Talking points from the Matildas vs New Zealand

image: Football Australia

Australia’s first games since the Asian Cup were two well-earned and highly encouraging wins against New Zealand. On Friday night, they waited until the final seconds to register a 2-1 win despite a dominant performance. For Tuesday’s rematch, The Matildas secured the result before halftime in an entertaining encounter.

The Matildas played some of their best football under Tony Gustavsson in those two matches. On and off the field, there was much to discuss from the series.

The best XI looks settled (for now)

When the squad was announced, manager Tony Gustavsson signaled a change in selection strategy. His first year in charge had seen numerous debutants and some surprise inclusions as he tested depth. Young players such as Jess Nash and Courtney Nevin were exposed to the high-performance environment. Charlize Rule, Jamilla Rankin, and Winonah Heatley trained with the senior squad to fast track their development.

With international windows preciously rare before the World Cup kicks off, Gustavsson appears to be looking to work closely with the squad he intends to take to the tournament.

The players that were eliminated from the Asian Cup were given a chance at redemption in the series against New Zealand. With two wins, they largely delivered. The only two changes were Katrina Gorry and Alex Chidiac. They came in as replacements for Holly Mcnamara and Kyra Cooney-Cross due to injury and illness.

Some changes to the squad may still occur. The next 15 months of club football will create and potentially remove some options. However, in picking an almost squad and similar starting lineup in both games, Gustavsson has given his clearest indication yet of his ideal personnel.

Gorry and Chidiac create new possibilities

The number six role for Australia has been a problem for years. Elisse Kellond-Knight has been the dominant player for a generation but has not been available in Gustavsson’s tenure.

Katrina Gorry was dominant in the last season for Brisbane Roar but primarily as a creative midfielder. Her deployment in the deeper role had ripple effects throughout the side.

Gorry has the ability to receive the ball under pressure and make aggressive quick passes forward. She changed the dynamic of Australia’s midfield. Emily van Egmond was able to move further forward in both games. She registered one vital goal and one assist over the two matches.

Gorry’s quick feet and mobility allowed her to join in attacks and link up with almost every player on the field. Australia was dominant over New Zealand and Gorry was a key reason for that.

Alex Chidiac was the other new inclusion. In her first appearance with the Matildas since 2019, she did not disappoint her devoted fan base.

Chidiac provides something different in midfield. Her first touch was a magical running backheel and her willingness to dribble inboard instead of down the line changes the angles for Australia and their opposition.

She has an eye for a through-ball and is always looking to create. Australia’s midfield is hard to break into and she will need to impress at her new club Racing Louisville FC to become a regular Matilda. But she showed in these games that she brings something very special to the team and can step into the squad easily and change games.

Sam Kerr is inevitable

In the loss to South Korea, Sam Kerr missed numerous chances to take the lead before Ji So-Yun’s stunning winner.

In her first game back for Australia, the skipper again missed several gettable chances in the first half. After the Football Ferns took the lead, a sense of deja vu began to set in. Would this be another night of costly misses?

Kerr’s 94th-minute winner was an example of what makes her the best striker in the world. She is irrepressible, bordering on inevitable.

Her confidence does not drop with missed chances, and she never hides from the game. Kerr works hard to impact the match at the next opportunity. The captain is capable of the spectacular but is just as admired for her tenacity. The winning goal was a well-timed bulldozing run at a loose ball to force and will it into the net.

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The following game saw her add another two goals to take her international tally to 59. A trademark header was followed by an expert finish with the outside of her foot.

Kerr’s night did not end with the final whistle. Like the rest of her team, she spent another hour after the match signing autographs and taking photographs with patient fans.

After a late arrival into camp and a COVID scare at Chelsea FC, Kerr’s preparation was hardly ideal for these two games. It barely mattered as she made a serious impact on and off-field.

“We Share Our Scars”

Tony Gustavsson is normally very quick to answer questions. In the post-match press conference, he needed a moment to compose himself.

Matilda’s veteran and fan-favorite Aivi Luik had set about raising $30,000 to donate to the Mark Hughes Foundation to fight brain cancer. Her brother Noa had been diagnosed and once the target was hit, Rebekah Stott shaved her head on the field post-match.

“It’s so much more than football,” said an emotional Gustavsson about Luik’s efforts.

“This team shows that so much every day.

The way they come together with Aivi, she almost apologised a couple of days ago and said ‘I don’t want this to be a disturbance.’

“All of us said ‘there’s never going to be a disturbance, this is what we’re about. We share our scars and all of us are in this together.

“We’re a big Matildas family. The past players, the present players, the future families… we’ve had babies in camp now.

“To see Aivi doing that for her brother and doing it with Stott as well, it’s so much more than football.”

The money was raised well before the kickoff deadline. Luik’s haircut was soundtracked by the Matildas Active support’s impromptu song and the new look was met with raucous cheers.

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