Women's Asian Cup: Matildas bring their A-game

The opening match was always set to determine the Matildas’ Asian Cup campaign.

That’s because it was the first fully fledged hit out they would have post-Hesterine De Reus’ tenure, and because it would be a where-do-we-stand benchmark against reigning world champions Japan. That’s also because of that peskily accurate big-event stat that teams that lose their opening matches tend not to make it past the group stage.

The Matildas have in recent times opened their major campaigns with band-aid ripping, high-stakes games. The 2011 World Cup saw them pitted against (and almost tip) perennial favourites Brazil. The 2012 Olympic Qualifiers opened against DPR Korea, who the Matildas defeated on penalties in 2010 to claim the Asian Cup.

This Asian Cup they squared off against Japan, a huge feat at the best of times, but one that took on extra enormity given the Matildas had a disrupted preparation.

I’m not going to dwell on De Reus’ departure. I wasn’t convinced she was the coach to lead the Matildas to an Asian or World Cup, and I’ve documented that previously, but I do think both the way she was scuttled by the FFA and the way it played out in the media was neither professional nor fair.

I will also, for the record, note I’m not convinced Alen Stajcic is or will be the right coach for the Matildas long term, less because he’s not a good coach and more because his white line fever too often gets the better of him.

But I will also say that, barring a couple of concentration and communication lapses characteristic of a team that’s had the past few months they’ve had and that’s under pressure from an always-dangerous opponent, the Matildas looked good. They did exactly what you’d hope they’d do: Left everything off the pitch off the pitch and brought their A-game on to it.

With an average age of 22, this is roughly the same average-aged squad as the one Tom Sermanni took to the 2011 World Cup. But players such as Caitlin Foord, who took on five times world’s best women’s player Marta as a then-unknown and relatively untested 16-year-old, is not much older but a whole lot more experienced. These days she’s one of the ‘old’ Matildas guard and is also gaining invaluable expertise playing in the US league.

Unsurprisingly, with long-time coach Alen Stajcic giving her her head to get forward, Foord troubled the Japanese defence from the outset. Surprisingly, it was Foord, who hasn’t scored for the Matildas since her debut, who gave the Matildas the early lead.

Usual scoring suspect Lisa De Vanna, now the Matilda’s fifth most capped player, gave the team its second after Michelle Heyman held the ball up and laid off to Emily Van Egmond, whose deflected shot landed at De Vanna’s feet for her to pass the ball into the back of the goal.

It was far from De Vanna’s most difficult goal (her back-to-goal bicycle kick, which went viral and which was nominated for the FIFA Puskas goal-of-the-year award, springs to mind), but for me it was one of the most satisfying. That’s because it came off the back of patient build-up and teamwork and didn’t rely on any one player to spark the goal in its entirety.

Sure, with a 2-0 lead by the hour mark, the Matildas should have won. Cruel bad luck (a regulation clearance took on backspin and bobbled backwards, beating the keeper; the other goal came courtesy of a literal, in-the-box defensive slip when Kennedy lost her footing) were what let Japan back into the game.  

Nor did Japan field quite the benchmark team we’d anticipated. With six of the eight European-based players not released by their clubs (and yes, like you I’m wondering how the hell that can be allowed to happen; this event does, for instance, double as a World Cup Qualifier), it was a side missing many of its integral starting XI players. It showed. The usually pinpoint-accurate passing and well-drilled defensive structure was missing, as was the familiarity of having played together over many, many hours.

Still, Japan is the most dangerous opponent the Matildas are likely to face in the group stage. A fantastic measure and an opponent to sharpen their focus. With that match out of the way, the rest will prove marginally easier for the team (emphasis on marginally), although fatigue will be a factor. They’re doing the ‘play one day, recover the next, play the one after’ schedule employed at the Olympic qualifiers and of the ilk governing bodies would never allow for the men’s teams.

But I digress.

While I don’t envisage him doing so long term, the short-term benefits of Stajcic temporarily holding the reins is that he’s coached many of these players (such as Foord) for years and fielded teams (Sydney FC) against most of them for just as many.

At the very least, he’s letting the players get on with playing, and fielding them in the positions in which they’re most likely to succeed. (Hands up who else was happy to see Julie Dolan medal winner Tameka Butt – who’s created and scored a bucketload of goals during her time with the Matildas, and particularly in big games – return  to the front lines when she subbed on rather than the holding-slash-defensive midfield she’s recently been played in?)

The squad’s missing Kyah Simon, who put away the winning penalty in 2010 and who’s rehabbing her knee after rupturing her anterior cruciate ligament. They’re also missing the likes of Sally Shipard and Heather Garriock, who anchored the side’s midfield during that time.

But co-captains Clare Polkinghorne and Kate Gill, supported by experienced and incredibly level heads such as Elise Kellond-Knight, Lydia Williams, Butt, and Steph Catley, are steering a team that’s both capable of lifting, but less likely to fold under pressure.

Also worth noting is that if – or rather, when – Gill scores, she will become the Matildas’ all-time leading goalscorer (something I’m ashamed to admit I and everyone else overlooked during the recent tempestuous Brazil friendlies).

Do I think the Matildas can successfully defend their Asian Cup crown?

It’s going to be incredibly difficult. But difficult because they’re likely to encounter tough on-field opposition in coming rounds, not least 2010 runners-up DPR Korea, rather than because they’re distracted by off-field drama. With the Japan game out of their way – and with it a relatively assured performance and an on-track point to boot – the Matildas are looking in good title-defence shape.