England Reporter Notebook: Mind games afoot ahead of Women's World Cup semi-final against Australia (2023)

As promised, Sarina Wiegman had done her homework on one of the great sporting rivalries ahead of this latest contest, but the England manager certainly wasn't keen to fuel the hype ahead of the next England vs Australia battle.

She was, though, happy to enter into the 'favourites' argument with her Australian counterpart Tony Gustavsson.

After he initially declined to answer the question - "that's your expertise", he told a packed press room - he then went on to hammer home his point that England were the side to beat.

"If you look at rankings, they're favourites. If you look at where their players play, they have starting players in top clubs, in top leagues all over the world. Not just starting XI, down to 15 or 16 players.

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"Then compared to us, we have bench players in those teams. We have players playing in mid-table teams in Sweden.


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"So if you look at all that and you look at resources, financially, obviously they are massive favourites going into this game."

Weigmen's response was short to the point and ultimately dismissive: "I don't think they are the underdog. They're playing at home. The stadium will be really full."

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She really did do her pre-Australia rivalry and mind games homework.

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Gustavsson did concede that the crowd could play a "massive" role on Wednesday. The match is expected to be the biggest sports event in Australian history, eclipsing the night Cathy Freeman won gold at the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

Sporting immortality awaits for the Matildas but the last step is always the hardest.

"I have said from day one, we actually don't look at it as pressure," said Gustavsson. "We look at it as a privilege that so many people believe in this team. We feel the support. We feel the energy every time, whether we are arriving at the hotel, coming to the airport, going to the stadium or during the games.

"It's amazing to see how many people support and believe in this team. So in that sense, we look at it more as fuel and energy rather than pressure.

"We don't look at it as heavy, we look at it as if we get carried from beneath and built up, and we feel the belief in us."

The Lionesses know what that feels like - it helped propel their victorious Euros-winning summer last year.

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England Reporter Notebook: Mind games afoot ahead of Women's World Cup semi-final against Australia (1)

Captain Millie Bright knows how inspiring that is but it also gives the team an idea of the flip side and what they might expect. It is England against Australia - the nation not just the football team.

"Their fans are always going to want the opposition to lose. That's football. We have been in these moments before and as players we embrace these moments," Wiegman said.

"It is all about us sticking to task, executing the game plan and embracing the moment. It's a semi-final of a World Cup, you want that environment, you want it to be tense. You want it to be noisy.

"It's a proud moment in the women's game when people turn on the TV back home and they see what an incredible atmosphere we've created.

"So credit to Australia for selling out the stadium and creating that atmosphere because we know the women's game is still on a journey, but what a place to be."

While Wiegman remained tight-lipped over selection of both personnel and system, Gustavsson was happy to speculate on what might play out in Sydney.

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England Reporter Notebook: Mind games afoot ahead of Women's World Cup semi-final against Australia (2)

"When we played them last time [a friendly in April where Australia won 2-0], we got a good transition game going, but I also know England learned a lot from that game.

"I think you saw England play against Nigeria, for example, who are also a very good transition team. England played much more direct than they normally do. So I think they have evolved and adjusted their game plan a little bit so they are not just possession based - especially if they play with a back three and two No 9s that are willing to run in behind.

"We can see that they play much more direct. It will be an interesting tactical game in that sense, because are England going to stay true to their possession game or are they going to take away our transition game by playing a different style of football than they normally do and just adjusting in that sense?

"We are prepped for both, we are prepped for both systems, if they play 4-3-3 or 3-5-2."

England Reporter Notebook: Mind games afoot ahead of Women's World Cup semi-final against Australia (3)

What he went on to say certainly caught the attention too, adding: "The one thing that I think is interesting is that there are some players, no matter what system they play, that have the very same tendencies and when we played them last time, we managed to target specifically two of those players and benefitted from that tactically.

"So, we looked into those nuances and those individual behaviour a little bit more now instead of the system and hope that we can target that tomorrow as well."

That's the sort of intrigue that makes this game so highly anticipated. The sub plots are fascinating and there's also the question of how Australia lift themselves mentally after their epic semi-final win against France.

Will Gustavsson's lack of rotation among his squad catch up with the Matildas in what has been an intense few weeks of tournament football?

Then there is the biggest question of all - is Sam Kerr fit to start her first game of this World Cup?

The conundrum has been leading the news channels for the past month. So desperate were they for an answer, one media agency put up a helicopter to spy on training.

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England Reporter Notebook: Mind games afoot ahead of Women's World Cup semi-final against Australia (4)

It was about then that the Australia head coach stopped being quite so open. That mystery will have to wait a little longer.

If it was England's aim to stay under the radar - as much as you are able to ahead of a semi final - then it was mission complete on Tuesday.

By saying very little, Wiegman masterfully controlled the narrative as the coverage of the Matildas went stratospheric, some might say enhancing England's 'underdog' claim. Even the most ardent Australian fans can't quite believe what is happening in this country.

Then just as the news conference drew to a close, a little something more to remind us why we love watching Australia vs England sporting dramas.

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England Reporter Notebook: Mind games afoot ahead of Women's World Cup semi-final against Australia (5)

How unthinkable would it be to be knocked out of your home tournament by England, goalkeeper Macenzie Arnold was asked.

As quick as a flash and with a wicked smile, she answered: "Being knocked out by anyone is unthinkable. There will be a lot of England fans that I'm sure would love to see us knocked out by them, but I think there's lots more Australians that would love for us to knock them out."

That really is the last question to answer and it is so tight that no one is willing to predict who will be the last team standing come full-time in Sydney on Wednesday.

Follow Australia vs England across the Sky Sports website and app on Wednesday; kick-off 11am.

What is the schedule?

Spain won their semi-final against Sweden on Tuesday, with the other semi-final between Australia and England taking place on August 16 at the Accor Stadium in Sydney, which will then host the final on August 20.

A third-place play-off will be played the day before the final on August 19 in Brisbane.

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