Matildas launch late triple-strike to sink Uzbekistan in Paris Olympics qualifier

<span>Australia’s Michelle Heyman celebrates the Matildas’ first goal in the Paris 2024 Olympic Qualifier victory over Uzbekistan in Tashkent.</span><span>Photograph: Tolib Kosimov/Getty Images</span>
Australia’s Michelle Heyman celebrates the Matildas’ first goal in the Paris 2024 Olympic Qualifier victory over Uzbekistan in Tashkent.Photograph: Tolib Kosimov/Getty Images

The Matildas are 90 minutes away from Paris 2024, with a three-nil rout away to Uzbekistan leaving the Australians on the verge of Olympic qualification. After struggling to break the deadlock for much of the encounter, veteran striker Michelle Heyman opened the scoring in her international comeback before Mary Fowler and Caitlin Foord pressed home the Matildas’ advantage with late goals.

Related: Patience the key for Matildas in do-or-die Olympic qualifier with Uzbekistan | Mike Hytner

In the end it was a comfortable victory, but it had been an increasingly frustrating afternoon in frigid Tashkent as chances went begging. The second-half introduction of 35-year-old Heyman, who had previously retired from international football, would prove the difference – a fairytale return for the Canberra United top goal-scorer.

The Matildas began the first-leg of the decisive qualifier in frigid conditions. Light snow drifted down on Milliy Stadium, threatening to make history – the Matildas, according to Football Australia’s official statistician, have never before played in snow. The flurries cleared before kick-off, although the temperature remained at zero and gloves proved a popular accessory for both teams.

With Sam Kerr recovering from her ACL injury and Foord starting on the bench, as a load-management precaution, Matildas coach Tony Gustavsson opted to give Kaitlyn Torpey her debut. Though usually a full-back, the recent San Diego Wave signing was deployed further forward to supplement the Kerr and Foord-less attack.

The unorthodox move forewarned a major theme of the first-half: the Matildas were all glitter but no gold, dominant but toothless. Time and again chances went begging, with the absence of a traditional striker painfully felt.

Fowler began strongly, forcing a diving save from Uzbek custodian Maftuna Jonimqulova after a dozen minutes. But that strike would prove the exception rather than the rule. Despite controlling possession and dictating tempo, their exciting build-up play was let down by the Matildas’ profligacy with the final touch. Too many half-chances were squandered.

At the break, Gustavsson removed Torpey and reverted Foord to her usual spot in the Matildas’ XI. The Arsenal star’s attacking impetus was immediately evident, Foord offering up a dangerous shot within minutes of her arrival.

And yet still the Matildas struggled to break the deadlock. Whoever the chances fell for – Emily van Egmond, Foord, Fowler, Hayley Raso – the ability to convert eluded the Australian attacking line-up. Nor did Uzbekistan allow any complacency, with striker Diyorakhon Khabibullaeva causing trouble for Mackenzie Arnold just after the 60th minute.

Again Gustavsson turned to his bench for creative spark, opting for veteran forward Heyman – taking to the pitch for the Matildas for the first time in six years. And again the substitution came with impact: Heyman winning a corner with a near-post run, before meeting the subsequent ball in with a header that glanced over the cross-bar.

At last, it came. It was not pretty, but it broke the deadlock. And who else but Heyman – eight years after her last goal for the Matildas, her international return coming with a crucial strike. Heyman rose to meet a Steph Catley corner, connecting after a parry from Jonimqulova to find the back netting.

From then on it was all Matildas in Tashkent. Less than 10 minutes later it was Fowler’s turn, the Manchester City star marauding through the Uzbek midfield before a low strike evaded a diving Jonimqulova. Moments later, Foord made it three goals, meeting a lofty cross from Catley and heading home.

The final score-line accurately reflected Australia’s dominance over Uzbekistan on Saturday, but did not tell the full story – a team increasingly frustrated at being unable to capitalise, before a late goal rush rewarded the toil. Despite the difficulties, the Matildas got it done when it counted – showing resolve that will please Gustavsson ahead of a highly-anticipated Olympic campaign.

The Australians will waste no time returning home for the second leg – they were due to travel directly from the stadium to the airport. The World Cup heroes will be cheered on by a sell-out crowd in Melbourne on Wednesday, with a ticket to Paris all-but assured.