It finally happened. After two years of glimpses, patches, and chunks, of 30 minutes here, an hour there, a brilliant 45 minutes and a poor 45 minutes, it happened.

The coveted, elusive 90 minute performance from the Matildas in the Tony Gustavsson era. And what an occasion to do it. England. In England. The European champions. One of the favourites for the upcoming Women’s World Cup. Holders of a 30-game undefeated streak, until they lost 2-0 on a cold, rainy night in Brentford.

Women’s World Cup bracket and fixtures schedule

Sam Kerr pounced on an uncharacteristic mistake from Leah Williamson to make it 1-0 before Charli Grant’s header deflected off the England skipper to make it two. The Lionesses had more of the ball, more chances, more shots on goal. Yet they rarely troubled the Matildas. Mackenzie Arnold made two saves of note and was strong without needing to be called on frequently.

Australia’s defence held strong. Ellie Carpenter played a full game in only her second national team game back from an ACL. Grant showed she isn’t a World Cup bolter, but a fully-fledged defensive utility. Clare Hunt continued to play beyond her five caps, proving to be a more than worthy partner to the ever-reliable Clare Polkinghorne. Katrina Gorry and Kyra Cooney-Cross were both the brains and the brawn of the midfield, while Kerr reminded everyone that she truly is one of a kind, not that anyone needed reminding.

Less than 100 days until Australia co-host the World Cup, this result could prove pivotal for both sides. Even though it is a cliche, this being the loss England needed to have feels like an appropriate conclusion. By the same token, this game felt like a win the Matildas needed to produce. Australia needed to show the growth that has at times been painful to watch and hard to see behind the lack of results. The Matildas needed to prove that they were no longer the team they were two years ago, when Gustavsson first took charge. And they did.

Concerningly, this game once again had its fair share of concerns and caveats, from injuries pre- and mid-game to the heaping dose of good fortune in both Matildas goals. Gustavsson said postmatch: “We had 10 injuries coming into this game and there were a lot of excuses not to perform — but that’s not what this team’s about.”

It was an injury list which included hundreds of caps worth experience and only grew with the forced substitutions of Tameka Yallop and Cortnee Vine. But pleasingly, after all of it, Australia won anyway. For Gustavsson, the Matildas combined the most Australian trait of all, being the gritty underdog, with a tactical plan built on defensive solidity and pressing from the front, utilising the depth that has been created over the last two years.

“Combining their heart with the discipline of the tactical execution was brilliant,” he said. “That combination between head and heart is what makes me really proud.”

While the win will fuel a lot of positivity, and rightly so, this window as a whole was as good a lesson on perspective as any for the Matildas.

“We need to stay in that boring, grey-area, middle ground to stay grounded and humble — but we know that on any given day we might not have the best team, but we can beat the best team,” Gustavsson said. “But I think it’s very important we don’t get carried away now. We need to stay very, very humble.

“Like I said after the Scotland game, sometimes you’re not as bad as people say you are when you lose, but you’re not as good as people say you are when you win either.

The Scotland game was dubbed as the one Australia should have won. Whereas no one would have been too surprised if the Aussies fell to England. The Matildas created more chances against Scotland but lost 1-0 at Plough Lane. England were the dominant team but couldn’t find a way past a disciplined Matildas who made their own luck and capitalised on their chances. The loss against Scotland didn’t feel like a capitulation or a cause for concern. The win against England was joyous and impressive but hasn’t made Gustavsson or the Matildas get ahead of themselves, as best summed up by Kerr.

“We’ve got a lot of players out, but unfortunately beating England doesn’t win us anything. I wouldn’t be here if it did, I’d be out celebrating,” Kerr said. “They’re a great team. It’s always nice to put in a good team performance and beat a top team. But we better take everything with a grain of salt before the World Cup — it’s about building on our performances and where we can get better.

“So, of course, it feels really nice right now and we will enjoy it tonight, but it’s just one step on the journey to the World Cup.”

– Subscribe to ESPN AU/NZ’s football podcasts
The Far Post | The National Curriculum | More

Gustavsson was just as level-headed, pulling on the same platitudes he has called upon repeatedly throughout his tenure.

“It hasn’t changed my mindset at all,” he said when asked if this result had affected his attitude about the World Cup itself. “This was part of a longer process. We have spent two years investing in depth in this roster.

“I’ve always believed in this team, players who are this loyal and committed — and I’m so proud to be part of it. So in that sense, in the internal belief have always been there.”

While the internal belief is crucial, external expectation management becomes the Matildas’ next big test as the team looks to see out their preparations in club land before regrouping for their farewell game in Melbourne against France. And while hopes need to remain in check, the knockout stages of the World Cup no longer seem distant or insurmountable but rather a challenge this team is capable of tackling.

The Matildas appear to be peaking at the right time, a phrase that has previously grated at different points throughout the Gustavsson era. This win and this performance don’t feel like a flash in the pan precisely because of the last two years. While the growth hasn’t been linear, the overall trend has been tracking upwards.

Now the Matildas have less than 100 days between them and a World Cup on home soil they’ve never looked more ready for.

Source link

Could Matildas peak at World Cup?