28/02/2024

The Matildas come together to celebrate one of the two goals scored by Hayley Raso against Czechia. Photo Credit: Izhar Khan

The first half of the game between the Matildas and Czechia in the Cup of Nations left us asking a lot of the same questions that have plagued Tony Gustavsson for quite some time, with some answered by the full-time whistle.

What is the solution in the center of defence? 

Who is going to finish and get the goals when they are needed most?

Does Gustavsson actually know what his best starting side is?

To answer the latter first, this was not a full-strength starting line-up. Caitlin Foord and Alanna Kennedy were on the bench, with Hayley Raso and Cortnee Vine interchanging on either side of the wing up front for Foord and Aivi Luik coming in for Kennedy.

However, it was as close to a full-strength side as Gustavsson could put out, and that might draw some concern if this is close to the final 23 selected for the World Cup in a few months.

Luik made a glaring error in defence which led to a turnover deep inside the 18-yard box which was bailed out by Mackenzie Arnold to prevent Czechia from opening the scoring.

This was changed at halftime with Luik making way for debutant Clare Hunt, who is in her first camp with the senior national side.

This change leads perfectly to the first question posed which is, what is the defensive solution? 

With Hunt making way for Luik, it shows us that she was brought into camp not just to train, but because Gustavsson wants to evaluate her at this level, and see if she could be one of those to make the final 23 for the World Cup. 

If the World Cup started tomorrow, it would be Kennedy and Polkinghorne in the center of defence and no one would bat an eyelid. But who is the first cab off the rank?

Is it the midfielder-turned-defender in Luik who was coaxed out of retirement by Gustavsson in a real ‘break glass in case of emergency’ move?

Or is it the newest Matilda in Clare Hunt?

While Luik provides a utility factor that the coach seems to enjoy given his selection of other players, surely in a World Cup, you want at least one out-and-out center-back on the bench and then the luxury that a utility role provides should one of your first choice options go down or get suspended?

Regardless of where the Swedish coach wants to go, one thing is clear. He has a very high opinion of the 224th player to earn a Matildas cap, despite her half-time substitution being unplanned.

“We have to treat this like the World Cup. We have to make decisions like the World Cup. We need to train in-game management, read the game, make decisions, so I have hawk-eye up in the sky, you see me with the earpiece at times as well, we analyse the game and try to make decisions.

“We always play scenario games the day before, what if this happens?, play the game scenarios at training so with less emotion [than] during the game.

“Someone asked me the other day how she’s going in training and I said ‘we haven’t really trained that much’, but her presence mentally had shown me that she was ready.

“She has carried herself in a very very mature way, she’s beyond her years, and I’m going, to be honest, this might be too big of a headline, but I’m not sure I’ve seen this type of debutant under my two years in this team.

“I mean, think about it. It’s 0-0 against Czech Republic. It’s a World Cup year. She hasn’t played a minute, she goes in at half-time to a team that struggled in the first half and she looks like she’s done nothing but plays with us. For me, that’s massive.”

Cortnee Vine, Charlotte Grant, and Steph Catley were also very complimentary of Hunt post-game.

“It didn’t look like she was new to the game. She had a great debut and she doesn’t look out of place at all. She got that assist I think for Hayley Raso. What [more] can you ask for from debut?” Vine said.

“It was amazing to see Clare Hunt out there. I’ve known her for a little while now. She’s just been unlucky with injuries and she really deserved to be out there today. She proved herself. She deserves to be out there [and] she’s an incredible player,” Grant said of the debutant, with Catley backing that up.

“She was incredible. We’ve seen her the last couple of days in training and I think she’s really stood out. She’s an aggressive no nonsense center back.

“She’s got a great switch on her, just confident in her ability, very very strong in the air. Strong in her duels and I think she’s a really top-quality player that we’ve sort of been looking for where if we’ve had an injury to center backs in the past we’ve really had to adjust our lineup and slot other people in, including myself into the center back position.

“So it’s nice to have some depth there and people challenging for spots with the World Cup around the corner.”

When Gustavsson was asked what Hunt needs to do in his eyes to make the final 23 for the World Cup, he said it was too early to be thinking about roster selection before sending a message to his players.

“They know it’s a World Cup year, there’s a few spots left to be grabbed there. All they can do is just focus on performance maximum and knocking on the door.

“What I want to say though, about Aivi, this is not Aivi’s fault that we play this way in the first half. It’s a team that doesn’t play the way we should and also I think Aivi’s performance replicates a little bit of the problems that I said before this tournament started [with] the limited minutes that a lot of these players have played.

“You could see it in the first half, it was a bit the first touch wasn’t really there, it wasn’t fluid and the tempo wasn’t there and it’s almost like it took 45 minutes to get going as well.”

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But who is going to finish for the Matildas?

The hosts did everything but score in the first half, and that was chalked off the to-do list inside the opening three minutes of the second half as Hayley Raso would score the first of her two goals, while Sam Kerr and Clare Polkinghorne would also find the back of the net.

As cliche of an answer as it is, it will be whoever can get into the right spaces at the right time and finish.

Raso’s first came off a deflection, but was on target and credited to Raso, while her second was a scramble in the box, Kerr’s goal was a rebound opportunity after a rocketing strike from Alex Chidiac, and Polkinghorne’s was well worked off a corner.

Ultimately, the home side will be happy with a dominant second-half performance en route to a 4-0 win, but the slow start is a concern, but in this match, it was part of an overall game plan for the Matildas.  

“One of the reasons we planned to play Czech Republic is we’ve seen what they’ve done to top oppositions before and we tried to look for an opposition that somehow replicates Ireland,” Gustavsson said post-game.

“Ireland will most likely play with a back five, that’s the difference, but in terms of physical, well organised, difficult to break down team [it’s similar].”

While the start may have been part of the game plan, it does not mean it was not frustrating.

“In the first half, there’s no space because they’re so compact, but also we played too slow.

“We’ve seen it before in football how difficult it is to break down when there’s no space. It takes two to tango and we need space for our runners and such.

“We didn’t get that momentum going,” Gustavsson said, emphasising that last point through gritted teeth.

“But also, playing a low block is a process,” he continued.

“You need to wear a team down and [it] maybe opens up the last third and then it takes patience and belief and I think the team showed a lot of maturity tonight, but also we need to be humble. We could have been down 1-0 at half-time to be honest.”

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