From damned to delightful: Brazil pile pressure on Australia's Matildas for must-win match

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The most open group at the Women's World Cup finals promises a contrast in expectations on Thursday that was hard to fathom a week ago

Every World Cup has that first shock result – and when looking to predict where that would come from in this tournament, many turned their attentions to Group C.

Indeed, Brazil were hammered by the press in South America going into this competition.

The sacking of the nation’s first female head coach, Emily Lima, provoked five players into retiring from international duty, such was their anger at the decision, while the return of Vadao failed to inspire them.

The 2007 runners-up went into this World Cup having lost nine successive games and having not played well in any of them.

That’s more games than Lima lost in her 13 in charge, yet this crisis of form was not regarded as bad enough to justify sacking the coach this time.

“It’s very strange how [Lima] got fired without competing in an official competition, just as it’s strange to be re-hiring Vadao,” Joao Amarildo, president of Brazilian club Iranduba, told Folha De Sao Paulo.

“The hiring is a setback. You dismiss a coach from the Brazilian national team and less than a year later sign him on again,” added one anonymous manager, while Santos president Modesto Roma Junior said: “With the hiring of Vadao we turned 360 degrees, but the ideal was 180.”

Things were much rosier on the other side of the Southern Hemisphere.

Australia v Italy WWC

Australia were basking in the glory of their new generation of talent, with three teenagers in their World Cup squad and 14 of the 23 either 25 or younger.

Captain and star player Sam Kerr enjoyed an incredible 2018, showered in individual awards and a couple of golden boots, and, despite their own managerial controversies, the mood going into the World Cup was positive.

“The way this team will play while I’m in charge will always be to attack and go for a win. It doesn’t matter who the opponent is, home or away,” Ante Milicic said.

That approach is exactly what made Milicic’s side the big story of the first round of games though, as they fell to a shocking and dramatic 2-1 defeat to Italy.

While they flurried forward, the Matildas forgot about the defensive side of things and were lucky, in truth, to only lose by one goal.

They lacked a cutting edge in the final third too, with even Kerr faltering and having to convert the rebound of her saved penalty.

Brazil, on the other hand, defied their lowly expectations, stifling one of the competition’s liveliest attackers, Khadija Shaw, in a routine 3-0 win over Jamaica. This was achieved without star player Marta.

Criticisms of tactical disorganisation and uninspiring performances under Vadao were suddenly swept aside, all thanks to hat-trick hero Cristiane, who was one of the five to originally retire in protest when Lima was sacked.

“It was a fresh start for the whole side,” she told FIFA after the game, recognising the doubts around the team.

Sam Kerr Matildas

Kerr, meanwhile, played down the significance of Australia’s opener.

“It’s only the first game,” she said – but, with Brazil up next, it could prove to be a damaging result.

The winners of Group C book themselves a place in the bottom half of the knockout rounds, which is a much more open route to the final – tipped to feature the likes of the Netherlands, Canada, Japan and a Germany side who have just been hit with an injury to talisman Dzsenifer Marozsan.

The runners-up, however, throw themselves into the top half, which is likely to contain England, France and the USA, among others. 

Australia were hit with an injury to defender Laura Alleway just before the tournament began, but that is not a great enough excuse for them to be so arrogant in their gung-ho approach.

Milicic had even warned against complacency before the game, saying: “Italy are one of the most improved teams in world football

“Individually they are strong, tactically they are flexible, and we know we will have to be at our best to win this game."

The narrative has switched massively from what it was expected to be before this upcoming fixture.

Marta Brazil 2018

Brazil have three points on the board, their star player to return and confidence is high. Furthermore, there is still little pressure on them given their form in the build-up to this competition.

Australia, however, have a heap of issues to address and, although there is a positive in that Kerr has got her first World Cup goal, the pressure on the team as a whole is even greater.

“Obviously there is a little bit of pressure, and you don’t want to let people down,” Kerr told FIFA before the tournament.

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“It is good that people are talking about the Matildas, they expect us to do well, and that is where we have always wanted to be.”

Tomorrow, that expectation will weigh heavy on their shoulders at Montpellier’s Stade de la Mosson.

But whether they will rise to the occasion this time or wilt in the spotlight again – and just what Brazil will bring to the game – is anyone’s guess in what has become this summer’s most unpredictable group.

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