The 2019 Women’s World Cup, Group C: Tight At The Top
Italy, Australia, Brazil, Jamaica
All three are through, of course, after a taut group ended with the underdogs adrift at the bottom but Italy, Australia and Brazil all claiming six points after a round robin in which Italy beat Australia, Australia beat Brazil, and then Brazil beat Italy. The differences turned out to be infintesimally small. After all three teams beat each other by one goal, Italy claimed top spot because they put five goals past Jamaica, whilst Australia claimed second place on goals scored from Brazil, whom they also beat in their head-to-head match. Considering how tight all three of the matches between them were, it’s probably appropriate that all three went through and that the margins between them were as thin as a cigarette paper.
Italy have been one of the surprise teams of the tournament so far, considering that this is the first time that they’ve qualified for a World Cup finals since 1999. Their opening win against Australia was a dogged comeback after falling behind midway through the first half, with two goals by Barbara Bonansea winning them an unlikely win, the second of which was scored with practically the last kick of the game. Their five goals without reply against Jamaica was little more than a stroll. Against a Brazil side needing at least a point to ensure their own qualification from the group there was always likely to be little ambition on display, with the deciding moment coming sixteen minutes from time, when Debinha was shoved over by Elena Linari and Marta converted yet another penalty kick.
There isn’t much to say about Marta than can be said in a brief round up such as this. Suffice to say she has now scored seventeen goals, spread across five tournaments for Brazil and that she remains, at thirty-five years of age, the engine around which the team’s dynamic revolves. That in itself, however, is something of a problem for Brazil. The younger players coming through are not as good as those that they’re replacing, and Brazil give the impression of remaining a little too dependent on old stagers who, just like the rest of us, have a sell-by date. There are female players who continue until they’re well into their forties, but they remain a minority. Ten years ago Brazil seemed to be the perennial nearly team, beaten to silver by the USA in two successive Olympic Games and runners-up to Germany in the 2007 World Cup final. They’re not quite hitting those levels right now, though.
The individual performance of the day, though (and quite possibly the individual performance of the tournament so far), belonged to Australia’s Sam Kerr. Kerr made her debut for the Matildas ten years ago at just fifteen years of age and has gone on to win eighty caps for her country, but the World Cup finals had been her blind spot with no goals from her first nine appearances in this particular competition going into this summer’s finals. Having broken that duck against Italy in their opening match, though, she rocketed to the upper reaches of the goalscorers chart with all four goals as Australia comfortably saw off Jamaica in their final group match in Grenoble.
As the Australian team cut through the Jamaican defence like a hot knife through butter it became difficult to believe that, just a few days ago, the team was getting more than a little heat from the local media, which in turn led to one of the most shareworthy moments of the entire group stage, when Kerr gleefully tore into her critics in the immediate afterglow of their three-two win against Brazil. Previous criticisms of the team felt long-forgotten as they strolled to a convincing win, dominating possession and squeezing the life out of a limited opposition. Even with a two goal lead, though, there was a wobbly moment. Four minutes into the second half, a pass through the Australian defence sent Havana Solaun free and she scored, to mark Jamaica’s first ever goal in the finals of this competition. Considering the quality of opposition they faced and that their women’s national team has been disbanded and reinstated within the last ten years, it was always going to be an uphill battle for Jamaica to take much from this group, but in goalkeeper Sydney Schneider they’ve provided one of the more memorable talents of the group stage, and can leave with their heads held high.
Australia face Norway in the second round, then, and with two straight wins under their belt and Sam Kerr moving into ominous looking form they’ll be confident of at least matching their quarter-final appearances in the last two tournaments. Italy will play either China or Nigeria in the next round, and they will be similarly optimistic about their chances of reaching the last eight. For Brazil, however, the fine margins that have decided the group have already had consequences. Finishing third in the group, on goal difference behind Australia and on goals scored behind Italy, means that they will now have to play either France or Germany in the next round of the competition. For such fine margins it’s quite a disparity, and Brazil will need all of their vast experience on hand if they’re to negotiate any further through this tournament.