Asian Cup: More to Matildas than the main game

With women’s football there tends to be interminably long off-seasons punctuated by short spells with lots going on simultaneously on and off the pitch. This current Asian Cup is no exception.

The event doubles as a World Cup qualifier, meaning the Matildas are concurrently trying to defend the Asian champions title while qualify for the 2015 World Cup in Canada.

They achieved the latter through a 2–0 result against host nation Vietnam on Sunday night, which secured them a top-four finish and guaranteed one of the five the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) World Cup spots.

It was a high-pressure game, not least because a much-improved Vietnam lifted with home-crowd support, but because it was one that will continue to see the Matildas trying balance results with squad recovery.

A punishing play-recover-play schedule means interim coach Alen Stajcic and the Matildas support staff had to gauge which players should take the pitch.

Following a draw and a win from their opening two matches, the Matildas entered the match second in Group A on goal difference behind World Champions Japan and a point ahead of then third-placed and pending opponent Vietnam.

Field a full-strength Starting XI and they’d likely get the World Cup qualification result but risk players not being able to recover well enough to play key semi and finals matches later in the Asian Cup defence. Field a lesser-strength Starting XI and they’d risk jeopardising that World Cup spot.

It seems such knife-edge, multi-faceted decisions are what dominate women’s football. It frankly makes it rather tricky to know what to write about. The famine and small feast nature of women’s football means there’s for the most part little to discuss during the quiet times, then so much during the peak ones it can get lost in the mix.

That’s something co-captain Kate Gill likely recognises. She scored in the recent second friendly against Brazil in Brisbane, putting her on the cusp of surpassing Cheryl Salisbury’s record as Australia’s all-time leading female goalscorer.

But that momentous achievement got overlooked in the off-pitch drama surrounding now-departed coach Hesterine De Reus. (In a quirky continuation, the Matildas played De Reus’ former charges Jordan while De Reus watched on, now UEFA’s technical expert, working with the AFC’s Technical Study Group).

Scoring a brace against Jordan in the Matildas’ 3-1 win – her 39th and 40th goals for Australia – Gill toppled Salisbury’s record. It’s an impressive effort for the 29-year-old, who chalked up those goals across 81 A internationals, while Salisbury achieved her 38 in 151.

The ratio of just under a goal evey other game, The Australian reported, puts Gill in the ballpark of star Liverpool striker Luis Suarez’s efforts for home country Uruguay. (He’s scored 38 goals in 77 internationals.) Yet that statistic belies the challenges Gill’s faced – and overcome – to achieve it, something that’s worth a momentary pause.

Gill has only recently returned to the Matildas squad, first after having missed the 2011 Women’s World Cup through a particularly heartbreakingly timed anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injury essentially on its eve. (It would have been her peak World Cup; she’ll be 30 by the time the 2015 World Cup rolls around.) More recently, she missed a significant chunk of the too-short, 12-round 2013/14 W-League season through a reported iron deficiency that left her faint and unable to train.

Now back in the national team, Gill is, despite now being the nation’s leading female goalscorer, battling to regain a Starting XI spot. Coincidentally, current preferred choice Heyman had herself been a striker out of favour under former coach Tom Sermanni, only receiving the call-up for the 2012 Olympic Qualifiers after Sam Kerr ruptured her ACL.

Surpassing Salisbury’s score must have signalled not just the record but also the hope Gill will be closer to regaining the number one striker start. It hasn’t eventuated so far, with Gill subbing on for 10 minutes against Vietnam, albeit twice looking dangerous during that time.

She hit the crossbar with a header in the 90th, then got under and headed the rebound. But she couldn’t get direction on it. Her expression at the end of the match was telling – happy that the team had qualified for the World Cup, but clearly rueing the headers she wish she’d buried in the back of the net.

Gill was named 2010 AFC Women’s Footballer of the Year, just months after she helped the Matildas to their Asian Championship crown and just months before she sustained her ACL injury. So returning to the Asian Cup and obtaining record-breaking results may prove a little deja vu meets bittersweet.

Lisa De Vanna, who broke her leg last Asian Cup and was sidelined for the final, and who is hoping to instead this time see pitch time the entire way through, likely feels similarly. She’s obviously motivated and focused, reportedly revving her teammates up during training.

In the Vietnam game, she even almost recreated her FIFA Puskas Goal of the Year Award-nominated bicycle kick goal at around the 20-minute mark, except she couldn’t quite get purchase enough on it to angle it goalwards.

Also playing out in the background, albeit one that’s at least temporarily being pushed aside while the Asian Cup and World Cup Qualification come to the fore, is who the Matildas new long-term coach will be.

But that’s yet another focus for another time. One milestone down, one to go. The Matildas will find out whether they meet China or South Korea in the semi-finals later on Monday.