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Gustavsson's gamble: Hold 'em against England, or go all in on Sam Kerr?

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Expert
15th August, 2023
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No matter the state of the calf muscle the Australian camp and coach Tony Gustavsson were so secretive about during the group stage, Sam Kerr showed enough against France to demand a spot on the pitch from the outset against the Lionesses tonight in the World Cup semi-final.

Essentially, there is no tomorrow for the Matildas without a conquering of today and whilst France and Denmark were navigated with Kerr playing from the bench, clocking up some kilometres in her legs after succumbing to injury prior to the group stage of the tournament, the English will need to have the kitchen sink thrown at them if they are to be toppled.

England are a powerhouse team and should be favourites to raise the trophy on Sunday night after the early exits of Netherlands and USA helped their cause. Now Spain await the winner of the second semi in the World Cup Final and the Aussies are realistically on the third line of betting despite the obvious home turf advantage they enjoy.

Sam Kerr. (Photo by Andy Cheung/Getty Images)

For Gustavsson, this could well be the moment where he needs to send Kerr into the fray from the off, with eyes firmly on the match that could actually win the Matildas the World Cup and not the pending final against Spain, should fortune turn in their favour.

It would no doubt be a risk, although Kerr clocked near 70 minutes against the French and certainly looked good early after entering the match sooner than many believed she would. Gustavsson may have had concerns around Kerr when the additional 30 minutes of extra-time became a reality, yet his superstar stayed in the contest right until the final whistle and even knocked home a penalty when most needed during the epic shootout.

The Lionesses have conceded just two goals through their first five matches of the World Cup and their three at the back defensive set-up has proven effective, thanks to the opportunity to overload in attack and dominate play in the midfield.

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Whilst the Matildas have been scoring freely with nine goals thus far, the poor performance against Nigeria, no goals against France before the now famous penalty shootout and a somewhat unconvincing effort against Republic of Ireland in their opening match, suggests the locals will need to be far better to break down the team most likely to lift the trophy.

I hope Gustavsson is a Kenny Rogers fan. Knowing when to fold them and when to hold them is a critical skill when it comes to being a successful football manager. There is always a moment to gamble – not recklessly, but with an informed level of chance, where the possibilities far outweigh the potential failings.

Should the Swede play conservatively and rely on Hayley Raso, Caitlin Foord and Mary Fowler to bear the load in the semi-final, as he was right to do in the quarter-final against France, he may well miss the chance to grasp greatness.

Tony Gustavsson. (Photo by Richard Callis/Eurasia Sport Images/Getty Images)

An early goal to the Lionesses would forever instil thoughts of ‘what if’, for the man who has done an excellent job in keeping his team up for the task at hand throughout the tournament.

What if I threw Sam at them from the start and made them accountable at the back? Did I err in not ensuring they thought defensively thanks to the presence of my gun player? Did I free them up in attack by holding Sam back and leave her far too much to do in the second half after the English lead was established?

Alternatively, Gustavsson could throw Kerr in from the get go, risk further injury, but go for glory just as the Australian psyche has traditionally demanded.

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Personally, I think the latter is the way that Gustavsson should head – in full knowledge the Matildas are not the favourites to win the World Cup or even this semi-final, but also aware a stunning win off the back of a vintage Kerr performance could well see them a 50/50 bet in the final against Spain.

It could well be the greatest risk he ever takes. One that could fail dismally should a calf twinge end her campaign, or one that brings Australia a place in the World Cup Final and one of its greatest sporting moments of all-time.

Go on Tony, do it. She is the weapon we need to beat the old enemy and the nation that arrogantly claims to be the ‘home’ of football.

Godspeed Matildas, play well and do us proud.

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