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Matildas World Cup group opponents announced

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It’s a measure of how hard the Matildas World Cup draw is, that their three opponents are delighted with the group – and pledging to pack the stands to fight against home support.

Just as well then, says coach Tony Gustavsson, the Matildas have prepared with the “toughest ever schedule”, with more tricky fixtures to come before next July.

Saturday night’s draw in Auckland gave Australia a tough assignment to reach the knockout rounds at the 2023 World Cup.

On world rankings, Olympic champions Canada will be favourites to top the group, while first-timers Ireland – high on the wave of qualifying – and African heavyweights Nigeria are no pushovers.

In Auckland after the draw, all three of the Matildas opponents declared themselves happy with the outcome.

“Our group, it could be worse but it could be better. I’m feeling good,” said Canada coach Bev Priestman, who oversaw two friendly defeats of Australia last month.

“That experience will definitely be invaluable.”

First-up opponents Ireland would have every right to be daunted by their assignment, playing the hosts on the World Cup’s opening night at a sold-out Sydney Football Stadium.

Not so, says coach Vera Pauw, who also tasted victory in their last meeting with Australia, a 3-2 friendly win last year in Dublin.

“It’s exciting. We don’t fear anything. Home and away, there’s no difference, whether it’s a full stadium, whether there’s nobody around, it doesn’t make a difference for this team,” she said.

“We are just going to live it to the full, we’re going to embrace it, and the more pressure the better.”

There’s symmetry to the occasion for the Irish, who credit that 3-2 win with building the confidence needed to qualify.

“Australia were the better team of course, but we somehow managed to win,” she said.

“It was a fantastic game and that was a turning point, (bringing) real belief that we can do something, that we can grow.”

While Nigeria are the lowest-ranked side in the group, former player Oluchi Tobe-Chukwu – standing in for coach Randy Waldrum in Auckland – said the Super Falcons were confident.

“When I saw the draw, I was hopeful,” she told AAP, “I was happy that it isn’t a very difficult group.”

Tobe-Chukwu says Nigeria will bring colour to Melbourne for their clash, where half of the estimated 20,000 Nigerians in Australia live.

“Fans can look forward to see the way Africans celebrate when they score goals. And I can tell you that we will play beautiful football,” she said.

“We have the best-organised supporters group in the world, with trumpets and drums … it overwhelms and drowns drowns a lot of chants.

“They will find a way to Australia.”

Priestman said the Canadians would bring plenty of fans across the Pacific.

“It’s a massive women’s football country. Expect to see a lot of Canadians and a lot of Canadian fans,” she said.

As for Ireland, the support of their travelling fans is unknown given they are at their first World Cup, but Pauw – who is Dutch – said she expected big things from the Irish diaspora.

“In households there will be a little bit of a dilemma; ‘do we support our roots or do we support where we are born and live now?’ It will be a fantastic game … deep in the heart they also have a little bit of feeling for us,” she said.

It all adds up to a tough battle for the Matildas, but despite the difficulty – and the optimism of Australia’s opponents – Gustavsson isn’t fazed.

“We have the belief from our fans, the determination, and with that belief from the support, that means we have an extra player on the field,” he said.

“We invested the last two years on preparation, the toughest schedule ever in the history of the program … now we know exactly what we need to prepare for.”

– AAP



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