SYDNEY (AP) — Australia was already on course for the quarterfinals of the Women’s World Cup when Sam Kerr entered the field to wild celebrations on Monday.
With the star striker back from injury, the Matildas are confident contenders to win the tournament on home soil after beating Denmark 2-0 in the round of 16 at a raucous Stadium Australia.
“It’s a massive boost to have her back,” goal-scorer Caitlin Foord said. “For teams looking ahead it’s pretty scary to know she’s back in our team and she’s going to be a part of it with us.”
A crowd of 75,784 cheered as if Australia scored when Kerr was shown on the big screen preparing to come on. She had been sidelined since injuring her left calf on the eve of the tournament.
Despite that setback, Australia found a way to get by without her. But her return means the co-host can call on one of the best strikers in the world in a tournament that has seen holder the United States, Germany and Brazil eliminated before the quarterfinals.
Goals from Foord and Hayley Raso underlined the depth of the Matildas even without Kerr.
“The one thing I think has happened with this team is they were very tight and together when this tournament started,” Australia coach Tony Gustavsson said. “But the tournament, the experience, the challenges and the adversity they have come through have made them even tighter.”
Australia seems to be getting stronger after looking in danger of exiting in the first round from the tournament it is co-hosting with New Zealand. Gustavsson’s position was under scrutiny after losing to Nigeria.
The mood has become very different with belief spreading through the team and the fans, who created a daunting atmosphere for Denmark.
“It really felt like an away game,” Denmark coach Lars Sondergaard said.
Australia will face France or Morocco in Brisbane on Saturday when Kerr should be in contention to start for the first time at a World Cup she was expected to star in.
“We don’t need to look at her taking over and having everything on her shoulders,” Gustavsson said. “It’s a team effort and a team tournament.”
Still, Gustavsson considers Kerr’s return the icing on the cake for his team.
This is only the second time Australia has advanced to a World Cup quarterfinal, having previously done so in 2015.
Foord fired the Matildas in front in the 29th after running on to a pass from the impressive Mary Fowler. Then Raso drilled home a second in the 70th after Emily van Egmond’s lay off in the box.
“The match was decided by Australia’s effectiveness in front of goal and our not-so-efficient play in front of goal,” Sondergaard said. “We started the game best. Up until 1-0 we were the best team.”
Excitement ahead of the game could be felt around Sydney. Even the Opera House was lit up in the yellow and green colors of the Matildas.
Back in Stadium Australia where the team began its campaign on July 20, the Matildas were still too strong for Denmark without Kerr, who was on the bench.
Foord’s opener came after Fowler’s incisive pass from her own half. Foord raced forward and, cutting in from the left, slipped her shot between the legs of Denmark goalkeeper Lene Christensen to spark wild fan celebrations.
Foord was close to scoring a second before halftime when a shot across goal looped just past the post with Christensen beaten.
Van Egmond’s backheel from close range was then saved in the second half.
With the score still at 1-0, Gustavsson told Kerr to ready herself, but before she could make her long-awaited entrance, Raso struck.
Again, Fowler was involved, finding Van Egmond in the box. She fed Raso, who drilled a low shot through a crowded area into the bottom corner.
Kerr replaced Raso 10 minutes later to crown a night of celebrations.
James Robson is at https://twitter.com/jamesalanrobson
AP Women’s World Cup coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/fifa-womens-world-cup
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