The end of the beginning of the Matildas’ Asian Cup campaign has been reached. Now the fun starts. Emily van Egmond’s 39th-minute strike, supplemented by Sam Kerr’s cheeky capitalisation on a goalkeeping error with 10 minutes to go, secured a relatively benign 2-1 win over Thailand.
Claiming top spot in Group B with a perfect three wins from three games, including an 18-0 win over Indonesia and a 4-0 triumph over the Philippines, the Matildas will now head into the quarter-finals with 23 goals scored and one goal conceded – much to their chagrin.
“I’m happy at how upset the team was after the game. They were upset about the goal that we conceded in injury time,” coach Tony Gustavsson said of Nipawan Panyosuk 93rd-minute consolation goal for Thailand.
With the group stage now concluded, Australia’s women must now prepare for a step up in quality in the fixtures that follow, starting with South Korea in the quarter-finals on Sunday.
The Matildas have been quick to acknowledge the need to respect all their opponents – one of the justifications provided for not easing off the gas against Indonesia – and the upcoming contests could be said to mark the true beginning of their bid for continental supremacy.
Given the still-nascent stages of growth in most Asian nations, there are effectively two tiers of teams at the Asian Cup. In one resides the likes of Japan, China, and Australia – sides that are regular competitors at a World Cup level and enter every continental competition with genuine aspirations of winning it.
For these teams, there is scope to use group stage games with lesser-heralded sides as forums for preparation for potential knockout clashes. As has become increasingly obvious with each passing game, Gustavsson has used the first three games to do just that – even if the opening 45 minutes against the Philippines left a bit to be desired.
With the introduction of Emily Gielnik in the 75th minute against Thailand, all 23 members of his squad – including the three goalkeepers – have now seen minutes at some point. Some players have been able to fill in other positions and the squad has been managed in a way that has brought them up to a requisite level of fitness for the challenges to come, despite the disparate nature of player’s conditioning heading into the tournament.
“The sport science department and sports medicine, together with the players and the technical staff, have done a phenomenal planning job behind the scenes – put a lot of hours looking into some players that haven’t played for a month,” Gustavsson said.
“Some players needed heavy minutes in the beginning and then have a little bit of rest today and some players we needed to be careful with in the beginning of the tournament to not get them injured to play more today. I’m extremely impressed and happy how we’ve been able to manage plays throughout the group stage.”
Gustavsson’s lineup against Thailand was packed with youth, but he had come in for criticism after selecting XIs loaded with veteran and established talent against Indonesia and the Philippines – ostensibly games in which young players with potential to grow into 2023 could have benefitted from low-risk international exposure.
Yet is should come as no surprise how the group stage has played out. Gustavsson has approached the opening games in India with the clear purpose of preparing his squad to peak in a manner that he believes will deliver silverware.
Having come under scrutiny for his side’s performances across their slate of 2021 friendlies, nor should it surprise that Gustavsson’s “performance mode” bears little resemblance to his “preparation mode” – not when he has effectively staked his job on the former producing results.
This has raised his side’s chances of performing in the games to come, but it has also created a certain level of expectation. Having nailed his colours to the “performance” mast, Gustavsson must now demonstrate his approach is not only capable of laying waste to the likes of Indonesia, but also to Asia’s best.