Matildas face jigsaw puzzle with Sam Kerr to make Women’s World Cup return

<span>Photograph: Darren England/EPA</span>” data-src=”–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTk2MDtoPTU3Nw–/″ src=”–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTk2MDtoPTU3Nw–/″></img></p>
<p><figcaption><span>Photograph: Darren England/EPA</span></figcaption></p>
<p>How things change in 90 minutes. Ever since Australian captain Sam Kerr injured herself in a warm-up on the eve of the Women’s World Cup, the nation’s attention has been squarely focused on the striker’s left calf. The hopes of 26 million people resting on two muscles: the gastrocnemius and the soleus.</p>
<p>Kerr-watch has been a rollercoaster of emotions. At first there was anger in some quarters over the way the news had been withheld, after Kerr attended a press conference 24 hours ahead of the Matildas’ opening match and did not say a word about being absent. Then came hope – the Matildas are a team of 23, they insisted, and the squad would step up in their captain’s absence.</p>
<p><span>Related: </span>Denmark brace for Matildas’ captain Sam Kerr and big crowd in World Cup last 16</p>
<p>Next came despair. A shock loss to Nigeria left Australia on the verge of an early exit – the prospect of failing to reach the knockout round, for the first time since 2003, at this historic co-hosted World Cup. Then came relief – Kerr was back, she declared two days before the team’s final group stage encounter against Canada.</p>
<p>Uncertainty followed, after coach Tony Gustavsson was non-committal about her availability for the must-win clash. Even in the hour leading up to kick-off, Australia was preoccupied with Kerr’s status – she was on the bench, but available, Gustavsson had said. But then Kerr failed to warm-up, despite sporting bright pink boots.</p>
<p>All that in just 12 days – a minor national obsession with no clear resolution. What did it all mean – the pronouncement of fitness, the lack of warming up? If Australia were chasing the do-or-die match with half an hour on the clock, would Kerr become a super-sub?</p>
<p>We will never know the answer to that question (Gustavsson suggested afterwards that she was fit for a limited role). The Matildas blew Canada away, earning a week’s rest before they face Denmark on Monday. But such was the calibre of the victory, it now leaves the Matildas with a dilemma: how does Kerr return to the line-up, without disturbing the formation that delivered the team’s most comprehensive win in World Cup history?</p>
<p>The Chelsea striker is expected to be fit to play against Denmark, although a full health update may not be forthcoming until match-day, given the mind games Gustavsson has so far deployed. The safest option would be to bring Kerr off the bench midway through the second half; that would manage her minutes, allow the line-up that played so brilliantly against Canada to remain intact, and offer firepower late in the game. Kerr might come on for Emily van Egmond, with Mary Fowler dropping back slightly.</p>
<p>If Kerr is fit to start and Gustavsson considers the importance of the clash warrants her inclusion from the first whistle, then the Swedish coach will have a difficult decision to make. In the pre-tournament warm-up match against France, the Matildas played with Kerr and Caitlin Foord upfront together. But against Canada Foord was shifted to the left, where she combined to lethal effect with Arsenal teammate Steph Catley. Disrupting that partnership would seem ill-advised.</p>
<p>Another option would be for Kerr to start alongside Van Egmond or Fowler, with the other coming on as a replacement at the hour mark. Fowler has combined well with Kerr for the Matildas in the past, including during victories against England and the Czech Republic this year. Typically the Manchester City player drops deeper and plays through the space Kerr creates. But Van Egmond has offered plenty since rejoining the starting line-up against Nigeria, and brings plenty of big match experience.</p>
<p>There is, then, no clear-cut answer. Keeping Kerr on the bench, if she is fit to start, would be a bold gamble. So too would changing up a team that has just put four unanswered goals past a side ranked seventh in the world.</p>
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Kyah Simon could make a long-awaited return for the Denmark game. Photograph: Cameron Spencer/Getty Images

Kerr is not the only member of the attacking cavalry returning to the Matildas’ aid. Kyah Simon was picked in the squad despite still recovering from a long-term ACL injury, and was not expected to be available until later in the tournament. There have been hints that the veteran is getting closer to returning; probably as a late substitute if the Matildas are chasing the game.

Indeed Gustavsson has frequently referenced Simon’s penalty taking ability when defending the selection, suggesting she may be a 119th-minute addition to a game that goes down to the wire. Perhaps the Matildas remain scarred from the nightmare in Nice in 2019, when the team lost to Norway on penalties during the round of 16. Simon’s spot-kick ability serves as a safety blanket for the team.

The return of Kerr and possibly Simon bolster the Matildas’ attack at a critical moment, as they begin a sudden-death journey that could take them deep in the tournament. But the availability of Australia’s talismanic goalscorer also poses dilemmas for coach Gustavsson. The problem of integrating the “best striker in the world”, in the words of Denmark’s coach, is certainly a good problem to have. But it is a jigsaw puzzle nonetheless – a high-stakes one at that.

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