Australia reached the semi-finals of the women’s Olympic football tournament at the Tokyo 2020 Games with a spectacular 4-3 overtime victory over Great Britain in Kashima.
Alanna Kennedy gave the Matildas the advantage in the first half, but Ellen White’s brace in the second half put the GB team ahead, only for Sam Kerr’s late equalizer to send the game in overtime.
After Team GB’s Caroline Weir received a penalty, substitute Mary Fowler and Kerr scored on either side of the break before White sealed her hat trick in her team’s late retaliation, but it didn’t count for anything.
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As the Tokyo Olympics draw near, Matildas head coach Tony Gustavsson has often been asked about the various challenges the Matildas have had to overcome to get here. Never the type to apologize, he always responded. He doesn’t want to give too much weight to things that are beyond his control and that of the team.
As Australia goes down in history by qualifying for the Olympic Games semi-final for the first time, it is worth remembering exactly what this team went through in the past 18 months to get there.
First, and of course, the pandemic. Of all the teams that have advanced to the quarter-finals, Australia are the team with the most time between national team matches during the stoppage: 395 days. At that time, many of the players now included in the Tokyo squad had varying levels of playing time, from Sam Kerr & Co. Championship and Cup competitions plying their trade in England to Emily’s paved seasons. Gielnik, Teagan Micah and Clare Polkinghorne who sailed between the W-League and Europe, in countryside ravaged by injuries to Steph Catley and Chloe Logarzo.
In contrast, the Great Britain team – almost all of whom are English – had an easier race to Tokyo. While the team themselves hadn’t met for roughly the same time as Australia (349 days), the vast majority of them had developed the necessary connections and chemistry on the ground. Indeed, against Australia, Great Britain fielded eight players who all started regularly for Manchester City in the FA Women’s Super League, in addition to others who know each other from Chelsea and Arsenal.
Second, the Matilas have undergone a training overhaul. Gustavsson was hired in January, but couldn’t meet any of his players in person until April. Developing team chemistry is one thing, but trying to establish new football systems and philosophies through zoom is another. We saw the impact in Australia’s first friendlies: conceding 10 goals in two games as they tried to learn and unlearn years of football lessons in a matter of weeks.
Finally, especially against the teams they’ve encountered in this tournament, Australia looked – at least on paper – outmatched. The dazzling array of talent in teams from Sweden, USA and Great Britain has made Australia the underdogs in most of their games. And yet they found ways to overcome them – perhaps not with the results of the world’s best, but with the sense and management of a team that can step up when it counts. It was most true against Britain; a team against which the Matildas were not to compete, let alone defeat. But after 120 exhausting, tense and ecstatic minutes, it was the team that continued to grow in the tournament – and in themselves – that came out victorious.
Not only have the Matilas now made history, reaching the Olympic semi-finals for the first time and a touching distance from their first medal, but they have done it despite everything thrown at them. No matter how far they go, it has been the most successful Matildas tournament of all time and a testament to a team that continues to embody the motto “Never Say Die” engraved on their green and gold jerseys.
Every football game is a series of sliding door moments; points at which each match can unfold in multiple directions and realities, the kind that you look back on and ask yourself, “What if? Australia’s very first game against Great Britain saw a number of major moments like this, but some of the most crucial came in the first half hour, when both sides were still playing. settling down, still trying to understand each other.
Step up, goalie Teagan Micah. In the context of the Gustavsson revolution, it was arguably the 23-year-old who took the most of the opportunities offered by the clean slate. Two years ago, back in the W-League after three years in the US college system, Micah kept the Melbourne Victory bench warm behind a fit Casey Dumont. She was also the third-choice goalie at the 2019 Women’s World Cup, but never saw a minute – the preference went to trusted Australian veteran Lydia Williams.
But Tokyo was different. After a strong performance against Sweden in their 0-0 friendly draw, Micah secured their first competitive start against the same team in the group stage. Despite four goals conceded, she got a fresh start against reigning world champions USWNT, against whom she kept another clean sheet.
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Gustavsson’s award-winning talent and natural shot-stopping skills were shown again in Australia’s game against Great Britain. She made a fingertip diving save of a Rachel Daly strike in the 11th minute (which was ultimately called up for offside), as well as a crucial low block of a Lauren Hemp volley in the middle of half-time. As the game fluctuated in terms of dominance and possession, Micah was able to step up and make major saves when his team were under pressure, keeping Australia in the game for the entire first half until the lead. Alanna Kennedy in the 34th minute, but Mathilde ahead.
However, nothing mattered more than stopping Micah from a possible Weir-winning penalty. The Manchester City and Scotland clinical midfielder, whose strike against Canada helped Great Britain finish first in their group to face Australia in the quarter-finals, qualified, but Micah made a confident diving save to keep the score 2-2 before young substitute Fowler. and a second header from Kerr sealed the victory.
It was, without a doubt, Micah’s moment. Beyond necessary saves and high pressure, she has had one of her most holistic performances of her national team career to date, reacting to intense moments, nailing the bases, providing outlets for passes and taking ripe decisions on the ball. With Australia’s No.2 Mackenzie Arnold already falling down the pecking order, Micah has worked his way to becoming a true replacement for the once irreplaceable Williams. The best part? The youngster can only improve.
When Matildas Kerr’s captain was in the midst of her scoring drought in pre-Tokyo friendlies, Gustavsson always insisted that Australia’s top scorer in a generation was more valuable to the team than the number of times she hit the bottom of the net. . The consequence of Kerr’s becoming one of the most dangerous and visible players in the game means she has had a huge target on her back. Against most of the teams in Tokyo, Kerr has largely distinguished himself: forced to find other ways to contribute to the team due to being surrounded by defenders almost constantly.
One of Gustavsson’s constant praise of Kerr goes in this direction: not about her clinical ability in front of goal, but about her defensive contributions to the team and how capable she is of it. bring the players around it. Against Great Britain, Kerr showed exactly why Gustavsson has such confidence in his skipper. She was, as might be expected, kept mostly silent throughout the game by the rotating pair of center-backs of Britain captain Steph Houghton and Leah Williamson, as well as substitute Millie Bright. And yet, Kerr has always found ways to be influential and dangerous: to go deep to hold and pass the ball to teammates, to step back to make key tackles and challenges, and, as time goes on. flowed, digging deep to use his aerial ability to defend himself. repeated corners and free kicks as GB looked certain to capitalize on their dominance and gain the advantage.
More than that, however, Kerr was also able to find another level in his own game: In addition to doing the “front-header” defensive job that Gustavsson so regularly comments on, Kerr also scored two crucial goals – his second brace. of the tournament, bringing her to five goals in total and Australia’s all-time top scorer at the Olympics – including an overtime header to give the Matildas their last historic 4-3 victory.
There is no doubt, after this performance, that Kerr is the most suitable captain for this Australian team: a player who embodies the spirit, determination, hard work and selflessness that this team of Matildas – and the very idea of the Matildas himself – has come to wrap for fans around the world.
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