Kerr celebrates Australia’s penalty shootout victory against France in the quarter-finals
Kerr’s return to the pitch remained one of the loudest moments of the World Cup so far, taking the noise and atmosphere inside Stadium Australia to another level, but with the Matildas “smashing it” in her absence she remained on the bench against France in the quarter-finals. Australia’s play sharpened when Kerr arrived, but she did not get a clear chance and the opportunity to be the hero in the shootout fell to others in the Matildas team. Although Kerr scored her penalty, so did six of her teammates. Cortnee Vine converted the winning kick, while goalkeeper Mackenzie Arnold was electric with three saves.
Not that Kerr would mind, though, as Australia’s win in the quarter-finals set up the most important match in their football history against England. But the bigger the game, the bigger the moment, and the unavoidable concern for the Lionesses is Kerr finally gets hers against them. Everyone in the England team will be aware of Kerr’s powers, none more so than those who will mark her. Should Kerr start she will be directly opposed by Chelsea teammates Millie Bright and Jess Carter, who will start alongside Alex Greenwood in a defence that has only conceded once from open play all tournament.
Bright will no doubt relish the opportunity to face her clubmate and close friend in battle, in what would also be the ultimate test of the England captain and a chance to show how far she has come since England’s last World Cup semi-final in 2019. Sent off then against the USA, Bright has been one of the best centre-backs in the world since, as key to Chelsea’s success under Emma Hayes as Kerr’s goals. Bright has impressively returned to form after being rushed back from injury to make the World Cup and has been pivotal to England’s defensive resilience in the knockout wins against Nigeria and Colombia.
Millie Bright’s battle with her Chelsea teammate could be key in the semi-finals
Kerr, though, is crafty, the ultimate poacher who can sniff out a chance from nowhere, and who does not need to be in a game to change one. Outside of Bright, Carter, and Chelsea’s Niamh Charles, there won’t be a player in the England squad who hasn’t at some stage experienced the crushing blow of Kerr striking against them. Mary Earps, in particular, will know that feeling only too well; Kerr has scored nine goals against the England and Manchester United goalkeeper – in FA Cup finals, WSL title deciders, and in Australia’s 2-0 win over the Lionesses in April.
That was England’s first defeat under Sarina Wiegman – the only time they have been beaten in the Dutch manager’s 37 matches at the helm. Tony Gustavsson’s side arrived with a plan and shut down England’s Keira Walsh, counter-attacking to perfection through Kerr. There isn’t too much that can be read into that, though, as England have been forced to become something different under Wiegman. A result of the challenges the Lionesses have faced since being at the World Cup is that Wiegman adapted her plans to a 3-5-2 system, which takes some of the pressure off Walsh in England’s build-up play. “We’ve changed a lot since then,” Walsh confirmed on Monday.
Kerr celebrates scoring against England in Australia’s 2-0 win in April
Yet Australia themselves have also become a different team since the start of the World Cup. Kerr’s injury led to other players stepping up in her absence; Caitlin Foord’s confidence has seen the winger become Australia’s biggest threat on the left, Hayley Raso has been their deadly finisher, while Mary Fowler’s ability to drop and create from deep has added a degree of unpredictability. The decision that Gustavsson faces is whether to break up the partnership between Fowler and Emily van Egmond at the head of the Matildas’ counter-attacking 4-4-2, with the impressive midfield duo of Katrina Gorry and Kyra Cooney-Cross providing balance and tying it all together.
“They are aggressive, direct,” Walsh said. “They don’t look like they feel pressure.” But Australia’s quarter-final was also a fraught, nervy affair. Had the Matildas swept past France, then perhaps Kerr would have been unable to find a way back into the line-up, but Australia lacked a spark until their talisman was brought on. Fitness is potentially still an issue – after 11 minutes against Denmark and 66 against France, Kerr is confident she can last a full 90, but the possibility of lengthy stoppage time and even extra time means Australia’s captain may need to play a lot more.
“With everything that’s been going on, the best thing was the plan we followed,” Kerr said this week. “When I hurt my calf, the plan was always to try to be ready for a semi-final, the final. We’ve had a plan this whole tournament and we just had to stick to it.” England won’t need to be told that at their home World Cup, Kerr and Australia’s plan will include a goal as well.
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