When the Matildas thrashed Canada to secure their spot in the last 16 of the Women’s World Cup, it was off the back of a Steph Catley and Caitlin Foord masterclass. Their on-field chemistry stemmed from a decade of playing together for club and country, but on Sunday, as Australia dismantled the Philippines in front of a record Perth crowd, it was clear there are other, just as potent, dynamics.
Since returning to Manchester City after the World Cup, Mary Fowler has been used as a wide forward, instead of in the central role she had performed for Australia. The Matildas coach, Tony Gustavsson, decided to test that against Iran on Thursday and it paid off – Catley and Fowler set up Sam Kerr for their second goal. But with Fowler out wide again against the Philippines, the test was of Foord in the centre with Kerr.
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Gustavsson said Fowler and Catley have similar chemistry to Foord and Catley. That certainly looks to be true, but the overarching message from the Matildas’ second match in Perth was of Foord’s ability to play anywhere, and dominate.
The first two goals came from Foord assists – a back heel in the six-yard box to Fowler, and a darting run from the left to set up Kerr. The third, still inside the opening 30 minutes, was hers, as was the fourth. From the left, from the right, from the middle; with Kerr or Fowler or Hayley Raso, it didn’t matter. Foord’s second goal put her at equal fifth on the Matildas’ all-time scoring list with Sarah Walsh, who, coincidentally, bequeathed the No 9 jersey to her when she retired. That ranking lasted about 30 minutes.
The Matildas’ seventh goal was possibly Foord’s most impressive display of individual skill. Manoeuvring around defenders as if they were glued to the spot and slamming the ball from a narrow angle past the weary Philippines goalkeeper. It marked Foord’s third international hat-trick and made the case for her name to be mentioned in the same breath as Kerr’s, at the very least in the context of this team, if not globally.
Caitlin Foord and Sam Kerr celebrate a Matildas goal against the Philippines. Photograph: James Worsfold/Getty Images
“I don’t really know,” Foord said afterwards, when asked which position is her favourite. “I would say out wide on the left, but today I did enjoy being in as a 10, I think it’s easy to find the ball a bit more and obviously closer to Sam and we have a good relationship there.”
Foord and Kerr – and Emily van Egmond – have played with each other for more than a decade, taking part in their first international tournament together at the 2011 World Cup. The connection they have in the Matildas’ forward line is different to that of Foord and Catley, but it’s just as strong. Along with Raso, and now with Fowler so comfortably fitting into that mix, there are signs the World Cup could be just the beginning of what this team can achieve.
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“It just comes naturally for us,” Foord said. “We enjoy playing together. But then, you bring everyone else into it as well, I think it just clicked today and we were all on the same page.”
Far from just being on the same page, the Matildas played as if they were crafting prose in tandem. This attacking performance was unlike any in recent memory – except perhaps the World Cup win over Canada – and marked what Gustavsson considered a turning point for the team. In the past, and indeed in that game against Canada, the Matildas have been criticised for only being able to perform when their backs are against the wall, when they’re considered underdogs. The first Olympic qualifier offered a glimpse of the difficulties encountered against lower-ranked opposition. But that seemed to shift on Sunday.
“When I arrived here three years ago, a lot of people said that this team can’t play as the favourites,” Gustavsson said. “[This match] was a little bit of a crossroads moment for this team, in terms of what we want to be about. We want to be a top team in the world and be able to play as favourites and be able to play [against] parked buses and we proved today that we have taken massive steps.”
With one game remaining in this Olympic qualifying tournament, the Matildas have another chance to stamp their authority on the group and position themselves for a preferred opponent in the final round next year.
“The job is not done yet,” Gustavsson said. “But this is also rehearsal. If you want to go all the way to the Olympics, this is how tight the games will be in the Olympics. Only 48 hours to recover and then another game. So we need to be extremely professional, physical and mental recovery is key now.”