Pat O’Connor, who started her footballing adventure at Bass Hill RSL as a 24-year-old, finds it amusing that at 80 years of age she…
The 2022 AFC Women’s Asian Cup kicks off in just over two weeks in India.
The Matildas will enter the event as one of, if not the, tournament favourites and a second title would add to the one captured in 2010 when the Australians beat North Korea in a gripping penalty shootout.
Alongside the 2015 Asian Cup triumph achieved by the Socceroos under Ange Postecoglou, another piece of confederation silverware would sit alongside the 2010 trophy as the most significant ever won by Australian national teams.
As such, the pressure will be immense on a squad still finding its feet under new coach Tony Gustavsson and with the Japanese once again looming as the largest obstacle on the way to achieving a title that many supporters feel is the Australians’ to lose.
The Matildas have drawn well, in a group without any serious threats to the likelihood of them topping it.
Thailand, Philippines and Indonesia should be comfortably navigated in the group stage, with only Thailand, with a FIFA world ranking of 38, likely to cause them even the most moderate of challenges.
Japan have fared far worse in the draw, with Korea Republic ranked 18th and the 32nd-ranked Vietnam certain to cause more headaches than those destined to be experienced by the Australians.
One of those two looks the likely quarter-final opponent of the Matildas, before a potential semi-final against China PR or Chinese Tapei.
Should both Japan and Australia top their groups and do the business that seems probable in the knock-out phase, the match that the tournament organisers are hoping will eventually play out would take place in the DY Patil Stadium in Navi Mumbai on the 6th of February.
While such a predictable course of events would draw miserly odds from most bookmakers at the present time, upsets certainly are not completely out of the realms of possibility and host nation India, China PR, South Korea and Thailand will be hoping to produce one at some stage and derail the run of the two Asian powerhouses.
In fact, one could mount a serious argument that the Matildas are far from certainties to brush aside the rest of the field and earn a spot in the final against the side that has defeated them in the previous two Asian Cup deciders.
That argument would be based around a number of undisputed realities.
Tony Gustavsson has won just three of his first 16 games at the helm of a team he inherited in excellent shape from previous coach Ante Milicic.
Aside from a thrilling win against Great Britain during the Olympic run that eventually brought about a fourth placed finish, the remainder of his tenure has been nothing short of appalling.
Embarrassing losses to Sweden, USA and the Republic of Ireland have been interspersed with the coach’s insistence that it is the big tournaments that really matter and that little emphasis should be placed on his team’s performances in friendlies and other matches where he has experimented with formation and style.
That is something of a convenient line of thinking, with many of the young Matildas that people thought may play a huge role in India after being exposed to international play by Gustavsson, having shown little and failed badly when placed under top flight pressure.
Moreover, the manager’s reluctance to fully invest in some of the better performing young talent and thus initiate a charging of the guard has also been a point of discussion as the Asian Cup draws closer.
Such issues were never more evident than against the USA in the duo of matches played in November of 2021.
Melbourne Victory’s Courtney Nevin and Sydney FC’s Jessika Nash looked like proverbial ducks out of water against USA, goalkeeper Teagan Micah appeared far from the heir-apparent when it came to a suitable replacement for veteran Lydia Williams between the sticks and Kyra Cooney-Cross and Clare Wheeler did not receive the minutes and trust they deserved, especially considering the long term influence they stand to have within the national set-up.
Aside from Mary Fowler, who shines as potentially the most talented female player Australia has even seen, the bulk of the likely starting eleven in India will be the tried and true Matildas.
However, Tameka Yallop, Emily van Egmond, Clare Polkinghorne and Kyah Simon bring aging and experienced legs and a recent history of seeing the modern women’s game pass them by. Ellie Carpenter, Sam Kerr, Steph Catley and Caitlin Foord are the locks in a team requiring an injection of youth to improve and despite Gustavsson’s efforts to do so, the results of the experiments he has undertaken have not been impressive.
Such a situation sends the Matildas to India with a good team, yet not the team many felt the Matildas would have become with continued development of the younger players and a further injection of the next generation.
The team may well head to India and bring back a shiny piece of silverware, in fact, they probably should. Yet sending the same faces into battle might not be the best approach, particularly with the 2023 Women’s World Cup just around the corner.