Montpellier or Nice, Grenoble or Le Havre. 22 or 23 or 25 June.
For traveling Matildas supporters, trying to anticipate where they should be for the Round of 16 is a logistical nightmare. And that’s before you contemplate the unthinkable: with a loss against Jamaica (by a margin of +4) Australia could yet finish last in Group C and face group stage ignominy not experienced since 2003.
So what are the possible scenarios?
With Barbara Bonansea’s 90+5 minute opening-game winner the group was turned on its head – but remarkably, the Matildas could still finish first, second, third or fourth in a topsy-turvy pool.
It’s a situation set to delight folk who plot probability trees in their spare time, exploring algorithmic variabilities that would give Deep Blue pause for thought. But it’s not so delightful for professional athletes like Emily Gielnik, whose skill base is anchored in excellence in other areas.
“I really don’t know, I’m hoping for Brazil – oh wait, who do we need to win?” she asked media on Sunday. “Whoever needs to win I’m hoping they win – I think Italy. It’s Italy isn’t it? See I don’t know the mathematical side, it’s too much!”
After a 5-0 demolition of Jamaica, Italy have put themselves in the box seat to qualify top. But with a final game loss to Brazil by a few goals, Australia has a window of opportunity – if they can beat Jamaica by five or more. The first key here is to turnaround the +6 goal difference that currently stands between Italy and Australia, but ensuring that Brazil’s +2 goal advantage is also overturned.
A 3-1 win to Brazil and a 5-0 win to Australia: happy days. A 6-1 win to Brazil and a 2-0 win to Australia: dias felizes.
For all that the first scenario is feasible, in probability land it’s highly unlikely, as lapsed astro-physicist Ben Mayhew has plotted:
Probability calculations have been wrong before, but build in real-world factors like the suspension of Formiga for Brazil’s crunch game with Italy and the ongoing fitness question marks over Marta, and an Italy side brimming with confidence in reality should be good value for at least a point.
Realistically, Australia are on track to finish second in the group – a win or a draw for Italy ensures they finish top, and a win for Australia over Jamaica will send Matildas fans rushing to book train, plane or steam omnibus tickets to Nice.
The case for Australia finishing third is slender – but it’s a scenario that has multiple pathways for getting there. Most importantly though, unlike the case for finishing top or second, its an outcome that can be 100% determined by the Matildas themselves. Win or draw against Jamaica, and they’re going through.
In the increasingly psychological world of professional sport – this would be the message Ante Milicic would be telling his charges: we look after what we can look after, and the outcome is what it is.
As Hayley Raso told media on Sunday: “We can’t think too far ahead because it all dependent on other results … It’s more about knowing we need to get a result in this game coming up.”
Alors. Still with us so far? Now the final permutations to consider – and that’s which side of the draw Australia then goes onto, should it progress to the knockout stages.
Major upsets withstanding, tournament favourites France, England and the United States are all on track to qualify top of their respective groups placing them all in the top half of the draw. In a match up that could blow the whole tournament wide open the two runaway favourites, France and USA, could even square off in the quarter-finals.
Should the Matildas finish top and secure a bottom half draw, it’s a return to Montpellier and a likely Round of 16 showing against either Nigeria, Spain or China, or Chile.
Should Australia finish second, they’re off to Nice and into the ‘half of death’. Group A runners-up – potentially Norway – await in the Round of 16, with an equally tasty quarter-final clash with England looming, should the Matildas win through.
Finish third however and the Matildas will await the lottery of the permutations that flow from a six-pool tournament. Le Havre or Grenoble would be the destinations with hosts France or World No 2 Germany most likely awaiting.
Put very simply therefore, the better Australia finish, the ‘easier’ an opponent awaits, at least immediately.
If predictions are a mug’s game then mapping permutations is even worse. All of which points to an easy message in camp: worry about what we can control and we take what comes, if and when it does.
Asked if she’d rather secure an outcome that avoids hosts France, Gielnik was on much surer ground.
“You know what? I think everybody probably thinks that, but there’s been big upsets in football. And if it came to that, bring it on – I’d love to play France. So if it falls that way, then let’s go.”
Before all that, though – there’s the question of Jamaica on Tuesday. If your head is already spinning, never has the elite sportsperson’s cliché been more apt: we just take it one game at a time.