With the Women’s World Cup just around the corner, look ahead to the action with our preview of Group B, which contains co-hosts Australia, Canada, the Republic of Ireland, and Nigeria.
Group B features two of the current top 10 teams in women’s football, with Canada (seventh) and co-hosts Australia (10th). Don’t rule out a dangerous Nigerian side, with one of the best strikers in world football, while the Republic of Ireland will be looking to make their mark on their World Cup debut.
We look ahead to the action in Group B.
It Started with Injuries
A last-minute squad announcement. It was a mere day before the list was due on Monday that Canada head coach Bev Priestman finalised her decisions.
That is largely because the FIFA-ranked seventh best team in the world have been overcome with injuries in recent months. The biggest question marks were midfielder Desiree Scott and forward Nichelle Prince. Scott, referred to as ‘The Destroyer’, didn’t make the cut as she is still recovering from knee surgery. Prince suffered an Achilles injury but was named in the squad.
Veteran forward Janine Beckie had an operation after tearing her ACL in March and was forced to withdraw from the talent pool being considered. Defender Jade Rose had to leave the pre-tournament camp after sustaining an injury.
Even though players like Kadeisha Buchanan, Deanne Rose, Quinn, Shelina Zadorsky and Jayde Riviere were able to recover in time for camp, the near-endless slew of injuries has meant Priestman’s opportunities to experiment with lineups in friendlies ahead of the World Cup have been limited.
Building on Recent Success
It’s no secret that the reigning Olympic gold medalists are hungry for more.
After defeating Sweden in the 2020 Olympic final after a penalty shootout, Canada are out to prove they can win a World Cup too, and that their title didn’t come down to what many consider luck. While it’s true that penalties fell in their favour – they also defeated Brazil in the quarters after a shootout – a strong defence was the main reason behind their success.
Across six games at the Olympic tournament, they conceded just four goals, while keeping clean sheets in impressive performances against Brazil and the United States.
That isn’t to say Canada are incapable of making magic happen in the final third. While they’ve had their ups and downs in recent matches, they found success on the attack against Group B rivals Australia less than a year ago.
One of Canada’s most relied-upon scorers, Adriana Leon, managed to net all three goals in Canada’s two wins over the space of four days against the Matildas in September 2022. She demonstrated deadly levels of versatility in those matches, from finishing a cross, to running onto a through-ball, to firing in a bullet from outside the box.
The pressure will be on Canada to perform and make it out of a tricky group to reach the last 16. After all, the reigning Olympic title holders have always managed to reach the knockout stage in the following WWC tournament.
Playing Nigeria in their first match of the tournament, Canada will have a reason to be confident knowing they came away with a win and draw after a two-game friendly series with the same opposition last April.
They qualified for these finals with an impressive showing at the 2022 CONCACAF W Championship, in which they reached the final without conceding a goal in four matches before losing to the United States 1-0 in Mexico.
It wouldn’t be right to talk about Canada without mentioning the all-time leading scorer in international football, for both men and women. Christine Sinclair, with 190 international goals to her name, is back for a sixth World Cup. Trailblazing for Canada since the early 2000s, Sinclair, along with Marta, holds the record for most Women’s World Cup tournaments with at least one goal.
Sinclair is currently 10th all-time in minutes played in the Women’s World Cup (1,869), just 234 minutes behind second-place Formiga (2,103). The defending NWSL champion has started all 21 of Canada’s World Cup matches in the 21st century, playing the full 90 minutes in every game except one.
Sinclair just celebrated her 40th birthday in June and could become the first player to play a game and to score a goal at the Women’s World Cup aged 40+ years. Including the men’s tournament, she could become just the second player to do so after Roger Milla for Cameroon in 1994 (42 years old).
Ahead of this edition, Sinclair has scored 10 of Canada’s 34 goals at the Women’s World Cup (29.4%), which is the highest proportion of any player for their team among those with at least seven goals scored.
Capitalising on Home-Field Advantage
The first order of business for the Matildas at this year’s tournament will be making sure they do not become the first host knocked out in the group stage of a FIFA Women’s World Cup.
There are two mindsets to have going into this:
One. Australia haven’t won an opening match in their last three World Cups. They lost 1-0 to Brazil in 2011, fell 3-1 against the United States in 2015, and lost 2-1 to Italy in 2019. Only once have the Matildas won their opening World Cup match in their eight years of playing in the tournament, beating Ghana 4-1 in 2007.
Two. The 10th best nation in women’s football (according to FIFA, at least), Australia are scheduled to play this year’s opening match against World Cup debutants the Republic of Ireland in front of a sold-out home crowd of over 80,000 at Stadium Australia. How could they not win?
Captain Sam Kerr told the media after the World Cup roster announcement that she could have never dreamed of playing a World Cup in Australia. Riding the high of winning 11 of their last 14 matches, home-field advantage might make them even better and help them finally make it past the World Cup quarter-finals for the first time.
When Tony Gustavsson took the role of Australia manager in 2020, he set out to establish depth in the squad in time for the World Cup three years later. To him, that meant having more than one player for each role. So, with a 4-4-2 formation in mind, Gustavsson chose a World Cup roster that includes exactly two players for each outfield position, and three goalkeepers.
The former U.S. women’s national team assistant also has a goal for the XI that ends the game to be just as strong the XI that started it, if not even stronger. Australia proved their strength in that when they won the 2023 Cup of Nations in February after their players off the bench played significant roles in creating opportunities that won the tournament.
It’s the need for game-changers that influenced him to bring Kyah Simon to the tournament, a decision that hasn’t gone without some questioning.
Retaining Faith in Injured Players
One of the big surprises on Australia’s 2023 World Cup roster was Simon. The forward hasn’t played football since October. After rupturing her ACL while playing for Tottenham, Simon has been racing the clock to be ready for her third World Cup.
Despite her absence, Gustavsson has confidence in Simon. The country boasts a deep pool of attacking talent to choose from, but Simon’s chemistry with other veteran players could orchestrate games. A “game-changer” is what Gustavsson calls her. She’ll come off the bench when the team needs her guidance and expertise to boost them.
According to Gustavsson, Simon was not selected for the squad based on her form right now, but rather the level they believe she can reach. The deadline to replace an injured player doesn’t come until just 24 hours before their opening game.
Also on the roster is experienced defender Alanna Kennedy, who has been struggling with shoulder and calf injuries for the past nine months. With 108 caps, she hasn’t played for Australia since September.
Joining Simon and Kennedy in the group after recent injuries are veterans Emily van Egmond, Tameka Yallop, Mary Fowler, and Australia’s most-capped player of all time, Clare Polkinghorne.
A month ago, there was a lot of reason to worry that Australia would be left with many holes to fill in the squad. That’s not as much the case anymore as they have been training and scrimmaging with the team two to three weeks ahead of July, but with a few faded question marks still lingering on some injuries, there might be a couple of replacement call-ups still to come.
The Inevitable Sam Kerr
One of the players to watch – not just for Australia, not just in Group B, but of the whole tournament – is Kerr.
The legendary forward scored five goals in four games in the last World Cup in 2019, including a four-goal performance against Jamaica. She hasn’t slowed down with her goalscoring prowess since.
Kerr has the most goals in the Women’s Super League since the beginning of January 2020, having plundered 54 goals in 67 matches. After leading the WSL in scoring for two years, she most recently ranked fourth for the 2022-23 campaign with 12 goals, helping Chelsea to their sixth league title. Chelsea have won the four straight years that Kerr has been on the team.
Kerr is one of the most dangerous penalty-box players about. Not only did all 12 of her WSL goals last season come from inside the area, but she also had a higher proportion of her touches inside the box (26.1%) than any of the other 11 players to score at least eight WSL goals in 2022-23.
The Matildas’ all-time leading scorer will be playing her fourth World Cup, having amassed 63 international goals in 120 appearances. In their most recent game, she notably scored the winning goal against reigning European champions England in a 2-0 victory, ending the Lionesses’ 30-match unbeaten streak. A high note to keep her and the team soaring as they look for success at home this summer.
Republic of Ireland
No Need for a Four-Leaf Clover
Ranked 22nd in FIFA rankings and making their World Cup debut, some might say they need the luck of the Irish to advance past the group stage, but their recent success might suggest otherwise.
The Republic of Ireland conceded only four goals in nine matches in qualifying for this World Cup, not allowing more than one goal in any game. At the other end of the pitch, they scored 27 times in those nine matches. Admittedly there is a slight caveat to their goalscoring record, in that 20 (74%) of those goals came in two games against Georgia, but you can only beat the team that’s in front of you.
They won a team-record six times on their way to qualifying for the finals this summer, while their one defeat was also the fewest they’ve ever managed in a World Cup qualification campaign. A team can’t lose that easily when they’re prioritising a wall of defence with a 5-4-1 formation; they’ve stuck with that almost throughout qualification and are unlikely to change for these finals.
Captain Katie McCabe will bring both quality and experience to the Irish squad. The Arsenal star played the second most WSL minutes for the club in 2022-23 (1,675) and was integral to them winning the ball high up the pitch, winning possession a team-high 26 times in the final third.
The Return of Sinead Farrelly
A car accident brought Sinead Farrelly’s football career to a halt in 2016. But another reason for the midfielder’s absence became public in September 2021 when she and Mana Shim accused their former Portland Thorns head coach, Paul Riley, of sexual coercion in a story by The Athletic.
Riley denied the accusations but was fired by his employers at the time, North Carolina Courage, due to “very serious allegations of misconduct” and was subsequently banned from the NWSL for life in January 2023.
After eight years without a competitive appearance, Farrelly returned to the NWSL in March when signing for NJ/NY Gotham FC. She got her first international cap with Ireland on 8 April and is now World Cup-bound.
It promises to be an emotional moment when she takes to the field.
Navigating Concerns About Pauw
A former manager of Scotland, the Netherlands, Russia and South Africa at international level, as well as the Houston Dash of the NWSL in 2018, Vera Pauw has been the Republic of Ireland head coach since 2019. Now she and the squad are debuting in the World Cup together.
But at the beginning of July, The Athletic published allegations from Pauw’s former players who claimed she “created a culture of fear” when she was coaching Houston.
Pauw denied the accusations and pointed out her Dutch background, adding: “[The players] are not used to women being direct.”
Nevertheless, the controversy has followed the Republic of Ireland to this tournament and has the potential to be a major distraction.
Pauw and star player McCabe talked to the media ahead of their final World Cup warm-up game, but most of the questions were about the allegations. Eventually, McCabe left the table with a sarcastic comment to the media, saying: “It’s been a pleasure talking about the World Cup, guys. I really appreciate it. Thank you.”
Seeking that Fifth Win
Of the four teams in Group B, Nigeria have appeared in the most World Cup tournaments (nine – including this one). However, despite qualifying for every tournament so far, they’ve only progressed to the knockout stage twice in eight previous attempts. They’ve also won just four of their 26 matches in Women’s World Cup history.
Nigeria will be hoping to turn four wins into five in their opening game against Canada on 21 July; that is, if they play…
Taking on the Federation
To compete on the biggest stage with the best teams in the world is already no easy task. To do it while at odds with your country’s federation? Even harder.
Nigeria head coach Randy Waldrum is at loggerheads with the leadership of the Nigerian Football Federation (NFF) over unpaid salaries and their players’ rights. Two weeks before the World Cup, The Equalizer reported that assistant coach Lauren Gregg hadn’t been given indication over whether she’s even going to the tournament.
Waldrum, who claims he is owed seven months’ wages, told the Sounding Off on Soccer podcast that the team was supposed to have a camp for 10 to 12 days in Nigeria before going to Australia; he accused the federation of cancelling those plans. Now, he is worried there won’t be enough time to prepare for the tournament.
There have also been reports of a pay dispute with players, which gave rise to rumours of an apparent boycott of the Canada match. However, captain Onome Ebi seemed to dispel such fears on Saturday when appearing in a video posted to the team’s official Twitter account, saying: “Honestly, I’ve no idea where that story is coming from.”
The Magic of Asisat Oshoala
The player to watch in this Nigerian side is undoubtedly Asisat Oshoala, who is currently one of the best forwards in women’s football.
Shortlisted for the 2023 FIFA Ballon d’Or, she has an astonishing 83 goals in 89 games at club side Barcelona. Across 2022-23, only three players in the top five European leagues scored more non-penalty goals than her (21), while she found the net in exactly half of her league appearances for Barca (14/28).
A goal in this year’s World Cup could have the forward become the first African player to score in three different FIFA Women’s World Cup tournaments, after scoring at the 2015 and 2019 editions.