Italy stunned Australia on Sunday with a last-gasp winner in Valenciennes. Here are five things we learned from the Matildas' disappointing 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup opener.
This did not go to plan.
Notwithstanding some off-field disturbances, the Matildas were flying high as one of the best women’s football teams in the world, powered by the glowing adoration of the Australian public.
Their clash with Italy on Sunday was expected to be a victorious beginning to a campaign that might see them go all the way to the final in Lyon in July.
Except Italy hadn’t read that script.
An early penalty, converted on the second attempt from Sam Kerr, gave Australia an early advantage.
But a defensive error gifted Barbara Bonansea an equaliser in the second half, before the Juventus forward nabbed a brace with a 95th-minute set-piece winner.
Here are five things we learned in Valenciennes:
Misfortune for Australia or defensive frailties?
There are (at least) two ways to analyse the Matildas’ loss.
It could be looked at as a classic case of misfortune – the draw, or even a win, that should have been.
"To lose from a set-piece in stoppage time…” coach Ante Milicic mused. “It is an area we have worked on a lot, but it looks like you can never work enough on it – very disappointing."
The Italian winner came about from a soft free-kick, awarded after Italy sought to time waste and the Matildas pressed – perhaps too physically – to get the ball back.
On another day, the free-kick would not have been given and the narrative would be very different.
But it is no coincident that both Italian goals resulted from defensive lapses: the first a turnover from Clare Polkinghorne, the second an unmarked player on the set-piece.
Australia played an advanced defensive line and passed the ball out from the back. That is a high-risk, high-reward style – and the two Italian goals disallowed for offside were indicative of the fine margins.
"We are not going to change our style because we conceded a goal,” Milicic insisted. “I believe in that style and that’s the way we want to progress up the field – we just need to get better at it and get better at it quickly."
Perhaps the Matildas were just unlucky, and will bounce back in game two against Brazil. But it may be that they are struggling to adapt to a new system after recent coaching turmoil.
Carpenter stars for the Matildas
We knew Ellie Carpenter, the 19-year-old sensation from Cowra, was good. But did we know she was this good?
In her FIFA Women’s World Cup debut, the right-back bossed the Italian defence. Linking beautifully with Hayley Raso and Sam Kerr, Carpenter created opportunity after opportunity.
"Ellie was good – she gives us a lot going forward," Milicic reflected after the match.
"I thought she got on the ball well, got in some dangerous areas in the front third and gave a few good deliveries. But she’s still a young player and just needs to keep working."
Italy were defensively stubborn while Australia failed to fire
Italy’s backline was as strong as expected – it is no surprise that they conceded just four goals in qualifying, two after they had already qualified.
Australia created space on both flanks and managed numerous half-chances, but failed to convert when it mattered.
The usually decisive Kerr had a quiet game (other than the penalty rebound goal), while substitute Lisa De Vanna failed to make the desired impact.
While Italy’s defence can take much credit for Australia’s inability to score from open play, an attacking reshuffle from the Matildas did not help.
"We tried to change things around – we moved Sammy to the right," explained the Australian coach.
"I thought she got in behind quite well a few times, but when you take her into those wide areas you lose her aerial threat."
Milicic consoled himself with optimism.
"I thought we created enough chances to score more than one – maybe another day a few would have gone in."
This is just the beginning for Italy
Italy coach Milena Bertolini and woman of the match Bonansea would have been forgiven for entering the post-match press conference looking elated.
They had just overcome the odds to beat one of the best teams in the world.
Instead, the duo greeted the media with steely faces, answering questions in a serious tone.
"I’m very happy with this result," Bonansea dead-panned. "But it has more value if we are able to get out of the group stage. Let’s wait until we say this victory is so great – I’m enjoying it, but let’s see how things evolve."
Bertolini similarly had her sights set on progression from the group.
"Tonight we are going to celebrate," she conceded. "Tomorrow we are going to get back to the nitty gritty."
If the Italians can beat Jamaica on Friday they will have secured a spot in the next-round – a remarkable performance in their return to the Women’s World Cup after two decades in the footballing wilderness.
Australians keeping their heads up
The Matildas aren’t giving up just yet.
"We’re not going to pack it in after one defeat," Milicic said bullishly.
"There are still two games to go. We need to regroup quickly and learn from the mistakes."
To ensure a top two finish, the Australians must beat Brazil in Montpellier on Thursday (Friday morning AEST) – and then get points from Jamaica in the final match.
A draw against Brazil, while keeping the Matildas’ hopes alive, would leave progression on a knife-edge.
"We have the potential to get through, we’ve just decided to go the long way, the hard way about it, Milicic continued.
"Maybe that’s just the Australian way. We’ll stare it straight in the eyes and go for it."
Kieran Pender is covering the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup for The World Game. Follow him on Twitter: @KieranPender.