Co-hosts Australia laboured initially in the absence of injured captain Sam Kerr but a second-half penalty from Steph Catley got them off to a solid start at the Women’s World Cup with a 1-0 win over Ireland in Group B on Thursday.
The news that striker Kerr had been ruled out by a calf injury stunned the record crowd of 75,784 as it filtered into Stadium Australia but Catley stepped up to take the captain’s armband and score the decisive goal in the 52nd minute.
Ireland, cheered on by a noisy band of compatriots, made life difficult for the Australians with their compact defence and came close to forcing an equaliser during a period of sustained pressure late in the second half.
“It’s incredible to get the win, I think this is the longest buildup to a game in my entire life,” Catley told reporters.
“Losing a player like Sam, probably the best player in the world and her as a person, obviously we were heartbroken. We had to use her spirit … to help us push on. She’s so, so important, she’s our spiritual leader.”
After a moment’s silence for the victims of the morning’s shooting in Auckland, the game opened as had been expected with Ireland getting plenty of bodies behind the ball and challenging Australia to try to break them down.
The Matildas were successful in using their pace on the flanks to get behind the Irish defence but the massed ranks of green shirts managed to deal with the subsequent crosses into the box.
It was from the set piece that the hosts looked most likely to score and winger Hayley Raso had the first attempt on goal from a 28th minute corner only to flash her header wide.
The second shot on goal came just before halftime but Katrina Gorry’s long-range effort was easily gathered by Courtney Brosnan in the Ireland goal.
Australia came out with more intent after the break and the half was only seven minutes old when Kyra Cooney-Cross sent the ball looping into the box and Ireland forward Marissa Sheva shoved Raso to the ground.
Catley gave Brosnan no chance with the penalty, striking the ball with her left foot firmly into the top corner of the Ireland net.
The penalty appeared to ease the Australian nerves and Mary Fowler, who had replaced Kerr up front, almost immediately stormed forward and lashed a shot high over the bar.
Australia striker Caitlin Foord headed the ball across the face of goal in the 68th minute but that presaged Ireland’s best period of the game as they launched wave after wave of attacks.
Megan Connolly came close with a free kick in stoppage time which whipped just over the angle of the post and crossbar to give the Australians in the crowd a mighty fright.
The Irish continued to pour forward in search of an equaliser and Katie McCabe forced Australia goalkeeper Mackenzie Arnold into a save before Louise Quinn headed the ball just past the post in the dying seconds.
Australia, however, held on to make a winning start to a tournament in which they feel they can be genuine contenders after wins over England, Spain and France this year.
“It’s very disappointing, we said at halftime this was a game that would be decided by one mistake, them or us,” Ireland coach Vera Pauw told RTE.
“Sam Kerr is one of the top strikers in the world, her not playing was of course an advantage, but they have a powerful team and it was very difficult to play against them.”
FIFA Women’s World Cup Australia and New Zealand 2023 – Group B – Australia v Republic of Ireland – Stadium Australia, Sydney, Australia – July 20, 2023 Australia’s Steph Catley celebrates scoring their first goal with teammates REUTERS/Jaimi Joy