Australia are set to face Brazil for the fourth consecutive time at the Women’s World Cup after Saturday night’s draw in Paris placed the Matildas in Group C, along with Italy and Jamaica.
Of their three opponents, Brazil poses the toughest, yet most familiar, challenge for Australia in the group stage. With 18 previous meetings against As Canarinhas, the honours are fairly even with the Matildas winning nine, losing eight, with one match ending in a draw.
Speaking exclusively to ESPN after the draw, Australia’s head coach Alen Stajcic says the fact that the two nations were once more pitted against each other was just fate.
“I sat next to the Brazilian coach during the draw and we knew it was a fait accompli that we would end up in the same group,” Stajcic said.
“It’s developed into such a fantastic rivalry, we’ve played against each other so often and have a history of great matches, so as well as the rivalry there is a healthy respect between our sides.”
While Australia defeated Brazil in Canada in 2015 to notch up their first win in the knockout stage of a World Cup, and then more recently in two friendly matches on home soil in September 2017, plus consecutive victories in the Tournament of Nations over the last two years, the Matildas will not have forgotten the pain of their last defeat at the hands of the world No. 10 side.
At the 2016 Olympics, a penalty shootout in Belo Horizonte saw the Matildas heartbreakingly dumped out in the quarterfinals by the hosts after the match ended scoreless in regulation time.
Before facing Brazil in Montpellier on June 13, the Matildas will open their campaign against Italy, whose women have qualified for their first World Cup in 20 years.
The trajectory of the progress of La Squadra Azzurra, who qualified with a match to spare, is not lost on the Matildas boss.
“If you look at the professional teams that have evolved in Italy — Juventus being the most notable — you can see the level of effort they’ve put into women’s football and their national team reflects that,” Stajcic said.
“Italy qualified in a really difficult group and did it quite easily which shows how far they’ve come. I thought they were the best in Pot 3 so that will be a tough assignment for an opening match which is so important.”
Australia will round out their group stage against the lowest ranked side in the tournament, Jamaica, who are set to make their World Cup debut in France. But despite their lowly ranking — 53 in the world — Stajcic was typically circumspect.
“We don’t look at rankings as it’s not an accurate indicator of their level,” he said.
“They have a number of quality players who have come through the American college system and it will be an interesting challenge but we have the advantage of playing them in our third match so we’ll have the opportunity to get a really good scouting report on them and have a better idea of what to expect.”
If Australia can finish atop Group C, the path through the playoffs would appear to favour their chances of progression in the tournament with the round of 16 opponent — the best of the 3rd place finishers from Groups A, B and F.
A second place finish however, would set up a trickier prospect in the runner-up of group A, which contains France, South Korea, Norway and Nigeria.
For now though, Stajcic is focused on locking down logistics for the tournament in June next year and will then turn his sights to preparing the Matildas for their opening clash on June 9 at the Stade Du Hainaut in Valenciennes.
“Our goal is obviously to top the group, that goes without saying, but we won’t focus on the potential crossovers,” he said. “Italy is an important match and from memory we haven’t won our first match in a major tournament for a long time.
“There will be no easy games for anyone, the level of all the sides is now so close. Jamaica, Argentina and Chile probably have the most to improve but this is the World Cup and anything can happen.”