Australia and England were shaky early at Women's World Cup, need balanced play in knockout round
AUCKLAND, New Zealand (AP) — The verdict is still out on the legitimacy of both Australia and England at the Women's World Cup, where each team has a chance Monday to move into the quarterfinals and make a claim as true tournament contenders.
England swept through three games of Group D play and allowed just one goal, which came in an emphatic 6-1 victory over China. But the European Champions were a bit flat in earlier 1-0 wins against Haiti and Denmark.
Either way, England joined Japan and Sweden as the only three teams to go a perfect 3-0 in group play. Next up for the Lionesses is a knockout game against Nigeria, which used a 3-2 upset over Australia to move into the round of 16.
Nigeria has qualified for the World Cup in all nine of its editions but has reached the quarterfinals only once, in 1999. Nigeria is the only African team to ever advance to the quarterfinals, and will try to do it again against England.
“They are the European champions and we just have to try our best to make Nigeria proud again. We are expecting nothing but a difficult game, to be sincere with you," Nigeria goalkeeper Chiamaka Nnadozie said. “But we believe in ourselves. We are Nigerians and we will come out strong."
Australia, meanwhile, had a nerve-racking time in group play. Without injured striker Sam Kerr, the Matildas looked only mediocre in a 1-0 win over Ireland, then were shocked by their loss to Nigeria. It sent Australia into a must-win Group B finale against Canada, and Australia eliminated the Tokyo Olympics gold medalists 4-0.
Australia now faces Denmark in a must-win game for the World Cup co-hosts to continue in this tournament. Denmark beat Haiti and China in group play, but lost to England.
England did not play at the level expected of the European Champions in its first two group-stage matches, so the Lionesses went to a tactical change in formation, switching from 4-3-3 to 3-4-1-2 for the win over China.
England coach Sarina Wiegman is expected to continue with that strategy for the Monday night match in Brisbane, Australia. Lauren James has led the Lionesses with three goals in the last two matches, and the team has never lost a competitive match under Wiegman's guidance.
Nigeria has not lost a match since February, when it ended a run of seven defeats, and has logged four wins and two draws since then. The Super Falcons bookended group play with scoreless draws against Canada and Ireland, with the middle-game victory over Australia enough to get them into the knockout round.
Nigeria has never won in the knockout round of the World Cup.
The Super Falcons get Deborah Abiodun back against England after the forward missed two matches after receiving a red card in the opening game against Canada. Desire Oparanozie, another forward, has also been injured for Nigeria but is expected to be available against England.
“She’s had a few days of good training in between Ireland and England,” Nigeria coach Randy Waldrum said Sunday. “The game is going to dictate how we make our moves. But the good thing is she is now available. That’s the good news.”
Waldrum is unlikely to alter the lineup much and will probably have Abiodun and Oparanozie on the bench for the start.
“I think already with what we’ve accomplished, Nigeria is buzzing again,” Waldrum said. “I don’t think people expected us to get out of the group, or to get the results that we’ve gotten. So it’s already been a big success. Not only have we now beaten the Olympic gold medalist, but if you can turn around and beat the European champions, it would be something extremely special for the people in Nigeria and, more importantly, for this squad. It could certainly be transformational in a lot of different ways.”
Keira Walsh gave England a potential boost when the midfielder was able to practice with the team Sunday. Walsh sustained a knee injury in England’s 1-0 win against Denmark during the group stage and her status for the remainder of the tournament was in doubt.
Walsh participated in individual training before rejoining her teammates on the eve of the match. England did not reveal if Walsh will play against Nigeria.
Australia managed to win Group B despite mediocre play and the absence of star Sam Kerr, who was out with a calf injury for all three games.
The surprising 3-2 loss to Nigeria had Australia on the ropes, but the win over Canada was enough to earn the Matildas the knockout round match against Denmark in Sydney. Kerr, who said ahead of the Canada game she was fit but didn't play, is expected to be used against Denmark.
“This is do or die now,” said Australia goalie Mackenzie Arnold. “Historically, we’ve always really performed well with our backs against the wall.”
Australia was last in the knockout stage of the World Cup in 2019, losing to Norway on penalty kicks. The match is the second time Denmark and Australia will play in a year; the Matildas earned their first win ever over the Danes in a 3-1 friendly played Viborg, Denmark, last October.
Denmark is back in the tournament for the first time since 2007, and the team made it to the quarterfinals in 1991 and 1995, but didn't make it out of group play again until this year. Denmark only allowed one goal over three games to advance, and is powered by forward Pernille Harder, who has scored 71 goals in her international career. Harder scored on a penalty kick against Haiti in last week's final game of group play.
“Denmark have a lot of quality players all over the pitch and world-class in their final third,” Matildas’ defender Clare Polkinghorne said. “It’s definitely going to be a tough job for us to keep them contained, but I think as the games go on, obviously, your defense is going to be key.”
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