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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Australia gets the victory it needed against Canada

Australia players celebrating their fourth goal.

By Tariq Panja

The understudies delivered when it mattered.

Looking lost and lackluster without its star player and facing a humiliating group stage elimination in front of an expectant home crowd in Melbourne, Australia finally produced a performance worthy of reaching the knockout stage of the Women’s World Cup, advancing Monday night at the expense of the Olympic champion, Canada, 4-0.

It was the fate of star striker Sam Kerr, ruled out with a calf injury just a day before the opening game, that has hung like an immovable cloud over the Australian team throughout the tournament, reaching a fever pitch as the must-win game against Canada neared.

Without Kerr, the Chelsea forward who is considered one of the best players in the world, the Australians had barely resembled the team that had been discussed as potentially serious contenders for the championship. They stumbled to a barely merited narrow victory over Ireland before blowing a one-goal lead to lose to Nigeria.

Yet on Monday night, years of preparation and national pride on the line, Australia finally produced the type of performance that while necessary, seemed unlikely against one of the tougher teams in the tournament.

Nigeria joined Australia in the round of 16 after playing Ireland to a draw, 0-0.

That Australia’s journey continues will not only be a relief to its army of fans, but also to tournament organizers who faced the prospect of seeing both co-hosts eliminated within 24 hours of each other had Australia failed to get its job done. New Zealand on Sunday became the first host in the tournament’s history — it began in 1991 — to fail to make it through the group stage.

Yet despite all the pressure, Australia showed none of the nervousness and anxiety that plagued its earlier performances. Instead, it induced discomfort for Canada, a team that had experienced the pressures that come with playing in a home World Cup in 2015.

The dramatic backdrop to the game, the high stakes and the legacy defining 90 minutes were matched by the added drama of refereeing calls that first incorrectly ruled out Hayley Raso’s opening goal in the eighth minute and then failed to spot an offside as Mary Fowler put a ball into the net a few moments later. Both calls were corrected after video replays.

Canada failed to take advantage of the reversal of the goal that kept it within one score of tying the game, and the team quickly slid further. It would have advanced to the round of 16 with a draw.

Calamitous defending at a corner six minutes before halftime allowed Raso to score for a second time and set Australia on its way for an evening that was only surprising in how serenely the co-host was able to coast through what had been discussed in local media as not only a make or break night for the team and the tournament for the future of the entire sport in Australia.

In Kerr, Australia had arguably its one truly global soccer star, making her absence bigger than it might have been for one of soccer’s heavyweight nations.

Speculation surrounding her readiness was also helped along by Australian management’s handling of the information surrounding her injured left calf. It called an unscheduled news conference Saturday, presenting Kerr to the surprise of local media. Kerr spoke positively, saying she was ready to play. A day later coach Tony Gustavsson, facing the imminent risk of losing his job had Australia tumbled out, refused to say whether Kerr would play, saying instead that a decision would be taken just hours before the game.

Beverly Priestman, the Canadian coach, said her team would not allow itself to be distracted by the “smoke” or “head games” around the selection.

Gustavsson, as had been most likely given how little Kerr had practiced, decided to keep her on the bench. But even that was bold considering the magnitude of the game and what defeat would have meant for his own future, a fact he had acknowledged. In the end Kerr, wrapped up in the giant teal coat, was not needed as a substitute once Australia took control, allowing her to be a supporter for what will be remembered as one of the greatest nights in Australian soccer history.

She celebrated again when Fowler scored a third goal with 30 minutes left to play, again with a penalty in extra time and again as time expired.

To cap what is surely one of the most humbling nights Canadian soccer has faced, it allowed a fourth goal in injury time, as Steph Catley buried a penalty to bring yet another roar from the capacity crowd, which by then was already in full celebration.

Japan sprints past Spain in a matchup of contenders.

As the goals piled up, and the Japanese celebrations grew more and more revelatory, it was hard not to wonder where the showdown everyone expected had gone.

Japan and Spain had been the class of their group at this World Cup, with each breezing to two early victories to quickly lock up places in the knockout round. Their collision Monday in Wellington, New Zealand — a meeting of two teams with offenses that scored easily and defenses that had yet to surrender a goal — held the promise of a good measuring stick of their relative strength, and of their respective cases as title contenders.

But that match never materialized: Japan scored early and often and cruised to a 4-0 victory that was as emphatic as it was surprising. Overrunning Spain’s defense with lightning-quick counterattacks again and again, Japan, the 2011 World Cup champion, scored three times in the first half and never looked back.

Hinata Miyazawa sprinted behind Spain’s back line to slot home a low shot in the 12th minute for the first, and then Japan kept right on running. Riko Ueki added a second goal before the half-hour, and Miyazawa notched her second just before halftime.

The goals were the first Spain had surrendered in this World Cup, but its defeat may come with a silver lining. With the outcome in hand, Spain was able to withdraw its star midfielder, Alexia Putellas, who only recently returned from a serious knee injury, in the second half. And by finishing second in the group, it earned a date with Switzerland in the round of 16.

That could be a more attractive matchup for the Spanish than the one that looms for Japan against Norway, a dangerous team that shook off some early discord in the World Cup to score six goals against the Philippines on Sunday night.

What comes next felt like a problem for Tuesday, though: Japan may have been too busy celebrating to think about that Monday night. The cherry on top of its victory, a breakaway goal by substitute Mina Tanaka in the 82nd minute, was Japan’s 11th goal in three games, the most of any team in the field.

It was also a message that perhaps Japan, not Spain, might be the team to watch from here on out.

FIFA Women’s World Cup

Group Stage

Monday’s Results

Japan 4, Spain 0

Zambia 3, Costa Rica 1

Republic of Ireland 0, Nigeria 0

Australia 4, Canada 0

Sunday’s Results

Morocco 1, South Korea 0

Norway 6, Philippines 0

Switzerland 0, New Zealand 0

Colombia 2, Germany 1

Today’s Games (all times Eastern Standard Time)

Vietnam vs. Netherlands (3 a.m., FS1)

Portugal vs. United States (3 a.m., FOX)

China vs. England (7 a.m., FOX)

Haiti vs. Denmark (7 a.m., FS1)

Wednesday’s Games

Argentina vs. Sweden (3 a.m., FOX)

South Africa vs. Italy (3 a.m., FS1)

Panama vs. France (6 a.m., FS1)

Jamaica vs. Brazil (6 a.m., FOX)

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