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Japan stuns Spain 4-0 to top Group C while Zambia earns first ever Women’s World Cup win

Without its star player and facing a humiliating group stage exit in front of a waiting home crowd, Australia finally put on a performance deserving of progressing to the Women's World Cup knockout stage, defeating Olympic champion Canada 4-0 on Monday night.

The star striker Sam Kerr's future, who was ruled out with a calf injury just a day before the tournament began, has hung over the Australian team the entire time, reaching a fever level as the crucial match against Canada drew near.

Without Kerr, a forward for Chelsea who is regarded as one of the finest in the world, the Australians had little in common with the group that had been mentioned as a potential title challenger. They stuttered to a deservedly slim victory over Ireland before losing to Nigeria after wasting a one-goal advantage.

But on Monday night, with years of practise and pride at stake, Australia finally delivered the kind of performance that, although required, appeared improbable against one of the tournament's more difficult sides.

It will be a relief for Australia's army of supporters as well as tournament organisers who faced the possibility of seeing both co-hosts eliminated within 24 hours of one another had Australia failed to perform its duty. The competition, which started in 1991, saw New Zealand become its first host nation to lose in the group stage.

Australia didn't exhibit any of the uneasiness or anxiety that marred its earlier performances, despite all the pressure. Instead, it caused pain for Canada, a team that had already felt the strain of competing in a World Cup at home in 2015.

The dramatic setting, high stakes, and 90 minutes that would define the game's legacy were matched by the added drama of the refereeing decisions, which first wrongly disallowed Hayley Raso's opening goal in the eighth minute and then failed to recognise an offside as Mary Fowler scored a goal a short time later. Video replays allowed for corrections on both calls.

Canada missed the opportunity to tie the game when the goal was reversed, and the squad quickly fell farther behind. With a draw, it would have advanced to the round of 16.

Six minutes before halftime, calamitous defending at a corner gave Raso the opportunity to score again, setting Australia on its way to an evening that was only surprising in how calmly the co-host was able to coast through what had been discussed in local media as not only a make or break night for the team and the tournament but also for the future of the entire sport in Australia.

The Australian Football League, by far the most watched sports league in the nation, was in full swing as the tournament, the largest to be held in Australia since the 2000 Sydney Olympics, took place alongside rugby and cricket matches that competed for Australians' attention.

The Matildas' failure to get past the opening round would make it difficult for football to compete for viewers, attention, and money.

Given that Kerr was perhaps Australia's only truly international soccer star, her absence was more notable than it could have been for a soccer superpower.

The way Australian management handled the facts regarding her injured left calf further contributed to the speculation regarding her preparedness. On Saturday, it staged an unexpected press conference and surprised the local media by introducing Kerr. Kerr expressed her readiness to play in a positive manner. A day later, coach Tony Gustavsson refused to disclose whether Kerr would play or not, indicating that a decision would be made just hours before the game since he was in danger of losing his job if Australia failed to advance.

The Canadian coach Beverly Priestman declared that her team would not be sidetracked by the "smoke" or "head games" surrounding the choice.

Given how little Kerr had practised, Gustavsson made the obvious decision to keep her off the field. Even so, he acknowledged that it was a risky move given the gravity of the match and the implications a loss would have had for his own career. A supporter for what will be remembered as one of the greatest nights in Australian football history, Kerr, bundled up in the enormous teal coat, was ultimately not required as a substitute once Australia gained control.

She jumped for joy once more when Fowler scored a third goal with 30 seconds remaining in regulation, once more with a penalty in extra time, and once more when the clock ran out.

An evening that nearly sent the hosts of its own party packing will be remembered as a reprieve that cost one of the female game's titans.

Canada, which won the gold medal at the Olympics in Tokyo, must now endure a protracted flight home and the kind of criticism appropriate for its first World Cup group stage departure since 2011. There will undoubtedly be changes, not the least of which being the likely retirement of the international football player with the most goals. The 40-year-old striker Christine Sinclair abandoned the game at halftime after going an unprecedented sixth World Cup without scoring.

To top off what was undoubtedly one of the most humiliating nights for Canadian football, it conceded a fourth goal in stoppage time when Steph Catley converted a penalty and elicited yet another shout from the enthusiastic crowd.