Patience the key for Matildas in do-or-die Olympic qualifier with Uzbekistan

<span>Matildas goalkeeper <a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Mackenzie Arnold;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Mackenzie Arnold</a> said the key to beating Uzbekistan over two legs, to be played on Saturday and Wednesday in their Olympic qualifying playoff, is to ‘stay switched on’.</span><span>Photograph: Justin Setterfield/Getty Images</span>

The Matildas are two games away from a place at the Paris Olympics and another shot at a gold medal, but in Uzbekistan they face a relatively unknown quantity that presents a “different challenge” to Tony Gustavsson’s side.

The heavily fancied Australians take on the team ranked No 47 in the world over two legs – in Tashkent on Saturday and next week at a sold-out Marvel stadium in Melbourne – in a final qualifying playoff that will determine their Olympic fate.

Related: World Cup star Cortnee Vine ruled out of Matildas’ crucial Olympic qualifier

Post an aggregate victory and they will stamp their tickets to Paris in July as one of 12 teams contesting for medals in France – and give themselves a chance to go better than their fourth-place finish at the Tokyo Games. Lose and their Olympic dream will be over for another four years.

The 12th-ranked Matildas, fresh off their barnstorming run at last year’s Women’s World Cup and with a squad filled with players who ply their trade in the top leagues in the world, understandably enter the tie as heavy favourites. But Australia know they underestimate their opponents at their peril.

The two sides have only met once before – also in an Olympic qualifier, all the way back in 2007 when the Matildas won 10-0 in 2007 – but a similarly lopsided result is unlikely to be repeated.

Uzbekistan have reached this stage of the qualifying process on merit – upsetting Vietnam – who had smashed them 7-0 at the Asian Games just weeks earlier – and beating India on their way to placing as the best runner-up across the three qualifying groups. Only Japan managed to get the better of them in a 2-0 win at Bunyodkor stadium – the venue which hosts the Matildas on Saturday.

Defensive solidity and a willingness to sit back and soak up pressure has served the Uzbeks well on their journey so far, and the Matildas are expecting similar tactics to be employed over the course of the next week. Much talk in the buildup has centred on the need for Gustavsson’s charges to remain patient and avoid getting frustrated when faced by a solid defensive block.

“[The key] is to stay switched on,” goalkeeper Mackenzie Arnold said. “It’s a little bit easier to lose concentration in these kind of games if you don’t get too much of the ball, goalkeeper especially. We’ve got to make sure we’re staying with the play, moving with the ball, communicating with each other.

“You never really know what can happen in these games, especially up against a team we haven’t played before. We’re confident going into it, but we’re focusing on ourselves.”

Veteran defender Clare Polkinghorne – the only player in the current squad to have experience of playing against Uzbekistan, after she came on for the second half of the 2007 qualifier – said the lack of familiarity with the opposition could be used to the Matildas’ advantage.

“The coaches will scout their team and give us the important information but it gives us a good opportunity to focus on ourselves and what we need to do in order to be successful in these games,” Polkinghorne.

“Sometimes that is a positive, you can just focus on your processes and how you want to play as a group to get the best result. Obviously, it’s a team we don’t know too much about but no doubt the coaches will have us well prepared.

Related: Albanese government accused of rushing through $200m women’s sport pledge

“The key is to start well and start with energy and hopefully we’ll have a lot of possession of the ball. Sometimes those sort of games can be a little frustrating. But we’ve got a few tools now to use to break down the opposition. It’s key for us to remain positive and remain calm and stick to our processes and our gameplan.”

The absences captain Sam Kerr, who is recovering after rupturing her ACL, and impact winger Cortnee Vine, who pulled out of the squad last week due to personal reasons, came as a double blow to the Matildas in the build up.

Veteran Michelle Heyman was brought into the squad to offer another option upfront, but Gustavsson has navigated the loss of Kerr before, and Polkinghorne said she was confident there were enough attacking alternatives in the current squad to ensure the talismanic striker would not be missed.

“You can’t replace Sam Kerr,” Polkinghorne said. “On and off the pitch she’s a leader for our group and really important part of this team. She’s going to be a big loss for us but we saw at the World Cup that we do have a number of different options that we can use and then a few new and old players coming in. There are a lot of players that can step up and fill that role.”

  • Follow the Matildas’ final Olympic qualifiers against Uzbekistan with Guardian Australia’s live blogs on Saturday 24 February (8pm AEST kick-off) and Wednesday 28 February (8pm AEST kick-off)