NICE -- In the days since Australia KO'd Jamaica, finished second overall in the group and drew Norway in the Round of 16, the conversation surrounding Saturday night's Matildas-Gresshoppene matchup has focused largely on lineups and injury reports. (Spoiler alert: All 46 players look good to go for Saturday selection.)
But at Friday night's prematch press conference, Australia head coach Ante Milicic answered an early question that perhaps best illustrates not only his belief in his squad's ability to advance into the medal rounds, but how the rest of the world views the Matildas as they enter the knockout stage.
The question came from a Norwegian journalist who, after hearing Norway head coach Martin Sjögren in an earlier press conference distill the Matildas down to a team "that is strong when they're attacking, but weak when they are on defense," wanted to know what Milicic thought of the observation.
"It's a fair summary," Milicic said. "And it's why we keep working on our attacking style."
Australia's defensive woes began on the eve of the tournament, with the loss of veteran defender Laura Alleyway to a broken foot. Those troubles then followed them to France, dominating much of the storyline surrounding the team even after exciting wins over Brazil and Jamaica. Milicic did not sidestep the fact that his defense is, as he's called it multiple times, "a work in progress." But he also stuck to his assessment that his back line has improved game by game, despite continued injury issues, and once again insisted he will not change his principles to match the playing style of an opponent.
"I'm very strong about how I feel the game should be played," Milicic said. "This group of players is strong technically, wants to be in possession of the football and wants to attack. That's what we will continue to do. If we want to progress as a team, that's the way we are going to go about it."
He continued: "We believe the best way to defend is by being patient, keeping the ball and having more possession than the opposition. We know there are areas we want to tidy up; when we have the ball in the transition phase, we can be smarter, have more control. But we will continue to be brave and play our way of football."
For the next half hour, Milicic discussed his team's collective head space (relaxed and confident), his projected changes to the lineup (expect shifts in the front three) and Norway's playing style.
"They're a well-organized team with good structure, a lot of stability in their lineup, are defensively solid and at the same time can break in transition," Milicic said. "They can build up from the back and also hurt you with a direct brand of football and set pieces." He then answered the final, and perhaps most illustrative, question of the night.
He then answered the final, and perhaps most illustrative, question of the night: If Australia is at its best, and Norway is at its best, which is the better team?
"We haven't been at our best yet," Millicic said, emphasizing the final two words in that sentence. "Hopefully that happens tomorrow and we will find out."
The Norwegian Connection
It's no secret the Matildas have strong ties to the U.S. A majority of players on the Australian team either currently play or have played for clubs in the NWSL, and Aussie striker Sam Kerr is a two-time Golden Boot winner in the league.
But the Australians have an almost equally strong connection to Norway. Eight members of the Matildas World Cup squad have experience playing in Norway's Toppserien league. Like the NWSL, the Toppserien's season extends from April to October, which enables Australian players the opportunity to also play in the W-League, which runs for 14 weeks between November and February.
Forward Emily Gielnik spent the 2017 season with Avaldsnes IL in the Toppserien, as did teammates Chloe Logarzo and Gema Simon, and midfielder Tameka Yallop is based in Norway and has played for Klepp since 2017.
"Based on my experience in the Norwegian league, they play quite physical and are tactically strong and disciplined in their formation and shape," Yallop said. "It will be a good clash coming up against them." Young defender Karly Roestbakken, a late addition to the Australian World Cup squad when Laura Alleway was injured, has Norwegian roots of her own. Roestbakken's father, Jack, was born in Norway and played semipro ball in his home country before emigrating to Australia.
Both squads should be at full strength
Milicic rested a few key players against Jamaica on Tuesday and held several of his stars out of training in Nice on Thursday. But all 23 Matildas practiced Friday afternoon.
The same was true for Norway, which seems to have avoided a scare when star striker Caroline Graham Hansen injured her ankle in the team's 2-1 win over South Korea on Monday. After leaving the game in a boot and on crutches, Hansen was back on the practice pitch Friday afternoon, running sprints. Norway is already short Lyon star Ada Hegerberg, who won the inaugural women's Ballon d'Or in December but left the national team in late 2017 to take a stand on pay equality and equal treatment in soccer.