Asian Cup: Can Matildas fans survive another white knuckle decider?

Four years ago, the Matildas made Australian footballing history by becoming the first Australian football team – male or female – to win the Asian Cup.

Indeed, the win helped cement their mantle as Australia’s most successful football team (and put them on their way to being Australia’s most successful women’s national team, full stop).

At that time, their steady progression through the Asian Cup group and semi-final stages was met with little fanfare. Most of the media and fan focus was on their World Cup-bound male counterparts, the Socceroos.

Little has changed in those four years – the World Cup-bound Socceroos remain the focus and the Matildas have quietly gone about jumping through the Asian Cup match hoops.

Yet small but significant changes have occurred too. Which makes tonight’s Asian Cup championship-determining game against Japan more unpredictable and less like deja vu.

In 2010, the game-changing Lisa De Vanna broke her leg late in the competition and was forced to witness the final, in which she would otherwise undoubtedly have played an enormous role, from the sideline. (For anyone who understands De Vanna’s dedication to football, this would have been more excruciating than for most.)

This time, with the exception of a sore and bloodied nose she picked up in the South Korea semi final, she’s uninjured and is able to take the pitch. We can be certain she intends to play well enough for both this and the final she missed.

In 2010, then coach Tom Sermanni, the to-date longest-serving coach in the Matildas’ history, was at the helm. Though we knew it would eventually come, few of us could imagine a post-Sermanni era.

We’ve seen his replacement come and go in some 15 months, with the Matildas coach role yet to be permanently determined. Interim coach Alen Stajcic is noticeably fierier than the mellower Sermanni, and anyone who witnessed the Brisbane versus Sydney W-League semi final a few seasons back will know he’s a man outwardly emotional.

Stajcic has stayed fairly even-tempered in this event, arguably because the job’s not yet permanently his and he’s on his best behaviour. But finals fever grips the best of us and we may see his more emotional side come to the fore when it’s all or nothing for the championship.

Striker Kyah Simon, who scored that fifth and championship-winning penalty in 2010, has missed the tournament altogether after rupturing her anterior cruciate ligament about six months ago. Similarly, Sally Shipard, then an anchor in the Matildas midfield, recently retired, and goalkeeper Melissa Barbieri wasn’t selected.

In 2010, Kate Gill dominated as Australia’s striker and went on to be named Asian female player of the year. This time she has, despite snaring the record as Australia’s all-time leading female goalscorer courtesy of a brace she scored against Jordan in the Matildas’ second game, struggled to secure a Starting XI spot.

The striker in current favour, Michelle Heyman, didn’t feature in the 2010 squad at all (she was on standby). Nor did, it’s worth mentioning, the diminutive 21-year-old Katrina Gorry – who’s  scored three crucial times this Asian Cup – who was then still completing her apprenticeship as a Young Matilda.

At the risk of sounding un-Australian, I suspect Gorry won’t play as significant a role in the final as she has in its lead-up. Japan’s game plan will undoubtedly involve not giving her the space for such a piledriver wind-up.

While her three goals are impressive and heroic and Gorry is undeniably talented, I’d love to see her improve the decision-making dimensions of her game. She always opts for a power shot regardless of how many bodies are in front of her. Many times the more viable option is a simple lay off and tap in to an unmarked, on-running player.

In 2010, while she was an integral part of the team, then left back Elise Kellond-Knight had yet to score her first international goal. She achieved that at the most vital of times two days ago, and as a midfielder. She broke the donut courtesy of a near-post, finals berth-securing free kick in the closing minutes of the semi final.

In 2010, DPR Korea was the team that pushed the Matildas physically and mentally to their extra-time and penalty limits. Yet the always-fierce championship contenders were absent this time around. That’s because they’re serving a doping-related, multi-year, multi-event ban picked up during the 2011 Women’s World Cup.

In 2010, the Matildas’ this-time Asian Cup final opposition, Japan, were not yet crowned world champions (the Matildas narrowly defeated them in the 2010 semi final 1–0; incidentally, although they’ve now won the world championship, Japan has never won the Asian one). Meeting Japan in the final this time around acts as a top and tail for the tournament, albeit one that will this time have to yield not a draw but a result.

Japan will be missing at least six of their European-based and key players through a quirk that sees the Asian Cup – though doubling as a FIFA World Cup Qualifier – not falling under FIFA dates. This means their clubs were not obliged to release them and so didn’t.

That’s not to downplay the Japanese squad that’s here. Even Japan’s Second XI is incredibly strong, and thinking otherwise is to do them, the Matildas and women’s football more generally, a disservice. That squad in essence put the Matildas under enough pressure to force (and enable them to capitalise on) defensive errors and come from 2–0 behind to finish the match level.

Which is why I have just one request of the Matildas for this final (apart from please win). It’s that I don’t think my heart for starters, and my sleep deprivation for seconders, could bear a repeat of the extra-time-then-heart-thumping-win-5-4-on-penalties 2010 final. Please go out and win this thing. And given that kick off is 11:15pm AEST, please go out and win this thing in regulation time.