrous for the 10th-ranked Matildas.
On the other hand, that’ll pose an interesting challenge for Canada, however. Thanks to their win over Ireland, they have the luxury of a draw being enough to advance, which means that they might not have to come out flying like Australia will.
Of course, they won’t want to sit too far back, either, as that could play into Australia’s hands, but they’ll at least have the luxury of being able to start the game in a favourable position, which is always nice.
From there, they can try to catch Australia in transition, capitalizing on the space that might open up as their hosts push forward in chase of goals.
Knowing that they could even win the group and take advantage of the easier knockout round path that could offer, Canada will still chase goals and a victory, which is why it’s imperative that they capitalize on the opportunities that will be available to them on the counter.
And the good news? Canada thrives in these sorts of games, as they remain a defence-first team, one that is comfortably absorbing pressure before going the other way, so this is the perfect match for them in that regard.
Because of that, all that’s left is for them to execute that game plan, allowing them to reach the knockout stages once again.
How to stop Sam Kerr?
While Australia will be looking to tighten their defence ahead of this game, however, one area they’ll be satisfied with heading into this game? Their attack.
After an underwhelming first game offensively, as they only nabbed one goal against Ireland, coming from a penalty, they stepped up against Nigeria.
There, they nabbed two goals and were unlucky to not grab more, as they finished with 2.24 xG on 28 shots (8 on target), doing well to put Nigeria under pressure defensively.
Really, all that was missing for them was a lethal finisher in key moments, allowing them to take advantage of all of the chances they created.
The good news for them now? That finisher is waiting in the wings, as Sam Kerr looks likely to return for this clash, after missing Australia’s first two games with a calf injury.
“If she’s available we need to come up with a plan together with the staff, together with Sam, to see what’s the best to maximise the potential minutes that she has.”— ESPN Australia & NZ (@ESPNAusNZ) July 28, 2023
Do the Matildas' chances against Canada solely rest on the fitness of Sam Kerr? #FIFAWWC pic.twitter.com/6iergTXIbu
Australia’s captain and top goalscorer in history with 63 goals in 121 caps, the Chelsea forward has been sorely missed in their first two games.
One of the best players in the world right now, and scoring goals for fun in England, Australia will be banking on her being fit and ready to go in this game, knowing what she can do in key moments.
Therefore, Canada will have their hands full marking her, which is why it’ll be interesting to see how they approach that task.
A task they successfully completed last September, as they kept Kerr off the scoresheet in a pair of friendlies against Australia, they’ll look for similar magic this time around, as one can only imagine Kerr will have no intentions of making it a third game without scoring against Canada.
If Canada are to do that, however, they’ll need to try different tricks, as they’re without defender Jade Rose due to injury, which is a big absence given how the Harvard centre back handled Kerr in 1v1 duels in the second meeting.
Yet, between Kadeisha Buchanan and Vanessa Gilles at centre back, as well as Ashley Lawrence, Jayde Riviere and Allysha Chapman at full back, Canada’s got more than enough defenders who can deal with Kerr’s threat.
In particular, Kerr’s Chelsea teammates, Lawrence or Buchanan, could be key to that battle, as they’ve got the speed, intelligence and 1v1 defending to keep Kerr in check.
Either way, it’ll be imperative that Canada gets the best of that duel. With Kerr’s ability to score out of nothing, due to her speed, intelligence, skills and two-footedness, she can’t be given an inch of space in this game.
Given how good Canada is at defending, however, that’ll be a challenge they relish, as they look to keep her quiet on the day.
Can Canada find the right attacking balance?
While Canada remains confident in their defence, having allowed just one goal through two games, which came off a Katie McCabe Olimpico that Kailen Sheridan will want back, they’re yet to build similar confidence in their attack, however.
Having only scored two goals in those two games, one of which was a very unfortunate Irish own goal, offence continues to be a big question for this team.
That’s not that surprising, to be fair - heading into this tournament, the big question surrounding this team was about its offence - but it doesn’t make those struggles any less frustrating.
Especially since it’s felt that Canada isn’t getting the most out of its attacking options right now. Between Jordyn Huitema, Evelyne Viens and Cloé Lacasse, Canada has in-form options up front, but Huitema and Viens have struggled for the sort of service they thrive on, while Lacasse has struggled to get the minutes her form would deserve.
Because of that, Canada’s lone goal (own goal aside) actually came from Adriana Leon, who ended up scoring the winner against Ireland.
Unsurprising given that she’s been Bev Priestman’s best-attacking threat with 10 goals since the start of 2021, that’s led to a conundrum for Canada, as she’s also clearly battling rust after not getting many club minutes between Manchester United and a loan to the Portland Thorns this season.
Therefore, it’s opened up the question about if it might be better to use her in a super-sub role, or if her value to pop up and finish chances will continue to be best used as a starter.
And that’s just one of many questions Canada will look to answer in this game, from where Huitema should play, whether or not Lacasse should start and what they can do more to get out of Viens if she does start again (she was withdrawn after 45 minutes against Ireland after making just 11 touches).
Ahead of the knockout stages, it’ll be important for Canada to answer those questions if they’re to make a run, so look for them to try and find some answers, as they could very well prove to be the difference between Canada making it out of the group or not.
So look for Priestman to potentially tweak her attack, as she seeks out that perfect balance, one that has mostly remained elusive for her as of late.