At a pre-Olympics press conference, Matildas coach Tony Gustavsson was asked about his team’s reliance on the form of star striker Sam Kerr. He was unimpressed with the question. “It is a team,” the Swede insisted. “It takes every single one of us to be successful. Sam is one piece of that puzzle.”
On a warm Wednesday night in Tokyo, the Matildas got their Olympic campaign off to a flying start with a cohesive team performance against New Zealand. Fluid attacking play, with Kerr a central but not sole puzzle piece, saw Australia put two goals past the Football Ferns. Smiling from the sidelines, Gustavssonn’s belief that his team is better than the sum of its part was unshaken, despite a late defensive lapse.
Even before the match, the Matildas were earning plaudits when they posed with the Aboriginal flag (their New Zealand counterparts took a knee). “We are really proud of it,” Kerr said afterwards. “It was something that we spoke a lot to as a team. We let the Indigenous girls kind of drive it. We felt that didn’t want to just do something to go with the grain, we wanted to do something that was relevant to our country, and show unity within our group and let everyone feel that they are represented.”
The game began in a cagey fashion, with both teams displaying some nerves in the opening exchanges. But Australia quickly took control of the Tom Sermanni derby [the Scotsman currently coaches New Zealand, following a long affiliation with the Australian national team], causing headaches for a shaky Kiwi defence.
Tameka Yallop was first on the scoreboard, finding the roof of the net after just 20 minutes. The Matildas veteran connected with a delicate Kerr backheel and found opposition keeper Erin Nayler off her line – even Nayler’s desperately outstretched hand could not stop the Yallop rocket.
The momentum stayed with Australia, with the goal adding fuel to an already sparkling attacking line-up. Kerr, Yallop, Kyah Simon and Caitlin Foord showed far better connectivity than they have in recent games. Before too long it was captain Kerr among the goals, with the Chelsea forward swooping on to a Steph Catley cross in prove her poaching instincts. Again Nayler managed to get a hand to the ball, but again it was not enough.
Having earned a two-0 lead in barely 30 minutes, the Matildas maintained the offensive momentum on both sides of half-time. The chances continued to flow, although wayward shooting and solid shot-stopping from Nayler kept the match alive for New Zealand. Ellie Carpenter showed her attacking credentials with a number of searing runs from deep, while Emily van Egmond was her typical classy self in the midfield. Full international debuts for young guns Mary Fowler and Kyra Cooney-Cross added to a positive night for Matildas fans.
The Australians’ concentration dipped as the second half wore on, but the Football Ferns were unable to capitalise on a number of half-chances. The ultimate statistics were instructive: Australia ended the game with 60% possession, and almost 20 shots, compared with just a handful for the Kiwis. But all it took was one late shot for New Zealand to quash the clean sheet hopes of Matildas custodian Lydia Williams. 20-year-old super substitute Gabi Rennie pulled one back in the first minute of injury time, but it was too late for a fight-back.
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Following a disappointing build-up to the tournament, the Australians’ win against New Zealand was a statement of intent. But their Olympic aspirations will soon face a far tougher test. On Saturday the Australians meet a Swedish team that stunned the United States in the opening group G encounter earlier on Wednesday. Sweden’s 3-0 win in Tokyo ended the reigning world champions 44-match unbeaten streak.
The Matildas have never won an Olympic medal; two quarter-final appearances in 2004 and 2016 are equal as the team’s best result on this global stage. With clashes to come with Sweden and the Americans, just making it out of this group will be a challenging task (albeit made easier by the fact that two of the three third-placed teams across the groups also progress). But in their Tokyo 2020 opener, the Matildas showed glimpses of the attacking prowess that could send them deep in the tournament.