MONTPELLIER, France — After beginning this Women’s World Cup ranked No. 6 and as the highest-seeded team in its group for the first time in history, Australia has positioned itself right back where it is perhaps most comfortable ahead of their matchup against Brazil on Thursday — as the underdogs. With a stunning 2-1 last-ditch loss to Italy on Sunday, the Matildas went from Group C top dogs to having to fight their way back into this tournament. Fortunately, that’s a drill they know well.
“My head certainly wasn’t down after the first result,” midfielder Elise Kellond-Knight said on Tuesday. “The tournament isn’t dictated in the first game, and we know that. As soon as you let any sort of negativity or doubt in, you’re on the path to destruction. We are staying positive.”
Kellond-Knight, who is playing in her third World Cup for Australia, speaks from experience. The Matildas lost the opening match of their past two World Cup campaigns — 3-0 to the United States in 2015, and 1-0 to Brazil in 2007 — and then rallied to advance out of their group and into the quarterfinals. But with first-time qualifiers Jamaica unlikely to win a game in the group, and Brazil and Italy already pocketing wins, Brazil is a must-win match for the Matildas, the only team in the group that has beaten the Seleção previously.
“We’re going for the win. We’re putting everything out there,” said Kellond-Knight, who returned from injury off the bench late in Sunday’s loss but will see extended playing time Thursday and could be named to the starting 11. “We’ve got a great track record against Brazil, but who knows what they’re going to produce. We haven’t played them for a year now. They could have come along in leaps and bounds and we’ve changed coaches, so who knows what’s going to happen on Thursday night.”
The Matildas’ unexpected underdog status might also serve to settle some nerves. Despite the players’ insistence that they are unaffected by their front-runner status or by the thousands of green-and-gold devotees following them around France, it is impossible to believe they aren’t feeling the added expectations of a country believing for the first time that its team has a shot at returning home with hardware. Now, instead of worrying over impossible expectations, they can focus wholeheartedly on Brazil.
— What it’s like to play against (and with) Brazil’s Marta
— Graham Arnold lends support for Australian Women’s World Cup team
— Women’s World Cup 2019: Everything you need to know
“There’s a feeling you get when you lose a game like [Italy],” defender Steph Catley said during Wednesday’s news conference. “It fires you up and lights something within the team. It’s not something you want, but it will create a strong reaction against Brazil.”
Brazil arrived in France on an historically downward slip, having lost nine straight games and ranked No. 10, their lowest in history. But the Seleção are the definition of a tournament team. They’re one of only seven to qualify for every Women’s World Cup, and their stats at the tournament are impressive, despite never winning it.
“Brazil is a different type of opponent [than Italy]. They want to use their individual skills and like to play with the game stretched in two parts,” Australia coach Ante Milicic said Wednesday, after previewing a starting lineup that will feature several edits. While Clare Polkinghorne recovers from hamstring soreness, Catley will likely shift into the center, Kellond-Knight is likely to start at midfield and expect changes to the starting front three.
“We’ve looked at this as one area where we have a few options with our wide strikers,” Milicic said. “What’s important is we keep to our shape and structure and are technically disciplined.”
Both teams carry emotional baggage into this rivalry. Australia beat Brazil 1-0 in the round of 16 at the World Cup four years ago in a match that was scoreless until the 80th minute. One year later, at the Rio Olympics, Brazil returned the favor, knocking out the Matildas in the quarterfinals 7-6 on a shootout after 120 minutes of play. But the Matildas have rebounded since that heartbreaking defeat, winning all four matches against Brazil in the three years since.
“That is probably a slight advantage mentally, but we can’t fall back on that,” defender Alanna Kennedy said. “We need to focus on Thursday’s game and what’s going to happen in that 90 minutes. I’m sure [Brazil’s] got some confidence coming into this game [after beating Jamaica 3-0], so we’ll have to be aware of that.”
And while Brazil’s roster is replete with all-time greats, it is no secret that the roster is aging. Brazil boasts the oldest player in the tournament in Formiga, 41, and Marta, who holds the World Cup scoring record, is 33 and missed the opening match with a thigh injury. In Wednesday’s news conference, Brazil coach Vadão said whether Marta sits, starts or plays off the bench against Australia will be a game-day decision.
No matter the opposing lineup, the Australian players say they are exactly where they want to be, and they’re ready to prove they deserve to be seeded at the top of their group.
“As Aussies, it’s a mentality that we have, to carry the underdog tag,” Kennedy said Tuesday. “It’s good to know we’ve worked so hard to get ourselves into a position where we are the favorite in our group. But we still love that underdog mentality and regardless of whether that’s what we are or not, that’s how we’ll play.”