Rocked by the late withdrawal of Sam Kerr through injury, co-hosts Australia took time to settle before getting off to a winning start at the Women’s World Cup by beating Ireland 1-0 in Sydney in Group B.
Steph Catley swept home a 52nd-minute penalty on Thursday to end Ireland’s resistance and spark an eruption of joy from fans inside Stadium Australia.
Keep readinglist of 4 items
There was also no shortage of relief from the majority of the 75,784-strong crowd after the tournament co-hosts struggled to cope without the country’s all-time leading scorer Kerr, who will also miss the second game of Group B against Nigeria because of a calf injury.
Fans learned of her absence only about an hour before kickoff, with the Chelsea striker sustaining the injury in practice on Wednesday. It is not certain she will be back to face Canada in the team’s last Group B game in Melbourne on July 31, with medical staff having to assess her recovery.
Mary Fowler, who has Irish heritage, replaced Kerr in Australia’s attack, but while the Manchester City forward is a highly rated prospect, the absence of the team’s iconic captain was clear.
Kerr was considered one of the stars of the tournament and the face of the Matildas’ bid to be crowned world champions for the first time. Without her leading the attack against Ireland, Australia appeared short of ideas or cutting edge.
Despite the roars of encouragement from inside the stadium, the home team rarely looked like opening the scoring in the first half.
The Australians were gifted the chance to take a lead shortly after the break when Marissa Sheva bundled Hayley Raso to the ground in the area.
Referee Edina Alves pointed to the penalty spot and Catley converted by sending Ireland goalkeeper Courtney Brosnan the wrong way as she calmly finished with her left foot.
Ireland, playing their first World Cup, had beaten Australia in the teams’ last meeting, winning 3-2 in a friendly in Dublin in 2021.
Cheered on by a noisy band of compatriots, Ireland made life difficult for the Australians with their compact defence and might have forced an equaliser during a period of sustained pressure late in the second half.
Australia, however, held on to make a winning start to a tournament in which they feel they can be genuine contenders after wins over England, Spain and France this year.
The Matildas play Nigeria in Brisbane on July 27, a day after Ireland take on Canada in Perth.