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FIFA Women’s World Cup How Australia overcame absence of Sam Kerr vs. Republic of Ireland

SYDNEY — “I think this has been the longest build up to a game of my entire life,” Australia stand-in captain Steph Catley said after the Matildas had opened their Women’s World Cup campaign with a 1-0 victory against Republic of Ireland in Sydney.

The left-back was seemingly speaking not only on behalf of herself and her team but every Australian who had watched the match.

Three years of waiting and nervous anticipation contorted into full blown anxiety when the news broke that Sam Kerr would not feature in this match, an hour from kickoff.

An Australian team without Kerr was a thought that had barely been contemplated. It seemed impossible. This was Sam Kerr’s World Cup. How could she not play?

It seemed cruel to make her hold the hopes of the nation above her head, a task she had so far handled with aplomb, only for the rug to be pulled out from under her legs.

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“Unfortunately I sustained a calf injury yesterday in training,” Kerr shared on Instagram after the release of the team sheet.

“I wanted to share this with everyone so there is no distraction from us doing what we came here to achieve. Of course I would have loved to have been out there tonight but I can’t wait to be apart of this amazing journey which starts now.”

The national team confirmed she would be unavailable for the first two group stage games, with her injury to be reassessed after the Nigeria match in Brisbane.

So the Matildas walked onto the pitch at Stadium Australia, the scene of so much Australian football history, with 75,784 people in the stands but no Kerr leading them out. Catley donned the armband and truly led from the front, dispatching the penalty to earn Australia the 1-0 win.

Catley’s leadership continued to shine through as she spoke of her skipper postmatch.

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Lordanic: Catley phenomenal from the spot in Australia’s win

Marissa Lordanic recaps Australia’s 1-0 win over Ireland in their World Cup opener.

“Obviously losing a player like Sam, probably the best player in the world, and just for her as a person, we were completely heartbroken,” she said.

“We had to really gather ourselves pretty quickly, but we, I think used her spirit and used the fact that she wasn’t able to be out there with us to help us push on and to all add a bit to what we already bring and I think that’s what it’s gonna take for as long as maybe she misses.

“But she’s got a role still, whatever she’s massive for us and she’s so, so important. She’s a spiritual leader. And whatever role she plays in the next, however long will be massive.”

Kerr’s leadership and presence was still felt in some capacity, but head coach Tony Gustavsson had to engineer a way to get Australia attacking without the player his Irish counterpart, Vera Pauw, called “one of the, maybe the, world’s class striker.”

Gustavsson stuck with the system he had been using for months now, subbing in Mary Fowler for Kerr.

More often than not, Caitlin Foord played as the central striker, and, through a combination of Australia’s attack and Ireland’s defence, she was regularly covered by multiple green shirts. Fowler was a beat behind her, lurking in the space between the lines.

This pair haven’t played together often, and certainly not in this configuration, and there was the first problem. The flow-on effect of that was the two-up-top system, which has worked so well for the Matildas over the past eight months, didn’t function as it usually does.

By always having Fowler tucked in behind Fowler — a decision that made sense, all things considered — the Matildas lost the intangible that makes this system work: The deep, fluid, telepathic understanding between Kerr and Foord.

While it’s been described as instinctual, it’s based on the work of four World Cups and dozens of national team matches together.

With Kerr and Foord, either can play centrally, drift wide, or drop back. Together they dart across the forward half while participating in some sort of cosmic ballet.

But it wasn’t just this dynamic that the Matildas lacked. Fowler playing behind Foord as a concept did make sense. But it’s a formation that needs speedy movement and passing, and quick decision-making.

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Letting loose with Australia fans for their first game of World Cup

ESPN’s Marissa Lordanic and Joey Lynch lap up the atmosphere as the Matildas kicked off their World Cup campaign with a 1-0 win vs. Ireland.

To Ireland’s credit, they made life difficult for the Matildas. Cortnee Vine was unsurprised by how Ireland came out to play

“We planned a lot for Ireland and how they played with the five at the back and a four in the middle too; it’s hard to break down the blocks, You got a bit frustrated, both teams get frustrated, then teams waste time.”

Republic of Ireland coach Vera Pauw praised the effectiveness of her side’s game plan in limiting Australia’s attack and “taking all their intentions out”.

The combination of slow movement, a defensively disciplined Irish unit, and an under-rehearsed dynamic up top, resulted in a Matildas team that looked far from its free-scoring best.

Whether or not Kerr’s absence or Ireland’s 5-4-1 block was the biggest influence on the Matildas attack wasn’t a conversation Gustavsson was about to get into, but he said that his side could do better.

“We know we can do better in attack,” he said.

“I think we showed that in parts of the attack, when we had some good combination play down the right hand side, we isolated Vine 1v1 out on the left side a couple of times.

“And then in the beginning of the second half, we played faster and had more movements off the ball and played with a little bit more confidence.

“I hope that playing the first game in the World Cup, now we’ve ticked that box hopefully mentally as well, going out to the second game can help that attack a bit more.”

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