Three days ago the Matildas were in crisis. There were 320 days until a home World Cup and a 1-0 friendly loss to Canada indicated – once again – that getting anywhere near the trophy was basically an insurmountable task. Tony Gustavsson, the man appointed to steer an underperforming Australia to said trophy, was starting to be seen as less like a nice-natured, slightly quirky man with a very good plan and more like a slick corporate type who delivers interesting TED talks but whose advice is not quite working for those he was hired to help.
On Tuesday night, with 317 days to go, he emerged for the rematch at Allianz Stadium wearing a hospital-white hoodie and white trainers, Matildas merchandise around his neck and an earpiece that had him looking every bit the new-age life coach. He had just told media the previous day that he still had the backing of Football Australia and pleaded with external forces to trust in his process.
For the opening half, at least, it was a case of crisis, what crisis? You could practically hear Sam Kerr scream it from the pitch as she set up Mary Fowler’s opening goal within three minutes and her side spent the next 42 suffocating the reigning Olympic gold medallists into what had all the ingredients of a lopsided scoreline very much in their favour. At the very stadium set to host their opening World Cup group match next July, this was some sort of omen.
But the thing about bright starts when it comes to this Australian team is that they have a tendency to fade. And so it went; three minutes after the break Manchester United’s Adriana Leon equalised for Canada, the Matildas dropped the intensity and Leon ensured it was 2-1 by the time the opening hour was out. There the score stands, Gustavsson’s record is now eight wins and 13 losses from 26 games in charge and his team are, after all, in crisis. Not least of all because that record includes only a single win from 18 games against the world’s top-20 teams.
Gustavsson acknowledged his side failed to adequately compete in the second half but pointed to the first as evidence they can “dominate a top team, not just compete with them”, even without regular starters Alanna Kennedy, Ellie Carpenter, Hayley Raso and Steph Catley.
“I hope you guys can see that maybe a year and a half ago, if we played Canada with six key injuries, we wouldn’t have been able to dominate them like we did,” he said. “I don’t want to sit here and protect myself, but that’s how I look at it. That’s an improvement.
“But we still have a way to go in terms of the World Cup, meaning we need to put a 90-minute solid performance together. If all the players are available and we’re in form, maybe we can see a complete performance for 90 minutes.”
If we are to trust in his process, there are positive signs to take into the next window and beyond. Australia commanded space against a physical Canada. In the first 45 minutes they worked well in transition, were smart off the ball and won it back at will. There was also solid evidence of what a difference personnel can make. Cortnee Vine was superb in every sense. Cunning, clever and quick to track back, she ran amok on the right in tandem with Ellie Carpenter’s right-back stand-in, Charlotte Grant. Perhaps because of the consistent attention she received from opposition, Vine was substituted off at half-time for Emily Gielnik.
Katrina Gorry brought out the best in the midfield and threw herself about sometimes with force – she was booked after the break for a sliding challenge on Janine Beckie. The attacking wit of Kerr and Fowler was on show in the first goal when Kerr picked up a poor clearance from goalkeeper Kailen Sheridan and kicked off a classic transition phase. Vine teed up Kerr on the right and her subsequent cross found Fowler at the penalty spot. The 19-year-old Manchester City signing scored her eighth international goal in a manner suggesting many more yet to come.
Caitlin Foord too played her part and flashed wide of the postjust before half-time and before she left the field seemingly injured. And when Kerr, hurtling solo towards Australia’s would-be second goal, was expertly thwarted by Jade Rose, it was a sign of things to come. The Canadian defender was brilliant throughout, timing her tackles to perfection and dispatching with precision the through ball onto which Leon would run to complete her brace.
By then the Matildas had all but evaporated, all of their initial promise scattered in pieces around Sydney’s sparkling new stadium and their defence dismantled enough times that when the goals came they had been sufficiently warned. Canada, a picture of potency, almost had a third when Nichelle Prince scored only for the offside flag to deem it ineligible. Australia regained their sense of urgency as the clock ticked down but by then no time remained to reverse the damage already done.